Julius Caesar found the country peopled by tribes of Germanic stock. By the end of the third century the Franks swarmed over the Rhine and took possession of the whole of the southern and central Netherlands. In A.D. 843 the Verdun treaty assigned the central part of the Frankonian Empire (comprising the whole of the later Netherlands) to what was to become Germany. Up to the fourteenth century the History of the Netherlands was the history of the various feudal states into which the Frankonian Empire was gradually Divided. Cities played an important part in the development of the Netherlands. The eleventh to the thirteenth centuries were rich in municipal charters granting the citizens considerable rights, counteracting the privileges of the feudal lords. The most powerful and flourishing were the cities of Flanders. They formed the central market and exchange of the world's commerce. In the north a number of "free cities" were established—Dordrecht, Leyden, Haarlem, Delft, Vlaardingen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam—to equal the Flemish cities in power.
In the fifteenth century the Netherlands fell under the dominion of the house of Burgundy. When the sole heiress of the Burgundian possessions, Mary, married Maximilian of Austria in 1477, the long domination of the Roman Catholic house of Habsburg began, bringing the Netherlands into the huge and incongruous collection of states that the wars and marriages of the Habsburgs had brought together. The Netherlands, prosperous under the Burgundy rule, had to make large financial sacrifices to pay for the many wars of the Emperor. Opposition emerged in the cities. As a result, the burghers of the cities, the lower gentry, and the nobility united under the leadership of the Prince of Orange (William the Silent) to fight Habsburg domination. This uprising resulted in the separation of the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands from the south (which was to become Belgium). Each developed into distinct political, religious, Social, and economic units. Enacted in the Protestant Union of Utrecht in 1579, the northern provinces formed a republic under the legislation of the State-General (the board of representatives of the provinces) and the reign of the stadtholder, William of Orange, who became the symbol of political unity. In 1673 the seven provinces voted to make the stadtholderate hereditary in the house of Orange. William—born the third William in the house of Orange—attempted to centralize and consolidate his government, put down the feudal liberties in the provinces, and free himself from constitutional checks. He was unable, however, to establish absolute monarchy, and the United Provinces remained a decentralized patrician republic until 1795. Married in 1677 to Mary, the king of England's niece, William became king of England in 1689. In the aftermath of the French Revolution liberalism made its entry. Rebellious citizens, aided by French troops, overthrew the stadtholder. From 1795 to 1814 the Netherlands was under French rule. Liberalism, however, turned out to be a disappointment for the Dutch citizens. In 1814, freed from the French, they returned the house of Orange. The Netherlands became a monarchy, though a constitutional one. It was not until the nineteenth century that modernization started—later and more gradually than elsewhere in western Europe. Also in the nineteenth century, the cultural differences between the various ideological and political groups were institutionalized, generating separate organizations for each group in almost every area of life. This development of parallel organizations ("pillars") is called "pillarization." The pluralistic society that developed after 1917 had its origin in this "pillarized" structure.
During World War I the Netherlands kept its neutrality, nonetheless suffering from the economic crises caused by the war. World War II brought German occupation from 1940 to 1945. The postwar reconstruction of the Netherlands generated the modern Dutch industrial welfare state. Processes of European integration led to increasing cooperation with other European states: the Netherlands joined the European Economic Community (EEC)—the Common Market—in 1957. After World War II the Dutch had to cope with their colonies' struggle for independence. Decolonization did not take a peaceful course. The proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia, which was the former Dutch East Indies, provoked military intervention by the colonial authorities. Under International pressure, however, the Dutch government agreed to transfer sovereignty to the young Indonesian republic. In 1962 the Netherlands had to cede New Guinea to Indonesia; and in 1975 Suriname gained independence. The Dutch Antilles are still part of the kingdom.