Like most European countries, Holland has a long and sordid history. Unlike many European countries, however, Dutch history is also fairly clear-cut and continuous. While trying to understand the history of a country like Germany can be a colossal headache, as the modern nation of "Germany" is such a recent creation, Dutch history is much easier to follow as there has been a clearly defined "Dutch" country for quite some time.
The 80-year War of Independence was led by the charismatic Prince William of Orange, who today is highly respected as a sort of Dutch George Washington. So popular is he, in fact, that the Dutch national anthem is basically just an ode to his brilliance. During the initial phase of the war the Prince governed the independent, rebel-controlled territories and served as Commander-in-Chief of the rebellion forces. Even after his assassination the war continued, and it officially did not end until 1648, when the Spanish agreed to acknowledge Dutch sovereignty as part of the Treaty of Westphalia (though of course the Dutch themselves point to a much earlier date as when their "independence" occurred).
CONFUSING REPUBLICAN PHASE
When Holland became independent from Spain it took the unusual measure of adopting a republican system of government, largely to appease the provinces, who wanted to maintain strong self-rule. The Dutch Republic ended up being governed by a very chaotic federal system, in which a clearly-defined Head of State was often nonexistent, and instead featured heavy squabbling among provincial rulers who all tried to exert authority over each other.
Each province had a ruler called the "Staadholder" who was appointed by an elite provincial council. The Staadholder of the wealthy and large Province of Holland was usually the most influential. All of these men were aristocratic descendants of William of Orange, who had held the office himself during the revolutionary days. In the republic's later years the strongest Staadholders would often rule several provinces at a time, and thus acted as defacto monarchs over most of the entire country.
Oddly enough, it
was during this chaotic phase of government that Holland did most of
its imperial adventures around the world. Because the Dutch Republic
had such a disorderly central government, Dutch colonialism was conducted
almost entirely by two large corporations, the Dutch
East India Company and the Dutch West India
Company. The two corporations were nominally subservient to the
republic, but they were rich enough to build their own armies and thus
generally did whatever they pleased.
OF MODERN HOLLAND
In 1806 Napoleon conquered the Netherlands and abolished the Dutch Republic, installing his brother as "King of Holland," in typical Napoleon style. Despite being imposed by foreigners, the united monarchy Napoleon established ended up providing good governance to the fractious country. When the French occupation ended, the monarchy was kept, and in 1815 another one of the Orange princes, Prince William VI, was installed as the first Dutch King of Holland. He took the name William I. Holland quickly thereafter evolved into a democratic, constitutional monarchy, which it remains today.
In the mid-19th Century tensions began to brew in the Catholic, French-speaking, southern part of the Netherlands. In 1830 a bunch of the southern provinces separated, and formed Belgium. In 1869 another tiny piece of Holland left and formed the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
The rest of the 20th Century saw Holland enter a phase of liberal reform, especially in terms of civil and minority rights. In an ironic contrast, at the same time the Dutch stubbornly tried to cling to their colonies abroad. Indonesia was granted independence in 1950, but only after a long and bitter colonial war. Suriname only got independence in 1975, and Aruba and the Antilles are still not technically independent, though they now operate as self-governing territories under the Dutch crown.