Originally several separate territories under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, and then united into one state under Habsburg rule (16th century), the Netherlands did not acquire national independence until the conclusion of the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648 AD) when the Spanish formally renounced all claims to Dutch sovereignty in the Treaty of Münster.
The Eighty Years' War was sparked by Spanish religious oppression and an occupation by Spanish forces led by the Duke of Alba, during which over one thousand people were sentenced to death, including two prominent and popular Dutch nobles; these actions caused dissention among the Dutch people. In 1568 Willem, Prince of Orange, returned from a self-imposed exile (in order to avoid prosecution by the Duke of Alba) and led the uprising against the Spanish occupation.
The Dutch fight for independence can be seen as a war against religious oppression, with the Pacification of Ghent treaty being a written representation of this sentiment. Signed on November 8th, 1576 the document specified an alliance between the Dutch provinces, in which religious differences would be put aside for the purposes of expelling the Spanish and restoring local provincial control to the Netherlands.
During the seventeenth century the Dutch began using their large military and merchant navies to both create their own trading posts along the African coast and rob those of the Portuguese in an effort to reach valuable markets in India and Indonesia. The inrush of treasure, trade and knowledge from these trading and military expeditions was extremely beneficial, and during this first half of the seventeenth century the Dutch experienced a Golden Age of cultural and economic growth. This Golden Age would soon come to a crushing end.
In 1795, France, under Napoleon I, conquered the Dutch mainland. The Netherlands quickly declined in influence and power, locally and internationally, with the British taking most of their colonial possessions. After Napoleon was defeated a few colonial territories were restored to the Dutch and remained under their control until the decolonization of the twentieth century.
Many historians regard the Dutch empire as the first truly capitalist country. In addition to developing the first stock exchange, many modern services such as corporate insurance and retirement funds were attributed to Dutch inventiveness.
The Netherlands is also the birthplace of one of the world's early democratic institutions - the Dutch Water Boards. Due to the unique topography of the Netherlands - about half of the mainland is a foot or more under sea level - the country's waterways must be constantly monitored and controlled in order to prevent flooding that would result in tremendous loss of life and property. Each Water Board is in charge of one of the nation's 27 water districts and all matters pertaining to local water management. The creation of these water boards predates the Netherlands itself.
The modern Netherlands, with a diverse population and liberal laws towards drugs, prostitution, abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, has been a constant haven for refugees from other countries. Cultural minorities are encouraged to protect their own cultural identity while at the same time integrate into Dutch culture at large, further reinforcing the open-minded ideals for which Dutch ancestors fought and died.