Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

I recently finished Russell Shorto’s book Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. It was recommended to me by my friend Claire, and I’m thankful to her for the tip.

I appreciated the book for its subject matter, as Amsterdam happens to be one of my favorite cities in the world. But I also appreciated the book for its little details and historical quirks about the city and its big picture regarding Amsterdam’s past, present, and future development.

It’s clear from the narrative sections of the book that Shorto is personally and intimately acquainted with Amsterdam, albeit as an immigrant (like I was, during my decade in the city). But he has also delved deep into the history of the city — to an extent that I never did — to demonstrate, for instance, the way that Amsterdammers paved the way for Western culture’s (ongoing) fascination with coffee and tea… or the way that the English and the Dutch used to spar with each other, as rivals, such as the time when English propaganda producers distributed a pamphlet entitled, The Dutchmens Pedigree; Or, a Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box.

It’s neat to read and realize how Amsterdam really has played an out-sized role in shaping global attitudes and activities over the last five-hundred years. For instance: “In the seventeenth century one-half of all books published in the entire world were published in the Dutch provinces.” Their unique position as a nation of creative, cross-cultural traders who did away with Feudalism quite awhile before the rest of Europe put them in a very influential position for pioneering the way that so much of Western culture does government and business.

Shorto’s big picture for the book is stated in his subtitle. He carefully crafts an argument for how Amsterdam contributed to the ideology of Liberalism: “an ideology centered on beliefs about equality and individual freedom that is the foundation of Western society.” Dutch historians always love to talk about the “polder model,” which they’ll go on and on about how this is a big thing… about land reclamation projects… about windmills and dikes… about a non-hierarchical approach to problem-solving. Shorto somehow takes this tired old historian’s perspective and breathes it to life in a fresh way:

Imagine a group of people in the Middle Ages standing on a shore, looking out across the water, and deciding that they would reengineer what they were looking at, make land where now there was water, and do it entirely with sweat and backbreaking labor. The degree of cooperation required would surely be a powerful binding force for a community, as would the long-term project of maintaining a system of dams and dikes to keep the water at bay. And once they had reclaimed the land, it was not, as was the case elsewhere in Europe, the property of a church or king: it was theirs. Individuals were free to buy, sell, or rent it. That protocapitalist power excited an individualistic sensibility.

In all this, Shorto builds a compelling case for a unifying theory for why Amsterdam works the way that it does. He somehow succeeds in tying together the colonial exploits of the Dutch East Indies Company… the pragmatic sort of tolerance that defines so much of Amsterdam policy… the embarrassing treatment of Jews during the Second World War… the current social welfare state that is fueled by capitalism… the openness and tolerance towards soft drugs like marijuana (while simultaneously harboring a deep mistrust of prescription drugs)… and the dramatic secularization of society that happened in the second half of the 20th century.

I don’t know how effectively I’m getting the point across here, in a relatively short review of the book — but the book itself does a masterful job of sketching out a very compelling argument.

Reading through this book made me more appreciative of the years that I got to spend in Amsterdam. I’m not as inclined to fawn over liberalism as Shorto is, but I respect the Dutch system — and I can observe an unmistakable influence in the way that my years in Amsterdam have taught me to think, feel, and act: as a citizen, a Christian, a pastor, and a person.

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