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

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Blurb: Amsterdam is not just any city. Despite its relative size it has stood alongside its larger cousins – Paris, London, Berlin – and has influenced the modern world to a degree that few other cities have. Sweeping across the city’s colourful thousand year history, Amsterdam will bring the place to life: its sights and smells; its politics and people. Concentrating on two significant periods – the late 1500s to the mid 1600s and then from the Second World War to the present, Russell Shorto’s masterful biography looks at Amsterdam’s central preoccupations. Just as fin-de-siecle Vienna was the birthplace of psychoanalysis, seventeenth century Amsterdam was the wellspring of liberalism, and today it is still a city that takes individual freedom very seriously. A wonderfully evocative book that takes Amsterdam’s dramatic past and present and populates it with a whole host of colourful characters, Amsterdam is the definitive book on this great city.

Book Description: This is the first ‘biography’ of the city of Amsterdam – in the same vein as Peter Ackroyd’s London. ‘The story of a great city that has shaped the soul of the world. Masterful reporting, vivid history – the past and present are equally alive in this book’ James Gleick, author of The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood ‘Shorto’s fine portraits of individuals are in the Amsterdam tradition, and he has an Amsterdammer’s feel for this backwater town that remains the world’s laboratory of liberalism’ Financial Times. In this ever-surprising and effortlessly erudite portrait, Russell Shorto traces the idiosyncratic evolution of Amsterdam and examines its role as the font of liberalism. Weaving in his own experiences of his adopted home, he delivers a delightful and intellectually engaging story of the city from the building of the first canals in the 1300s through the brutal struggle for Dutch independence and its golden age as the capital of a vast empire, to its complex present in which its cherished ideals are being questioned anew. ‘An often brilliant – and always enjoyable – investigation of liberalism’s Dutch roots. Shorto is once again revealed as a passionate and persuasive historian of culture and ideas’ Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland

About the author: Russell Shorto is an American author, historian and journalist, best known for his book on the Dutch origins of New York City, The Island at the ย Center of the World.His most recent work, published in October 2013, is Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, which tells the story of the city from its origins, through its Golden Age, to the present day. On September 8, 2009, Shorto received a Dutch knighthood in the Order of Orange-Nassau for strengthening the relationship between the Netherlands and the United States through his publications and as Director of the John Adams Institute.

Review:ย This book’s story of how Amsterdam became an ascendant port city leads naturally into accounts of the Dutch East India Company’s thriving global trade and the city’s development of an early stock exchange as an offshoot of its new wealth. There is a chronology of the Netherlands’ rulers and military commanders, such as William the Silent. There is the 80-year-war with Spain, and the burst of growth that followed.ย Throughout its history, Amsterdam has had to constantly fight off its more powerful neighbors. After the Spanish and Portuguese came the English and the French (in 1806 Napoleon installed his brother Louis as King of Holland) and, in the final occupation, the Nazis. Throughout Shortoโ€™s account we see the Amsterdammers struggling with these invaders and arguing among themselves as to what might be the best way of dealing with them. In addition, they have to deal with the usual social, economic and political problems that everyone has. But as they struggle they steadfastly maintain and defend their notions of religious tolerance, liberal immigration (with 178 nationalities represented, the city was recently named the most ethnically diverse in the world) and intellectual exchange. ย The liberal tradition continues unabated to the present. Amsterdam women were among the first to champion sexual freedom, e.g. the story of Aletta Jacobs leading the fight for birth-control devices and womenโ€™s suffrage; and Hirsi Ali, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, who became a member of the Dutch parliament and has led the fight against the sexism of radical Islam. Shorto explains โ€œShe insisted that the commitment to reason and individual freedom that Amsterdam had fostered is more vital than ever as a weapon against religious superstition.โ€ By the twentieth century, Shorto notes the rise of unions in Amsterdam. The culture of the city had devolved into a capitalist mecca, but its capitalism had also a “social path”: thus it was incumbent on those who had the means to provide a safety net to protect the less fortunate. In other words, the capitalists joined the commitment to social welfare, a commitment tied to the 17th century when the people who ran things (i.e. who were principals in the VOC) created orphanages, homes for the elderly, and neighborhoods in which rich and poor werenโ€™t segregated. The battle with the sea, Shorto feels, caused people to feel that the land was their own, regardless of their financial achievements. That land was not owned by the church, or the king; it was theirs, by right of the picks and shovels and human labor that had been expended to claim it.ย Shorto ultimately concludes that Amsterdam, despite its spectacular history, is a relatively “poky” place in today’s era of global expansion. “It is small in population,” he writes. “In terms of geographic area you could tuck the whole of it into a corner of Shanghai or Karachi and it probably wouldn’t be noticed. It has no skyscrapers. But the advantage of a modest skyline is the seemingly limitless horizon.”

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