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  4. Amsterdam: A History Of The World`S Most Liberal City
  5. Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

But the famous Dutch tolerance has a darker side; it comes as surprise to read of Amsterdam's dismal failure to protect its Jews in World War II.


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The Dutch proved quite "helpful" to the Nazis, Shorto writes; their system of ID cards, which allowed Jews to be efficiently rounded up, is "one of the darkest statistics of the war. And Dutch Jews had a strikingly low survival rate.

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While seventy-five percent of French and sixty percent of Belgium Jews survived the Nazi occupation, only twenty-seven percent of Dutch Jews were alive at the end of the war. Of the approximately 80, Jews in Amsterdam, Shorto writes, an estimated 58, were dead by the time the war was over, most in concentration camps.

As a result there were mixed emotions about the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank , the record, as the world knows, of a Jewish family living in hiding in a canal house on Prinsenstraat, their survival made possible by non-Jewish friends. Many in Amsterdam, as Shorter writes, "sympathize with the Holocaust survivor who called the book 'a public relation exercise,'" a Dutch attempt to gloss over what really happened during the war. This wartime experience, Shorto suggests, casts a different light on our understanding of the famous Dutch tolerance, suggesting that it is "less an ideal than a practicality.

The fact that so many Dutch Jews perished created a "deep psychic wound," resulting in a powerful connection between World War II and the countercultural and civil rights revolutions of the s. In Amsterdam, it was a protest over the marriage of a royal princess to a former Hitler-Jugend that kicked off the Provo for provoke movement.

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Activists spread rumors that the water supply had been laced with LSD, and smoke bombs obscured the royal parade route, producing a police over-reaction and public relations disaster. The Provos went on to propose various new ideas for the city, including a plan to supply free bicycles and another to give women free contraceptives, both to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to further the idea that it was irresponsible to enter marriage as a virgin.

The least effective parts of the book are those featuring famous people who have lived in the city here comes Rembrandt ; oh here are John and Yoko at the Hilton. In an audacious but welcome move he hardly bothers with most of the 18th and 19th centuries as so little of wider interest happens in the city.

What he does focus on is the extraordinary efflorescence of Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries, and its terrible fate in the s, and then weaves these togetherto understand the inhabitants' persistent liberalism, which remains so marked in the 21st century.


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Amsterdam's liberalism is important in itself, but also because it was exported, not just to North America but also, through the Glorious Revolution , to Britain and its empire, and to the rest of Europe through the writings of Spinoza. An obvious problem with city history is that cities themselves are so rarely independent actors and often what is most interesting about them happens elsewhere. Shorto deals with this problem through the merry expedient of just ignoring it. This creates all kinds of oddities. There is no discussion, for example, of the powerful influence of its German neighbours on Amsterdam.

Even stranger is that Shorto is effectively unable to come up with a way of integrating or even starting to explain the complex relationship with The Hague or the resentments and aspirations of other Dutch towns.

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Citation Styles for "Amsterdam : a history of the world's most liberal city"

Above all, he seems to see something natural, special and organic about Amsterdam's freedom. But the city could equally be seen as just a fortunate, remote northern survivor from what had once been a dense network of Low Country "liberal" trading cities, most of which were successfully crushed and normalised by French or Spanish troops.

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The ghastly fate of its southern twin Antwerp, once the biggest importer in the world — its people slaughtered, the survivors violently recatholicised or expelled and its access to the sea blocked for two centuries — could easily have been shared by Amsterdam. On occasion, Shorto is good at wrecking his own argument for Amsterdam's baseline liberalism, by coming up with spectacular examples of city officials being no less terrible than the Spanish. In the first throes of Protestantism, the city was the site of appalling scenes, as Anabaptists had their chests cut open and hearts pulled out to be smeared, still beating, on their faces.

And once the Reformation had settled in, as the people of Scotland, New England and elsewhere can testify, there is nothing inherently whatever-bag-you're-into and free-wheeling about Calvinism. Choose your FT trial.

Amsterdam: A History Of The World`S Most Liberal City

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Amsterdam A History of the Worlds Most Liberal City

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Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

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