'Amsterdam': How the 'world’s most liberal city' has an outsized influence on history

Russell Shorto (a Johnstown native) charts the transformation from agrarian backwater into global powerhouse and slide to a modest capital.

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Just after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, Fox News' "O'Reilly Factor" ran a segment about Amsterdam, warning of values that "far-left Americans" wanted to import to the States. "Amsterdam is a cesspool of corruption, crime, everything's out of control -- it's anarchy!" Fox commentator Monica Crowley exhorted as images of pot-smoking stoners and barely clad prostitutes flashed on the screen.

By Russell Shorto.
Doubleday ($28.95).

Russell Shorto, a Johnstown native and best-selling author of "The Island at the Center of the World," knows Amsterdam's bacchanalian reputation, too. He subtitled his book "A History of the World's Most Liberal City," after all.

Mr. Shorto charts the city's transformation from agrarian backwater into global powerhouse and the eventual slide to modest European capital. The city owes its success to international trade. In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Co., the world's first publicly traded company, brought astounding riches to the city.

Even then, the Dutch had an egalitarian streak: one of the world's oldest existing shares of the company's stock was first registered to a woman. Amsterdam has long been a haven for religious dissidents. Over the years, it has served as respite for Pilgrims, Huguenots, Portuguese Jews, and those fleeing Hitler.

That vaunted Dutch tolerance crashed spectacularly under Nazi occupation. Partly from collaboration and partly because of excellent Dutch record-keeping, the Netherlands, by a wide margin, had the west survival rate of European Jews during World War II. Of 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam at the start of the War, 58,000 perished.

Since World War II, tolerance for personal decisions about matters like drugs, prostitution, and euthanasia has largely carried the day. But immigration, and particularly the integration of Muslim immigrants, still roils the nation.

In 2004, a Dutch religious extremist murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh after Mr. van Gogh made an anti-Islamic film. His collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an author, critic of Islam, and Somali-born member of the Dutch parliament, received death threats and went into hiding.

Questions about Ms. Hirsi Ali's citizenship brought down the government. She has since moved to America, written a best-selling book, and been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. During my two years in Holland, however, I never met a Dutch person who didn't consider her a mere provocateur.

Mr. Shorto's earlier "Island at the Center of the World" described the debt that modern New York owes to the Netherlands. He expands the idea here to argue that Amsterdam's capitalist culture as well as its traditional welcoming attitude toward immigrants "goes to the core of the American identity."

Mr. Shorto makes some interesting points, but I remain a skeptic. Amsterdam, with a population equaling Columbus, Ohio, has played an outsized role in world history. It's also a quirky place where residents on street level disconcertingly leave their curtains open, allowing passers-by to catch them eating, drinking or watching television. Mr. Shorto ably translates that quirkiness to the page. Best of all, he is a historian with a writer's gift for breathing life into long-dead historical figures.

In short, "Amsterdam" is an absorbing history of a fascinating place. It's a city of canals without a universally famous building. But, as Mr. Shorto declares, the advantage of such a modest skyline is a "seemingly limitless horizon."

Cody Corliss, a former Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to the Netherlands, is a Pittsburgh lawyer.

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