Amsterdam – A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
By Russell Shorto
Little, Brown – £25.00

Amsterdam always has, and always will hold a particularly special place in my heart. That my mother was born in the city and I spent so much of my childhood there, still resonates to such a degree that it’s far more of a home-town (to quote Bruce Springsteen) than that where I was actually born.

And what a vibrant, wonderful city it is too; which, from a historical perspective at least, is perfectly captured in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam – A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.

Admittedly, it might be due to my own relationship with the city, but these ten chapters simply flew by. In all honesty, I found parts of the book almost un-put-down-able; but again, this may partially be due to wanting to read about the city of my childhood through another’s eyes.

It may also be partially due to the fact that Shorto’s all round acute, very considered approach, makes so much political sense: ”So while this is a book about a city, it is also about an idea. Amsterdam’s history belongs to all of us, for those of us who live in Western democratic societies – wherever we place ourselves on the political spectrum – are all liberals, who depend on liberalism as a foundation of our lives […]. My weekly bicycle trip in my Amsterdam neighbourhood bears out James Baldwin’s observation that ”people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.””

So right from the very outset – the above quote is from chapter one – one instinctively knows that one’s in for a read that’s as analytical and defined, as it is revealing and dare I say it, persuasive. The latter of which is all the more clarified in the third chapter (‘The Alteration’), wherein Shorto so sensibly writes of William of Orange’s initial entry into Amsterdam – which in itself, triggered a huge transformation: ”In this period, the northern Dutch provinces would sign the Union of Utrecht, a de facto constitution that, following on the decades of slaughter in the name of religion, would guarantee freedom of conscience. It would be a first draft of the concept of religious freedom and, beyond that, of the legal notion of equality.”

Naturally, no book on Amsterdam would suffice without touching on painting; the countless mijsterwerks of Rembrandt van Rijn especially, of whom the author writes: ”Rembrandt’s fame as an artist had to do with technical brilliance and an inventive, theatrical approach. He was a master realist. But it’s fair to say that what truly struck, even stunned, his contemporaries was his seeming to have turned his subjects inside out. He didn’t just paint what they looked like; he painted who they were.”

Amsterdam really is a necessary read for a number of reasons.

Apart from the fact that it’s well written, it’s enlightening and brave and touches upon all right issues that are so entwined with this most glorious of cities. From history to philosophy, Calvinism to Liberalism, sex, art, diamonds, Spinoza and John Lennon’s bed-in; it’s all here in one fantabulous book. A book described by the author of 1491 and 1493 Charles C Mann as: ”Amsterdam is a small place that casts a big shadow. As Russell Shorto shows in this smart, elegant book, culture and geography have conspired to thrust the city into the midst of our day’s most important debates… Not only is this a wonderfully readable account of the city, it is also a history of how the Dutch invented – and sometimes failed to live up to – today’s concepts of liberty and tolerance.”

The fount of liberalism is herein truly testified. As is the glittering jewel of Amsterdam itself. A great book.

David Marx


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