Book Review: Amsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
TitleAmsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Summary/Review:

Shorto’s history of the Dutch city of Amsterdam is built on a principle that the city defines liberalism in both senses of the word.  There’s economic Liberalism – the principle of laissez-faire in free market capitalism, and there’s social liberalism – which values communal action and individual liberty.  While these two interpretations of liberalism are at odds with one another in much of the world, Amsterdam is a place where individual enterprise and community spirit work together surprisingly well.  This may have its origins in the creation of the city itself, literally reclaimed from the water by dint of communal work, and yet the new land became property of individuals at a time when most land was owned by royalty or the church.  Shorto describes how the notable Dutch tolerance is based on the idea of gedogen, turning a blind eye rather than strictly enforcing the law.

The history of Amsterdam is broad and Shorto both compresses a lot of detail and tends to overstate Amsterdam’s significance, but appropriate to Amsterdam’s characteristic of establishing individual identity, he focuses historical periods through the eyes of specific historical Amsterdam personages.  These include:

  • Rembrandt van Rijn – the portrait artist who explored human interior life
  • Baruch Spinoza – rational philosopher who foresaw modernism
  • Frieda Menco – a contemporary of Anne Frank who also went into hiding in Amsterdam and then to concentration camps.  Shorto refers to extensive interviews with Menco
  • Robert Jasper Grootveld – anarchist organizer of the Provo movement who helped make the 60s counter-culture a permanent facet of Amsterdam
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist activist known for her outspoken opposition to Islam

I found this an engaging history of this fascinating city.

Recommended booksAmsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Rating: ****

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