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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of Waterlooplein in Amsterdam

What is Waterlooplein?

Waterlooplein is a public square created in the late 19th century that’s the scene of a bustling flea market.


Txllxt TxllxT, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Waterlooplein History

The Waterlooplein (or Waterloo Square), an unassuming public space here in the centre of Amsterdam, was named after the 1815 battle in Belgium that marked the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The square is home to one of the largest and most popular flea markets in the city, open daily. Here you’ll also find the Stopera, a building complex housing both the City Hall of Amsterdam and the Opera House, base of the Dutch National Opera, the Dutch National Ballet, and the Holland Symfonia. (The nickname Stopera is a contraction of the Dutch word for City Hall, Stadhuis, and Opera.) These attractions make the Waterlooplein one of the most bustling spots in Amsterdam.

The square was created in 1882 when the Houtgracht and Leprozengracht canals were filled in. By Amsterdam standards, this was quite late, but the history of the area goes back to the Middle Ages when it was called Vlooienburg (or Flea Town, an allusion to being thronged with poor people). This land lay just outside the medieval city walls until 1593, when the city expanded to include the rectangular space surrounded by the Amstel, the Zwanenburgwaal, the Houtgracht and the Leprozengracht, with bridges on three sides.

The Waterlooplein market started when the city governors impelled Jewish merchants on nearby streets to move their stalls to the square. From 1893, they traded here daily except for Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The area remained their centre of commerce for many decades, until the Second World War. In 1941, after several other anti-Semitic measures were instituted, an ordinance in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam stated that all Jewish citizens of the city needed to register themselves. Tensions rose high and in February 1941 there was a series of clashes between the Dutch Pro-Nazi movement, with its street-fighting arm the WA, and residents of the Jewish Quarter. These culminated in pitched battle on the 11th of February here on the Waterlooplein. Afterwards, the entire quarter was closed off by German soldiers and Dutch police. When this caused further fights, in retaliation 425 young Jewish men were taken hostage, imprisoned, and eventually sent to concentration camps.

This led to the February Strike, a two-day general strike organised by the Communist Party of the Netherlands in defence of Dutch Jews. The February Strike was the first public demonstration against the Nazis in Occupied Europe and the only mass protest against the deportation of Jews organised by non-Jews. The strike is commemorated every year on the 25th of February with a march past the Dokwerker statue on nearby Jonas Daniël Meijerplein. The Waterlooplein Jewish market disappeared following these events, and after the war became the general flea market that it is today.

It currently has over 300 stalls selling new and vintage clothing, old military uniforms, books, videos and electronics, bicycles, and curiosities. There are still treasures to be found and it remains popular with residents and tourists alike.

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