The settlement at the lower end of the fen stream Rotte (or Rotta, as it was then known, from rot, "muddy" and a, "water", thus "muddy water") dates from at least 900 CE. Around 1150, large floods in the area ended development, leading to the construction of protective dikes and dams, including Schielands Hoge Zeedijk ("Schieland’s High Sea Dike") along the northern banks of the present-day Nieuwe Maas. A dam on the Rotte was built in the 1260s and was located at the present-day Hoogstraat ("High Street").
On 7 July 1340, Count Willem IV of Holland granted city rights to Rotterdam, whose population then was only a few thousand. Around the year 1350, a shipping canal, the Rotterdamse Schie was completed, which provided Rotterdam access to the larger towns in the north, allowing it to become a local trans-shipment centre between the Netherlands, England and Germany, and to urbanize.
The Delftsevaart, c. 1890–1905
The port of Rotterdam grew slowly but steadily into a port of importance, becoming the seat of one of the six "chambers" of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company.
The greatest spurt of growth, both in port activity and population, followed the completion of the Nieuwe Waterweg in 1872. The city and harbor started to expand on the south bank of the river. The Witte Huis or White House skyscraper, inspired by American office buildings and built in 1898 in the French Château-style, is evidence of Rotterdam's rapid growth and success. When completed, it was the tallest office building in Europe, with a height of 45 m (147.64 ft).
During World War I the city was the world's largest spy centre because of Dutch neutrality and its strategic location in between Great-Britain, Germany and German-occupied Belgium. Many spies who were arrested and executed in Britain were led by German secret agents operating from Rotterdam. MI6 had its main European office on de Boompjes. From there the British coordinated espionage in Germany and occupied Belgium. During World War I, an average of 25,000 Belgian refugees lived in the city, as well as hundreds of German deserters and escaped Allied prisoners of war.
During World War II, the German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. Adolf Hitler had hoped to conquer the country in just one day, but his forces met unexpectedly fierce resistance. The Dutch army was forced to capitulate on 15 May 1940, following the bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May and threatening to bomb other Dutch cities. The heart of Rotterdam was almost completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Some 80,000 civilians were made homeless and 900 were killed; a relatively low number due to the fact that many had fled the city because of the warfare and bombing going on in Rotterdam since the start of the invasion three days earlier. The City Hall survived the bombing. Ossip Zadkine later attempted to capture the event with his statue De Verwoeste Stad ('The Destroyed City'). The statue stands near the Leuvehaven, not far from the Erasmusbrug in the centre of the city, on the north shore of the river Nieuwe Maas.
Rotterdam was gradually rebuilt from the 1950s through to the 1970s. It remained quite windy and open until the city councils from the 1980s on began developing an active architectural policy. Daring and new styles of apartments, office buildings and recreation facilities resulted in a more 'livable' city centre with a new skyline. In the 1990s, the Kop van Zuid was built on the south bank of the river as a new business centre. Rotterdam was voted 2015 European City of the Year by the Academy of Urbanism.