History of Modern Europe

Introduction

Timeline

Timeline of Modern Europe
1800-1900 1900-present
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1 Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815
2 Pax Britannica 1815-1914
3 World War I 1914-18
4 interwar period 1918-39
5 World War II 1939-45
6 Cold War 1945-91
7 contemporary era 1991-present
Summary of Modern Europe
summary of primary
European powers
ca. 1650-WWI: France, Britain, Austria, Prussia (later Germany), Russia
ca. WWI-present: France, Britain, Germany, Russia
Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 Napoleon briefly conquers most of Western/Central Europe
Pax Britannica 1815-1914 the British Empire flourishes as the dominant global colonial power;
Prussia defeats Austria and France, then unites the German Empire;
Russia continues to expand but loses the Crimean War and Russo-Japanese War
World War I
1914-18
the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, US)
defeat the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey)
interwar period
1918-39
rise of fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan
World War II
1939-45
the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, China, US)
defeat the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan)
Cold War
1945-91
US and USSR struggle for global political dominance
contemporary era
1991-present
US reigns as the sole superpower

General Features

From the modern perspective, the general features of human life changed little in the period from the rise of civilization to ca. 1800. Up until the modern age (ca. 1800-present), societies were predominantly rural (with most of the population devoted to farming) and economies were based chiefly on agriculture, manufacture of goods by hand, and trade. No matter how powerful, wealthy, or scholarly the world's civilizations became, these basic conditions of society remained constant.

During the modern age, human life was revolutionized in virtually every corner of the globe. The most obvious engine of change is technology: with the development of steam-driven machines, many economies (starting with Britain) became dominated by mechanized production, which in turn drove unprecedented levels of urbanization (see Industrial Revolution). Other key technological developments include high-speed global networks of communication (from the telegraph to the internet) and transportation (from steamships to jet aircraft).

Industrialized food production fuelled massive population growth, which compelled many Europeans to emigrate to the New World (especially the United States). Population was also driven by large increases in life expectancy, thanks to improved nutrition (enabled by modern transportation and storage), advances in medical science (whose impact on human health soared in the modern period), and public health efforts (e.g. water and sewage systems, garbage collection, environmental regulations).A340-41,9

The modern age also witnessed the rise of mature capitalism (see History of the Western Economy). The traditional ruling class (nobility and clergy), whose wealth was based on land ownership and taxation, was gradually supplanted by capitalists, whose wealth is based on production of goods and services. In pre-modern times, capitalists (e.g. artisans, traders) had generally occupied the middle class.

During the period from the Enlightenment to World War I (ca. 1650-WWI), the five most powerful nations of Europe were France, Britain, Austria, Prussia (later Germany), and Russia. Austria's power was broken in the First World War, such that the strongest European nations since WWI have been the big four: France, Britain, Germany, and Russia.

The Two Pillars of the West

Arguably, the two most fundamental components of Western society are science and liberal democracy (see Enlightenment, History of Science, History of Democracy). The unprecedented average quality of life throughout the Western world may be primarily attributed to these two "pillars of the West". In the modern age, these "pillars" (along with Western culture generally) became widely influential across the non-Western world.

Main Article

Napoleonic Wars

1799-1815
Summary of Nineteenth-century Europe
Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 Napoleon briefly conquers most of Western/Central Europe
Pax Britannica 1815-1914 the British Empire flourishes as the dominant global colonial power;
Prussia defeats Austria and France, then unites the German Empire;
Russia continues to expand but loses the Crimean War and Russo-Japanese War

Upon the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte as dictator of France (1799), the French Revolutionary Wars became the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), which drew in most of Europe. Napoleon, who eventually declared France to be an "empire" (and therefore himself an "emperor"), brought much of Continental Europe under French control, partly in the form of satellite states (which are officially independent but significantly controlled by a dominant state).6 His defeat of Austria terminated that nation's title of "Holy Roman Empire".

Napoleon's Empire

Napoleon's ambitions to invade Britain were thwarted, however, by the naval battle of Trafalgar, in which the French Empire's main fleet (comprised of French and Spanish vessels) was defeated by Horatio Nelson in waters southwest of Spain. Following this victory, British dominance of the world's oceans remained unchallenged for the duration of the Pax Britannica. Napoleon thenceforward ignored Britain and focused on the Continental campaign.K306-07,6

Napoleon's downfall began with his invasion of Russia; following the temporary seizure of Moscow, his forces were decimated by the freezing winter and Russian counterattack. Driven back westward, the final blow came with the Battle of Leipzig, followed by the invasion of France and Napoleon's forced abdication (1814). In 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile (on the island of Elba) and regained power for a brief period known as the Hundred Days; this time he was permanently defeated at Waterloo, Belgium, by Britain and Prussia.6,16

At the Congress of Vienna (the subsequent peace settlement), national borders were restored to their pre-French Revolution configuration, and the old five-way balance of European power was restored. Napoleon's influence lived on, however, in his administrative reforms. Most famously, he instituted a national civil law code (the Napoleonic Code, which became the model for the modern legal systems of Continental Europe) and nationalized the education system.5,8

Pax Britannica

1815-1914
Summary of Nineteenth-century Europe
Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 Napoleon briefly conquers most of Western/Central Europe
Pax Britannica 1815-1914 the British Empire flourishes as the dominant global colonial power;
Prussia defeats Austria and France, then unites the German Empire;
Russia continues to expand but loses the Crimean War and Russo-Japanese War

The Pax Britannica (ca. 1815-1914) was an age of relative peace, due largely to Britain's overwhelming global naval supremacy. This period marks the height of European dominance over the Old World (see European Colonialism). The peace of the Pax Britannica was finally shattered by the First World War, the bloodiest conflict the world had ever known.A354,A436,K287,3

The Pax Britannica can be summarized in three major developments. First, this period witnessed the flourishing of the British Empire as the supreme global colonial power. Second, Prussia successfully warred against both Austria (Austro-Prussian War) and France (Franco-Prussian War), then united Germany (which had comprised a patchwork of small states since the medieval period). And third, Russia continued to expand, but was checked by the Crimean War and Russo-Japanese War.

The prosperity of the nineteenth-century British Empire was based primarily on the conquest and exploitation of India, whose population exceeded that of all other British territories combined. (Note that in historical discussion, "India" denotes South Asia.) British India was not a target of European settlement, however; the British presence consisted of a small ruling class, whose power rested on a combination of British military power and diplomacy with indigenous rulers.A388-89,25

Meanwhile, the expansion of Russia continued throughout the nineteenth century. This eventually sparked the Crimean War (1853-56), fought between Russia and the forces of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire for control of territory in Eastern Europe; the war centred on the Crimean Peninsula (now part of Ukraine).16 As Ottoman power waned, Russia sought to extend its grasp over Eastern Europe, while Britain and France sought to frustrate these efforts. The war, though infamous for its clumsiness and heavy casualties on both sides, did stem Russian expansion.43

Russian conquest was also frustrated in Asia, where the nation struggled with newly-modernized Japan for control of northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula. The unexpected Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) announced the rise of Japan as a primary world power.

Following the Napoleonic Wars, the patchwork of German states (of which Austria and Prussia were the strongest) were grouped into an alliance termed the German Confederation. A contest ensued between Austria and Prussia to lead the union of the Confederation into a single German nation, culminating in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), from which Prussia emerged victorious. Prussia was then attacked by France, which hoped to prevent the rise of a unified Germany; the consequent Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) also ended in Prussian victory.1,13,14

Having fended off these two great rivals, Prussia finally united the Confederation (minus Austria) into the German Empire, which became the foremost power of the European continent. Prussian victory in both wars was due largely to the keen strategy of the king's top minister, Otto von Bismarck. The founding of the German Empire (1871) marks the birth of modern Germany, and Bismarck is often cited as the "father of modern Germany".A396,1,13,14

As Austria reeled from defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, Hungary successfully demanded recognition as a separate kingdom within the Austrian Empire. This victory, though falling short of full independence, gave Hungary significant control over its domestic affairs. From this point forward, the Austrian Empire is often referred to as Austria-Hungary, or the "Austro-Hungarian Empire".1,13,14

Russian Revolution

1917

As the Pax Britannica drew on, Russia experienced growing social unrest, culminating under Nicholas II (the final tsar). Nicholas witnessed the rise of a powerful communist party led by Vladimir Lenin (see Marxism).16

Revolutionary sentiments surged with Nicholas' loss of the Russo-Japanese War, then exploded with the staggering casualties of the First World War. In the subsequent Russian Revolution (1917), Lenin seized control of the country, sparking years of civil war (between Lenin's party, rival revolutionary forces, and counter-revolutionaries). State seizure of private lands collapsed the power of nobility and clergy.A434-38,16,17

Russia was proclaimed a soviet socialist republic. In the years that followed, the formation of other "soviet socialist republics" (e.g. Ukraine, Belarus) and their union with Russia gave rise to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which included most of Eastern Europe. The USSR was the furthest thing from a republic, however: a brutal socialist dictatorship, rife with spying, imprisonment (often at forced labour camps in Siberia), torture, and execution.A434-38,K378-79

World War Period

1914-45
Summary of Twentieth-century Europe
World War I
1914-18
the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, US)
defeat the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey)
interwar period
1918-39
rise of fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan
World War II
1939-45
the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, China, US)
defeat the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan)
Cold War
1945-91
US and USSR struggle for global political dominance
contemporary era
1991-present
US reigns as the sole superpower

World War I (1914-18; see World War I) was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, United States).38 At war's end, each of the Central Powers ceased to be an empire. Austria and Germany became republics (thus ending Habsburg rule of Austria), while the Ottoman Empire became the modern nation of Turkey.

World War I left Europe exhausted, psychologically and economically. Misery was compounded by the 1918 flu pandemic, which spread throughout most of world, killing tens of millions of people (far more than the war itself) over a period of a few years.1

Interwar Europe featured three competing political systems: democracy, socialist dictatorship, and fascism. Britain, France, and Scandinavia remained democratic, while Russia continued as a socialist dictatorship. (Lenin was succeeded in the interwar period by Joseph Stalin.) Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, on the other hand, all fell to fascism in the 1930s.

The terms "authoritarianism" and "totalitarianism" denote a government with absolute power; fascism is a specific modern form of authoritarianism that emerged after World War I. Under a fascist regime, individuals are expected to submit completely to the will of the state, and to scorn any form of democracy or dissidence; the national leader is to be worshipped as a demi-god, and a culture of military aggression is fostered (typically rooted in myths of "racial supremacy").15 Fascism is considered the extreme right-wing form of modern government, while socialist dictatorship is the extreme left-wing form, though the consequences of both government types are largely indistinguishable.

Italy was seized by Benito Mussolini, while Germany (whose brief post-WWI government is known as the "Weimar Republic") fell to the Nazi party of Adolf Hitler in 1933. Austria, initially governed by a home-grown fascist party, was swiftly annexed by Nazi Germany. Spain was taken by Francisco Franco, Portugal by Antonio Salazar. While democracy was restored in West Germany, Austria, and Italy after WWII, Spain and Portugal would not become democratic until the 1970s.

Franco came to power following the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, in which conservative rebels fought to overthrow the democratically elected left-wing government. The rebels consisted largely of the old order (nobility and clergy), whose power and wealth were being eroded by left-wing government reforms. The government was supported by democratic European nations and Russia, while the rebels were aided by Germany and Italy.B302,K388-89

The Treaty of Versailles (the WWI peace settlement) is generally viewed as a major factor in the rise of fascism, given the harsh punishments it imposed on Germany and Austria (notably reparation payments and territorial losses) and the limited gains it provided for Italy. Though the treaty also established the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) to help keep the peace, this organization proved ineffectual. Another exacerbating factor was the suffering caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which spread from the United States throughout Europe.1,32

Hitler referred to Nazi Germany as the Third Reich ("Third Empire"), labelling it the successor to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire. As Hitler expanded his control of Central Europe, Britain and France attempted to avoid war through a policy of appeasement, allowing him to annex nearby lands (first Austria, then Czechoslovakia) in hopes that he would eventually be satisfied (and to stall for time while they built up their armed forces). Upon the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Britain and France finally declared war (see World War II).1 In the ensuing Second World War, the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) were defeated by the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, US).39

Cold War

ca. 1945-91

Following World War II, the global balance of power shifted to two superpowers: the US and USSR. Their rivalry manifested as the Cold War (ca. 1945-1991), which ended with the fall of communist Russia (see Cold War). Economically speaking, Western Europe thrived during the Cold War period, whereas the communist East stagnated. And while unrest in the Western world was generally met with constructive intervention, disturbances in Eastern Europe were brutally crushed.1

The war was "cold" in that the two superpowers did not clash directly, due largely to the high probability of mutual annihilation in the nuclear age.33 Instead, each side waged a largely diplomatic and economic war, providing foreign governments with political support and funding in exchange for allegiance.34 Combat was limited to proxy wars, in which the US and USSR supplied troops and/or resources to opposing sides in local struggles (e.g. Korea, Vietnam).

Cold War Spheres of Influence in 1980

Contemporary Europe

ca. 1991-present

Since the Cold War, which ended with the disintegration of the USSR, Western tensions with Russia have relaxed. Post-Soviet Eastern Europe has faced severe challenges, including corruption, unemployment, inflation, and civil conflict. Nonetheless, most Eastern European nations have become truly democratic since the Cold War, though Russia itself remains a dictatorship.1,42,54

From WWI to the end of the Cold War, much of the Slavic-speaking region of the Balkans was united as the nation of Yugoslavia ("land of the South Slavs"). The 1990s fracturing of this region into small states constitutes the bloodiest European conflict of the post-Cold War era. The fighting (which principally involved Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians) took place along both political and ethnic lines, and was especially fierce in the region of Bosnia.

On the positive side, the 1990s witnessed the formation of the European Union, a political/economic alliance of European states. The precursor to this union was the European Economic Community (aka European Common Market), established after WWII to coordinate national coal and steel industries. The European Union brought the continent's economic integration to new heights, including a common European currency and a central bank.1,40

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