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History of Europe

For links to the history of individual countries in Europe see the end of this article.

Table of contents
1 The origins
2 The Greeks
3 Rome
4 Early Middle Ages
5 Later Middle Ages
6 Renaissance and Reformation
7 Colonial expansion
8 The 16th, 17th and 18th century
9 The French Revolution and Napoleon
10 The 19th century
11 Early 20th century: the World Wars
12 Late 20th century: the Cold War
13 Early 21st century: the European Union
14 Histories of present-day territories

The origins

Neanderthals settled Europe long before the emergence of modern humans, Homo sapiens. The earliest appearance of modern people in Europe has been dated to 35,000 B.C. Evidence of permanent settlement dates from 7,000 B.C

The first well-known civilization in Europe was that of the Minoans of the island of Crete and the Achaeans in the adjacent parts of Greece, starting at the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C Around the same time, the Celts spread over most of the interior as far as Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal), and later Anatolia. As they did not use a written language, knowledge of them is piecemeal. The Romans encountered them and recorded a great deal about them; these records and the archeological evidence form our primary understanding of this extremely influential culture. The Celts posed a formidable, if disorganized, competition to the Roman state, that later colonized and conquered much of the southern portion of Europe.

The Greeks

At the end of the Bronze Age the older Greek kingdoms collapsed and a brilliant new civilization grew up in their place. The Hellenic civilization took the form of a collection of city-states (the most important being Athens and Sparta), having vastly differing types of government and cultures, including what are more-or-less unprecedented developments in various governmental forms, philosophy, science, politics, sports, theater and music. The Hellenic city-states founded a large number of colonies on the shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean sea, Asia Minor, Sicily and Southern Italy, but in the 4th century B.C. their internal wars made them an easy prey for king Philip II of Macedonia. The campaigns of his son Alexander the Great spread Greek culture into Persia, Egypt and India, but also favoured contact with the older learnings of those countries, opening up a new period of development, known as Hellenism.


Much of Greek learning was assimilated by the nascent Roman state as it expanded outward from Italy, taking advantage of its enemies' inability to unite: the only real challenge to Roman ascent came from the Phoenician colony of Carthage, but its defeat in the end of the 3rd century B.C marked the start of Roman hegemony. First governed by kings, then as a senatorial republic (see Roman republic), Rome finally became an empire at the end of the 1st century B.C, under Augustus and his authoritarian successors. The Roman Empire had its centre in the Mediterranean Sea, controlling all the countries on its shores; the northern border was marked by the Rhine and Danube rivers; under emperor Trajan (2nd century A.D.) the empire reached its maximum expansion, including Britain, Romania and parts of Mesopotamia. The empire brought peace, civilization and an efficient centralized government to the subject territories, but in the 3rd century A.D. a series of civil wars undermined its economic and social strength. In the 4th century, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine were able to slow down the process of decline by splitting the empire into a Western and an Eastern part. Whereas Diocletian severely persecuted Christianity, Constantine declared an official end to state-sponsored persecution of Christians in 313 with the Edict of Milan, thus setting the stage for the empire to later become officially Christian in about 380 (which would cause the Church to become an important institution).

Early Middle Ages

Western Europe emerged as the site of a distinct civilization after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, as barbarian invasions separated it from the rest of the Mediterranean, where the Eastern Roman Empire (a.k.a. Byzantine Empire) survived for another millennium. In the 7th century the Arab expansion brought Islamic cultures to the southern Mediterranean shores (from Turkey to Sicily and Spain), further enlarging the differences between the various Mediterranean civilizations. Huge amounts of technology and learning were lost, trade languished and people returned to local agrarian communities. Feudalism replaced the centralized Roman administration. The only institution surviving the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was the Roman Catholic Church, which preserved part of the Roman cultural inheritance and remained the primary source of learning in its domain at least until the 13th century; the bishop of Rome, known as the Pope, became the leader of the western church (in the east his supremacy was never accepted).

The Holy Roman Empire emerged around 800 AD, as Charlemagne, king of the Franks, subdued western Germany, large parts of Italy and chunks of surrounding countries; he received substantial help from an alliance with the Pope, who wanted to cut the remaining ties with the Byzantine Empire; in this way the domains of the Pope became an independent state in central Italy.

The subsequent period, ending around 1000 A.D., saw the further growth of feudalism, which weakened the Holy Roman Empire and the development of the Roman Catholic Church as a major power.

In the following period, Western Christianity was adopted by newly created kingdoms of Central Europe: Poland, Hungary and Bohemia.

Later Middle Ages

Early signs of the rebirth of civilization in western Europe began to appear in the 11th century as trade started again in Italy, leading to the economic and cultural growth of independent city states such as Venice and Florence; at the same time, nation-states began to take form in places such as France, England and Spain, although the process of their formation (usually marked by rivalry between the monarchy, the aristocratic feudal lords and the church) actually took several centuries. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Empire, essentially based in Germany and Italy, further fragmented into a myriad of feudal principalities or small city states, whose subjection to the emperor was only formal.

One of the largest catastrophes to have hit Europe was the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. There were numerous outbreaks, but the most severe was in the mid-1300s and is estimated to have killed a third of Europe's population. Since the Jews were disliked by many Europeans, it was popular to blame them for the epidemic. This led to increased persecution of the Jews and pogroms in some areas. Thousands of Jews fled to Poland which, ironically, was spared by the plague.

Beginning in the 14th century, the Baltic Sea became one of the most important trade routes. The Hansa, an alliance of trading cities, fascilitated the absorption of vast areas of Poland, Lithuania and other Baltic countries into the economy of Europe.

The conventional end of the Middle Ages is usually associated with the fall of the city Constantinople and of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Turks made the city (with the new name of Istanbul) the capital of their Ottoman Empire, which lasted until 1919 and also included Egypt, Syria and most of the Balkans.

Renaissance and Reformation

In the 15th century, at the end of the Middle Ages, powerful nation states had appeared, built by the New Monarchs who had centralized power in France, England, and Spain. Contrariwise, the Church was losing much of its power because of corruption, internal conflicts, and the spread of culture leading to the artistic, philosophical, scientific and technological improvements of the Renaissance era.

The new nation states were frequently in a state of political flux and war. In particular, after Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, wars of politics and religion ravaged the continent: the schism of the dominant western church was to have major political, social and cultural implications for Europe. What became the split between Catholicism and Protestantism was particularly pronounced in England (where the king Henry VIII severed ties with Rome and proclaimed himself head of the church), and in Germany (where the Reformation united the various Protestant princes against the Catholic Hapsburg emperors). Unlike Western Europe, the countries of Central Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Hungary, resolved religious questions by adopting religious tolerance. Central Europe was already split between Eastern and Western Christianity. Now it became divided between Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Jews.

Colonial expansion

The numerous wars did not prevent the new states from exploring and conquering wide portions of the world, particularly in Asia (Siberia) and in the newly-discovered America. In the early 16th century Spain and Portugal, who led the way in geographical exploration, were the first states to set up colonies in South America and trade stations on the shores of Africa and Asia, but they were soon followed by France, England and the Netherlands.

Colonial expansion proceeded in the following centuries (with some setbacks, such as the American Revolution and the wars of independence in many South American colonies). Spain had control of a great deal of South America and the Philippines; Britain took the whole of Australia and New Zealand, most of India, and large parts of Africa and North America; France held parts of Canada and India (nearly all of which was lost to England in 1763), Indochina and large parts of Africa; the Netherlands gained the East Indies (now Indonesia) and islands in the Caribbean; Portugal obtained Brazil and several territories in Africa and Asia; and later, powers such as Germany, Belgium, Italy, Russia, the U.S.A and Japan acquired further colonies.

The 16th, 17th and 18th century

This period is often known as Early Modern. The Reformation had profound effects on the unity of Europe. Not only were nations divided one from another by their religious orientation, but some states were torn apart internally by religious strife, avidly fostered by their external enemies. France suffered this fate in the sixteenth century in the series of conflicts known as the French Wars of Religion, which ended in the triumph of the Bourbon Dynasty. England avoided this fate for a while and settled down under Elizabeth to a moderate Anglicanism. Germany, divided into numerous small states under the theoretical framework of the Holy Roman Empire, was also divided along internally drawn sectarian lines, until the Thirty Years' War seemed to see religion replaced by nationalism as the motor of European conflict.

Eastern Europe was an arena of conflict for domination between Sweden, Poland and Russia. The latter, eventually having won the competition, seized Finland from Sweden and Eastern Poland through partitions. Numerous Polish Jews emigrated to Western Europe, founding Jewish communities in places where they had been expelled from in Middle Ages.

Throughout the early part of this period, capitalism was replacing feudalism as the principal form of economic organisation, at least in the western half of Europe. The expanding colonial frontiers resulted in a Commercial Revolution. The period is noted for the rise of modern science and the application of its findings to technological improvements, which culminated in the Industrial Revolution. New forms of trade and expanding horizons made new developments in International Law necessary.

After the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War, Absolutism became the norm of the continent, while parts of Europe experimented with constitutions foreshadowed by the English Civil War and particularly the Glorious Revolution. European military conflict did not cease, but had less disruptive effects on the lives of Europeans. In the advanced north-west, the Enlightenment gave a philosophical underpinning to the new outlook, and the continued spread of literacy, made possible by the printing press, created new secular forces in thought.

The French Revolution and Napoleon

At the end of the 18th century the refusal of the French king Louis XVI (endorsed by the nobility and the clergy) to share his political powers with the so-called Third Estate led to the 1789 French Revolution, a significant attempt to create a new form of government based on the principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (freedom, equality and brotherhood). The king was executed, France was proclaimed a Republic and a sort of democratic government was established. In the subsequent turmoil (associated with the coalition of most European monarchies waging war against republican France) General Napoleon Bonaparte took power. In the many wars of the Napoleonic Era, he repeatedly defeated Austria (whose emperor was forced to resign the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), Russia, Prussia and other powers allied for the most part with Britain. After being proclaimed French emperor in 1804, he was finally defeated in 1815 at Waterloo.

The 19th century

After the defeat of revolutionary France, the other great powers tried to restore the situation which existed before 1789. However, their efforts were unable to stop the spread of revolutionary movements: the middle classes had been deeply influenced by the ideals of democracy of the French revolution; on the other hand, the Industrial Revolution brought important economical and social changes, and the lower classes started to be influenced by Socialist, Communist and Anarchistic ideas, especially those summarized by Karl Marx in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Further instability came from the formation of several nationalist movements (in Germany, Italy, Poland etc.), seeking national unification and/or liberation from foreign rule. As a result, the period between 1815 and 1871 saw a large number of revolutionary attempts and independence wars: even if the revolutionaries were often defeated, in 1871 most European states had become constitutional (rather than absolute) monarchies, and Germany and Italy had developed into nation states.

Early 20th century: the World Wars

After the relatively peaceful belle epoque, the rivalry between European powers exploded in 1914, when World War I started. On one side were Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (the Central Powers), while on the other side stood Serbia and the Triple Entente - the loose coalition of France, Britain and Russia, which were joined by Italy in 1915 and by the United States in 1917. Despite the defeat of Russia in 1917 (the war was one of the major causes of the Russian Revolution, leading to the formation of the communist Soviet Union), the Entente finally prevailed in the autumn of 1918.

In the Treaty of Versailles (1919) the winners imposed hard conditions on Germany and recognised the new states (such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) created in eastern Europe out of the defunct German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, supposedly on the basis of national self-determination. In the following decades, fear of Communism and the economic Depression of 1929-33 led to the rise of extreme governments - Fascist or Nazi - in Italy (1922), Germany (1933), Spain (after a civil war ending in 1939) and other countries such as Hungary.

After allying with Italy in the "Pact of Steel" and signing a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, the German leader Adolf Hitler started World War II in September 1939 following a military build-up throughout the late 1930s. After initial successes (mainly the conquest of western Poland, France and the [Balkans] before 1941) Germany began to over-extend itself in 1941 by attacking Russia; despite initial successes, the German army was stopped close to Moscow in December 1941, and one year later it suffered a decisive defeat in the battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Japan (allied to Germany and Italy since September 1940) attacked the United States on December 7, 1941; Germany then completed its over-extension by declaring war on the United States. War raged between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied Forces (Britain, France, Russia, and the United States). Allied Forces won in North Africa and invaded Italy in 1943 and invaded occupied France in 1944. In the spring of 1945 Germany itself was invaded from the east by Russia and from the west by the other Allies respectively; Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in early May. The last Axis Power, Japan, surrendered in August 1945, after the United States used atomic bombs to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Late 20th century: the Cold War

World War I and especially World War II ended the pre-eminent position of western Europe. The map of Europe was redrawn and divided as it became the principal zone of contention in the Cold War between the two newly emergent world powers, the capitalistic United States and the communist Soviet Union. The U.S.A. placed western Europe (Britain, France, Italy, West Germany, Spain etc.) under their sphere of influence, establishing the NATO alliance as a protection against a possible Soviet invasion; the Soviet Union claimed eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany) and formed the Warsaw Pact. Europe was divided by a "Iron Curtain". This situation lasted until 1989, when the weakening of the Soviet Union led to glasnost and the ending of the division of Europe - Soviet satellites were free to remove Communist regimes (and the two Germanies were able to re-unify). In 1991 the Soviet Union itself collapsed, splitting into several states (the main one remaining the Russian Federation) and removing communists from most governments.

After the end of World War II, western Europe slowly began a process of political and economic integration, desiring to unite Europe and prevent another war. This process resulted eventually in the development of organisations such as the Eurozone and the European Union. After the end of the Cold War, these organizations began to include nations within eastern Europe as well.

Early 21st century: the European Union

The process of integrating Europe was slow due to the reluctance of most nation states to give up their sovereignty. However, the process began to accelerate in the early 21st century. Whereas the European Union started out as a loose economic alliance among European nations, Europe finally began taking steps to create a true Europe-wide federal government in the early 21st century (see also the History of the European Union).

At the turn of the century, nations within the European Union had created a free trade zone and eliminated most travel barriers across their borders. A new common currency for Europe, the Euro, was established electronically in 1999, officially tying all of the currencies of each nation to each other. The new currency was put into circulation in 2002 and the old currencies began to be retired.

As of 2004, the European Union is in the process of ratifying a new constitution, creating a common defense system for the continent, and inducting additional member states (most of them in eastern Europe). However, the creation of the constitution has been controversial as member states wrangle over how much voting power each will have in the new federal government, taxes, and the standards to which new member states must be held before they are admitted.

Histories of present-day territories

  1. Armenia and Georgia are countries ethnically associated with Europe, but exist in the continentally Asian portion of the Caucasus
  2. Greenland is politically European (i.e., belonging to Denmark), but is peopled mostly by Inuit and geographically is part of North America. Greenland left the EEC in 1982.
  3. Iceland is culturally and politically European, but geographically isolated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge junction of the American and European continental plates. Iceland is member of the EFTA, and EEA, not of the EU.
  4. Russia's western lands are in Europe, whereas its vast eastern lands are in Asia (see Siberia)
  5. Turkey straddles Asia and Europe, with a small portion of its territory -- Thrace -- and Istanbul being situated in Europe, and the remainder geographically part of Asia. Turkey is currently in talks to join the EU.

Historic list of cities of Europe - populations of cities in 1700 and 1800.