History of Europe
- For links to the history of individual countries in Europe see the end of this article.
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.
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 developments, 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, Rumania 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 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.
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 in the mid-1300s is estimated to have killed a third of Europe's population.
The conventional end of the Middle Ages is usually associated with the fall of 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 national 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).
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 what to become Canada and parts of India (nearly all 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 like 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.
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 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. 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 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. Allied forces won in North Africa and invaded Italy in 1943 and France in 1944. In the spring of 1945 Germany itself was invaded in the east and the west by Russia and the other Allies respectively; Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in early May. The last Axis power, Japan, surrendered in August 1945, after the Soviet Union declared war and two atomic bombs destroyed 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, Rumania, 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 European Union, a process which continues today (2003). See also the History of the European Union.
Histories of present-day territories
Armenia and Georgia are countries ethnically associated with Europe, but exist in the continentally Asian portion of the Caucasus