The History of Modern Europe

Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

No continent has been more influential in shaping the course of world history than Europe in the modern era. Learn how changes in Europe over the last 200 years have defined the world we live in.

The Birth of Modern Europe

Modern European history has been defined by the lasting legacy of two fundamental transformations that began roughly during the late 1700s--the economic and social restructuring of society during the Industrial Revolution and the move towards liberal democratic government following the French Revolution.

Until the mid-1700s the technological capacity of human civilization was limited to the exploitation of domesticated animals, manual labor, as well as wind and water power. The Industrial Revolution, by harnessing the tremendous power of coal, radically increased mankind's ability to transform nature and society. Coal was central to industrialization because it was an ideal fuel source for use in steam-powered engines. The railroad and steamship forever changed transportation while the emergence of factories fundamentally reordered the economy and daily life in urban areas. The industrial revolution first took off in England, where a number of easily accessible coal deposits offered abundant fuel for the world's first railroads, steamships and textile factories. The cities of Manchester, Liverpool and London were among the first to experience the rapid urbanization and economic growth that accompanied industrialization during the 1800s.

A painting depicting the new smokestack skyline of Manchester England in the mid 1800s
Painting of Manchester, England

Politically, modern European history has been defined by the legacy of the French Revolution. In 1789 the ruling monarchy and elite noble class of France was violently overthrown by their own subjects. Inspired by the enlightened ideals of liberty and equality, the lower classes of French society forcibly dismantled their system of government, which they viewed as oppressive and outdated. The French Revolution was a defining moment in the creation of modern European history; it marked the end of monarchical rule throughout most of Europe and signaled the beginning of an era of democracy and civil liberty. Gradually kingdoms made way for the emergence of nations and monarchs were replaced by elected heads of state.

An Age of Empire

The political transformation of Europe following the French Revolution did not bring an end to Europe's empires around the globe. Quite the contrary. The nations of Northern and Western Europe benefited tremendously from the Industrial Revolution and were able to utilize steam ships and railroads as tools to extend their empires ever further into the interiors of Asia, Africa and the Americas. With modern weapons England was able to achieve sound military victories over mighty India and China, a feat never before achieved by a European power. France, Germany and even minor powers like Belgium were able to forge their own colonies (largely in Africa) using modern weaponry and technology.

A Political Cartoon depicting British imperialist Cecil Rhodes standing atop Africa with a telegraph cable
Imperialism Cartoon

By 1900 England's empire covered roughly a quarter of the globe. Domestically, England's industry had become the 'workshop of the world,' producing unparalleled quantities of textiles and other manufactured goods for export to its colonies. While England was the unrivaled global power of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other industrial powers of Europe were on the rise as well. Germany, although it had few overseas colonies, boasted one of Europe's most prosperous economies and became one of Europe's most potent military forces.

A Generation of Crisis

From 1914 to 1945 Europe suffered through two world wars and a general depression, which, taken together, can be regarded as a prolonged period of general crisis.

On the eve of the First World War (1914 - 1918) the leading powers of Europe had become entangled in a web of alliances and competing nationalist interests. Over the course of the early 20th century most every major military power of Europe had established defensive treaties with a number of allies. This treaty system ensured that war declared on one nation would bring a number of allied powers into the conflict. As such, it was almost inevitable that even a small conflict between two minor powers would boil over into a larger multi-national war. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary in the summer of 1914 provided the spark that drew the rival powers of Russia and Austria-Hungary into war. Germany, England, France, and many other nations honored their alliance treaties and quickly entered the fray. Soon all of Europe was engulfed in open war.

World War I is often regarded as the first large-scale industrial war. Indeed, the use of machine guns, tanks, and chemical gas made it one of the deadliest wars in world history. The expansion of war into the Atlantic eventually pressed the United States into joining the War on the side of the Russian-British-French alliance in 1917.

The landing of French troops during World War I
Landing of French Troops

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