Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > European history
Europe has a great deal of history and has strongly influenced other parts of the world, and many of its historical sites are now tourist attractions.
Central Europe in particular is filled with medieval castles and early-modern palaces, with Old towns across the whole continent. Europe's heritage has however been scarred by war; in particular especially World War II. As that war left many cities bombed beyond recognition, many city planners saw their opportunity to replace the "old fashioned" old towns with (in today's eyes) bland 1950s architecture and big streets and overpasses to make these places "ready for the automobile". Although the worst excesses have been turned back, many historical buildings that survived the wars were torn down in this somewhat iconoclastic frenzy.
Europe has been more thoroughly excavated by archaeologists than any other continent, and most archaeological sites on the continent have some kind of guided tours, information plaques or other service to visitors. Some buildings from prehistoric Europe are the oldest remaining in the world, such as the Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands. Southern Europe has ruins from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and other ancient civilizations.
Homo sapiens reached Europe from Africa through the Middle East roughly 40 000 years ago, and displaced the Homo neanderthalensis, which died out around 30 000 years ago. However, it is believed that some interbreeding occurred between the two hominid species, and all humans apart from sub-Saharan Africans are known to have varying amounts of Neanderthal genes.
As writing, farming and urban culture all spread to Europe from the Middle East, European culture has owed much to "foreign" influences from its very beginning.
The Mediterranean was one of the first centers of writing and city-states. Among its numerous cultures, those of Ancient Greece are the earliest well-known ones that arose in Europe. Greek poets such as Homer, Hesiod, and Kallinos dated to the 8th century BC are the oldest European writers still widely studied. Ancient Greece has been credited with the foundation of Western culture, and has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and arts of the European continent.
The city of Rome, inhabited since at least 800 BC, became the center of the Roman Empire, which conquered much of Europe, as well as North Africa and the Middle East, and came to define a common European identity, through the Latin language and alphabet, as well as law and architecture. Christianity and Judaism were both found throughout the Empire by the early second century AD and the former seems to have been particularly popular with soldiers along the Germanic frontiers. After two centuries of on and off persecution, Constantine officially tolerated Christianity (though he did not convert until his dying moments) and intervened in theological debates, cementing a path that would lead to an openly Christian Empire that persecuted non-Christians and "the wrong kind" of Christianity alike. This pattern could be found throughout most of Europe in the ensuing millennium. Under the rule of Constantine's distant successor from another dynasty Theodosius, Christianity would be declared the state religion of Rome, and became mandatory for all Roman subjects, thereby leading to the eventual Christianisation of all Europe. Theodosius, who died in 395 after having briefly ruled both halves of the Empire, would also prove to be the last person to rule both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, as the land was divided among his sons after his death. While this was not seen as a dramatic move at the time and such divisions had occurred before, the rift would grow deeper and never heal before the fall of the Western Empire some eighty years later. The cultural divide would deepen and ultimately result in a schism of Christianity during the Middle Ages that endures today.
Usually the first locally written literary material in any given language where writing is invented or introduced is epic poetry of some kind and most experts on mythology now agree that there is often at least some kernel of historical fact in epic poetry, even if it is often warped by centuries of oral transmission and trying to keep a story flowing that would interest contemporary audiences.
- Main article: Medieval Europe
- See also: Franks, Vikings and the Old Norse, Mongol Empire, Hanseatic League, Medieval Britain and Ireland, Crusades
The Migration Period began around AD 300, and saw especially Germanic tribes moving across the continent, in part fleeing from Hunnic invasions. Military and political errors led to humiliating defeats for the Romans such as the Battle of Adrianople of 376 that saw emperor Valens and most of his army perish fighting Goths. Around AD 500 (AD 476 is a commonly cited date, but there are good arguments for slightly different dates) the Western Roman Empire ceased to be, with most of it invaded by Germanic tribes, such as the Franks in Gaul and Germania, and the Visigoths in Spain. The millennium that followed the fall of Rome has by posterity been called the Middle Ages. The concept of the Middle Ages is tenuous; the whole period used to be known as the "dark ages" due to the relative lack of surviving historical records and art. 21st century historians disregard the concept of a dark age, or apply it just to Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages (5th to 10th centuries).
The eastern half of the Roman Empire continued on as the Byzantine Empire, which dominated the eastern Mediterranean for a thousand years, was significantly weakened by the fourth crusade sacking Constantinople in 1204 and finally ceased to be when its capital (Constantinople) was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, who came to dominate southeastern Europe until the First World War. Roman scholarship survived in the Byzantine Empire, and in the Islamic Caliphates.
The Franks rose to power under the Merovingian dynasty, and converted to Catholic Christianity in the 5th century. An Arab-Muslim force landed on the Iberian peninsula in 711, wiping out the Visigoths, conquering most of Iberia within the next few years, before being stopped by the Franks near Tours and Poitiers in 732. Much of Spain remained Muslim until the 15th century. The most notable Frankish ruler Charlemagne conquered much of Western Europe, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800 AD. The Carolingian empire largely disintegrated on Charlemagne's death in 814, and the last East-Frankish king of the Carolingian dynasty died in 911. The successor kingdoms came to form countries such as the Kingdom of France. The 9th and 10th centuries are also remembered for the Viking raids and expeditions from Scandinavia across most of Europe.
The 10th to 13th centuries are known as the High Middle Ages, and saw a wave of urbanisation especially in Western Europe, with the rise of castles, cathedrals, merchant guilds, and universities. The University of Bologna has remained in continuous operation since 1088. The High Middle Ages were marked by the Crusades; a series of military campaigns launched by the Catholic church, many of them towards the Holy Land. Several crusades went nowhere near Jerusalem and one ended in the conquering and destruction of Constantinople, weakening the Byzantine Empire enough that it would collapse two centuries hence. Merchant-ruled city-states such as Novgorod, Genoa and Venice, and those of the Hanseatic League, came to control much of commerce in Europe. The dominant architectural style was Gothic architecture, which was connected to the aforementioned Goths only in name.
The Mongol Empire came to conquer most of the European plains in the 13th century. This marked the beginning of the Late Middle Ages, together with The Black Death, which killed one-third of Europe's population around 1350, and the Hundred Years War (which lasted from 1337 to 1453).
Early modern period
- See also: Early modern Europe
- See also: Medieval and Renaissance Italy, Protestant Reformation, Ottoman Empire, Nordic history, Thirty Years' War, Swedish Empire
An intellectual movement called the Renaissance (rebirth) began in Italy and started to spread across Europe in the final years of the 15th century, rediscovering Classical Graeco-Roman culture, and saw the rise of European art and European classical music. The invention of the printing press made books much more affordable, leading to broader literacy and the emergence of literature in languages besides Latin. This also enabled the faster spread of "heretical" ideas during the Protestant Reformation that unlike prior reform movements did not stay contained to scholarly circles (writing mostly in the vernacular and not Latin) and was not snuffed out in its infancy or contained locally like the 15th-century Jan Hus movement in what is now the Czech Republic. This period, which saw the invention of movable type, the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, is usually considered the beginning of the Early Modern Era.
Gunpowder weapons revolutionized warfare, including artillery that could tear down most medieval fortresses. A series of wars, especially the very destructive Thirty Years' War of the 17th century, replaced the political patchwork of nobles' fiefs and city-states with centralized empires, such as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Swedish Empire.
In the late 15th century came the Age of Discovery European navigators found the way to Asia, the Americas and Oceania. They paved the way for Spain, Portugal and later other countries to establish colonies and trading posts on other continents, through superior military power, and epidemics that decimated much of the population, especially in America. The New World saw immigration of millions of European settlers, as well as enslaved West Africans through the Atlantic slave trade. The independence of the USA, Haiti and many other parts of the Americas at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century ended the first wave of colonialism. European interests turned to Africa, India, East Asia and Oceania, and from the 1880s onward Africa was colonised during what is commonly known as the "Scramble for Africa", leaving only Liberia and Ethiopia independent. Most colonies became independent in the decades following World War II, and today only Spain has some small possessions in mainland Africa, while France, Spain and Portugal continue to control some islands off the African coast. Immigration from former colonies has shaped the face of Europe, and of countries such as France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Spain in particular.
Age of Revolutions
- See also: Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, British Empire, Napoleonic Wars, Industrial Britain
The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 18th century (see Industrial Britain), but took a century to spread to continental Europe.
Modern times in Europe are considered to have begun with the 1789 French Revolution, which was the beginning of the end of European aristocratic power and absolute monarchy, and led to a series of wars, including the Napoleonic Wars. Although Napoleon was ultimately defeated, the legacy of his rule over much of Europe can still be seen today, with the concept of secularism (laïcité in French, also known as the "separation of church and state") having been introduced by Napoleon into the occupied territories. The 19th century saw the rise of democracy, social reform and nationalism, with the unification of countries such as Germany and Italy. Some historians speak of the "long 19th century" beginning with the first major liberal European revolution in 1789 and ending with the beginning of the First World War, giving rise to the "short 20th century" that spans the 75 years from 1914 to 1989 and was dominated by the rise and fall of Soviet-style communism and an overall decline in the importance of Europe on the world stage.
- See also: World War I, Soviet Union, World War II in Europe, Holocaust remembrance, Armenian Genocide remembrance
World War I, at its time known as the Great War, saw unprecedented destruction, and made the end to the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The Soviet Union replaced the Russian Empire, and fascist movements rose to power in Italy, and later in Spain, Portugal and Germany. While Europeans were weary of war, the League of Nations failed to stop the second World War, which came to be the most destructive war ever in Europe.
- See also: Cold War Europe
The war saw destruction and human suffering as well as large scale war crimes. It singlehandedly ended the period in which the dominant power of Europe was the dominant power of the world, and the United States and the Soviet Union became the new superpowers.
The war led to a broad consensus across all political camps and in several countries that more cooperation among European countries was necessary to avoid another even bloodier war. Furthermore, the specter of the Soviet-dominated East made cooperation appear more desirable for those countries in the West where parliamentary democracy had returned after the war. The first step was to cooperate in the fields of Coal and Steel (both essential to modern industry and any war effort) with West Germany, France, the Benelux states and Italy creating the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. While Britain was a sympathetic spectator, it believed at the time that its interest lay in the Commonwealth and the (at the time still considerable) remains of the British Empire, so it did not join this or any other attempt at European integration until two decades later. The six members of the European Coal and Steel Community meanwhile pressed on, signing the Treaty of Rome in 1956 and making more and more steps at common institutions, with formalized meetings of heads of government or ministers and a European parliament with democratic elections every five years. The 2014 elections were once again the second biggest election in the world by numbers of votes cast (after Indian federal elections).
The end of the second World War also gave rise to the Cold War, which was perhaps most visible in Europe. Most of Europe was either dominated by the Soviet Union or closely allied with the US, with only a handful of neutral countries like Yugoslavia, Austria, Finland and Switzerland and even those that officially stayed neutral often heavily leaned one way or the other. The remaining dictatorships in the western aligned countries slowly fell - Spain transitioned to democracy shortly after Franco's death, Portugal's "Estado Novo" did not long outlast its founder Antonio Salazar and the Greek military junta fell in 1974. Meanwhile, Leninist dictatorships in the East remained firmly entrenched, even in places like Romania, Albania or Yugoslavia where leaders were able to implement less Moscow-dominated foreign policies or in places like Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary where popular uprisings had to be quashed by Soviet or domestic tanks.
When walls came down
However, when Gorbachev took over in the USSR, the economic malaise and political oppression led to widespread protests and by 1989 most regimes were either falling or reforming and Soviet tanks were not rolling in this time. While this is rightfully remembered as a mostly peaceful revolution, there was some violence in Romania and its president Nicolae Ceaușescu was the only dictator to find a violent death. Germany reunited in 1990 and the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 bringing the Cold War to an end.
As the process of European integration proved successful, most countries that could soon joined the European Communities. Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom (after France gave up on its longstanding veto to British membership) joined in 1973, while Greece, Portugal and Spain joined in the 1980s after their dictatorships had been replaced by democratic regimes. Another round of enlargements occurred in 1995 when due to the end of the Cold War three democratic and capitalist neutral countries - Austria, Sweden and Finland - joined after there was no Cold War need to withhold participation any more. At the same time more and more powers were given to the European level and it was renamed the European Union in 1992 with a new currency to be introduced in 2002 after attempts to link European currencies in stable fixed exchange rates faced threats of speculation. However, the Euro as the new currency came to be called was not initially introduced in all countries then members of the EU and it is today used by countries that are not members of the EU and will likely not join the EU for years to come like Monaco or Kosovo. Several other countries that previously pegged their currencies to French Francs or the Deutsche Mark now peg their currencies to the Euro instead.
The end of the Cold War also rose the question of whether former Soviet allies could join the EU and when and how this would take place. Unlike most previous expansions of the EU, which admitted no more than three countries at a time, this expansion was the biggest to date and on 1 May 2004 four former Soviet satellites (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary), three former Soviet Republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) one former Yugoslav Republic (Slovenia) and two former British colonies in the Mediterranean (Cyprus and Malta) joined the EU in what was dubbed the "Eastern Expansion". Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 and Croatia became the second former Yugoslav Republic to join in 2013. Various countries are in different stages of "accession talks" but none of them are anywhere close to resolution and some of them seem to be maintained more out of diplomatic courtesy than anything else. Iceland officially submitted an accession bid in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis but has subsequently expressed no intention of joining. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia despite being official applicants are considered economically and politically not ready for joining and the continued negotiations with Turkey (which seem to only exist on paper anyway) are in constant threat of being ended outright over diplomatic disagreements with the current government. Norway and Switzerland have no intention of joining. However, all non-members mentioned here have various forms of bilateral agreements and often follow EU rules and regulations and are sometimes party to some European agreements that are partly linked to the EU.
While the first two decades of the 21st century have been unusually peaceful in Europe, Russia has intervened in the Caucasus and Ukraine, having annexed Crimea in 2014. Terrorism has also remained a concern of many European countries.
In 2016 the United Kingdom voted by referendum to leave the EU, and after years of negotiations it finally left in 2020.