History of Modern Europe
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The history of modern Europe was dominated by world wars and the Great Depression. World War I started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1918 by the Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Soon after, most European nations found themselves drawn into a war between the Allies (England, France, the Soviet Union, and later the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire). In all, the First World War, this “war to end all wars”, killed more than 16 million Europeans.
The consequences of the war were profound. Firstly, Russia was plunged into the Russian Revolution, which replaced the Tsarist monarchy with the communist Soviet Union. Then, the Austria-Hungary Empire had it borders redrawn, and the Ottoman Empire collapsed and its lands were distributed to Britain and France as mandates for them to rule. What’s more, the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was harsh on Germany, imposing sanctions and a bill for reparations that Germany could not pay. As a result, hyper-inflation raged in Weimar Germany. In all, Russia lost 17 million people in World War I and more in the Russian Civil War and accompanying famine. This happened in 1932-33 on Stalin’s orders, as Soviet authorities withheld grain supplies to punish his political enemies, causing millions of deaths by starvation. Moreover, Stalin also directed the Great Purge of 1937–38 in which nearly 700,000 people were executed. In this, millions of people were exiled to Stalin’s gulag of Siberian labor camps.
The revolution that swept through Russia also inspired change in other European nations. Mussolini’s Fascists took power in the Kingdom of Italy, and Atatürk’s Turkish Republic adopted the Western alphabet and embraced secularism in its overwhelmingly Muslim society. Economic instability wracked Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s, which brought the Great Depression to Europe. And Adolph Hitler knew instinctively that Germany’s misery was his opportunity.
In 1933, Hitler became the leader of Germany and began to build National Socialism and his proclaimed “thousand-year” Third Reich. In a stunning diplomatic offensive, Germany took back the Saarland and Rhineland in 1935 and 1936, and Austria was peacefully overtaken by Nazi forces in the Anschluss of 1938. It went on to annex the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia inhabited by ethnic Germans. The rest of Czechoslovakia was split into a German-controlled protectorate and the Slovak Republic. All the while, Britain and France continued to appease Hitler.
Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. With that, France and Britain declared war on Germany, opening the Second World War in Europe. The Soviet Union invaded Poland, which fell soon thereafter. Then, it attacked the Baltic countries and later, Finland.
In May 1940, Germany launched a blitkreig through northern Europe. France surrendered in June 1940. Then in August, Germany began the Blitz, a bombing offensive on Britain that failed to break the will of the British people. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, and on December 7, 1941, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the conflict.
The war was the largest and most destructive in human history, with as many as 85 million dead across the world. In all, the Soviet Union lost around 27 million people (mostly civilians) during the war, and by the end of World War II, Europe was swarming with more than 40 million refugees.
World War II left Britain victorious, but bled white. France had been humiliated. Germany was devastated. The Yalta Conference divided Europe into two blocs: the Western countries and the communist Eastern bloc. The two blocs were separated by what Winston Churchill called an “Iron Curtain”. And when the United States and Western Europe formed the NATO alliance, the Soviet Union responded by forming the Warsaw Pact. The Berlin blockade in 1948 and 1949 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 became the defining crises of the Cold War.
The two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, became locked in a long Cold War. Each was focused on wielding ideological and geo-political influence. At the same time, decolonization began to result in the independence of most of Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa.
In the 1980s the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Solidarity movement in Poland weakened the communist monolith. This led to enough of an opening of the Iron Curtain to set in motion a peaceful chain reaction. As the Eastern bloc disintegrated, the Warsaw Pact and communism collapsed. With that, the Cold War ended, and in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Germany was reunited, and the borders of Central and Eastern European nations were revised once more. In consequence, the pre-war cultural and economic order was restored and the war-ravaged cities across Europe began their recovery.
The European Economic Community was formed in 1957 among six Western European states to achieve a common market. The EEC, European Coal and Steel Community, and Euratom combined to form the European Community, and this became the European Union in 1993. The EU established a parliament, a court, and a central bank that minted the euro as the currency of a united Europe. More Central and Eastern European countries joined, and the EU grew to include 28 European countries. Europe was once again a major economic and political power. However, the United Kingdom withdrew in a “Brexit” from the EU in January 2020, as a result of a Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership.
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Modern Europe Index | Albania | Britain: Society • Power | Bulgaria: Power | Canada: Power | Czech Republic: Power | France: Economy | Germany: Society | Greece: Power | Hungary: Power | Italy: Society • Power • Economy | Poland: Power | Portugal | Romania | Russia | Soviet Union: Russian Revolution: Bolsheviks • Lenin • Civil War • First Spontaneous Revolution | Stalin: Background • Terror • Society • Economy | Khrushchev | Brezhnev | Gorbachev | Cold War: Cuba • Proxy Wars | Spain | Yugoslavia: Power
Modern Europe: Index
Society in Britain
Czech Republic: Power
Soviet Union: Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution: Bolsheviks
Russian Revolution: Lenin
Russian Revolution: Civil War
Russian Revolution: First Spontaneous Revolution
Soviet Union: Power: Stalin
Power: Cold War
Cold War: Cuba
Cold War: Proxy Wars