The modern West is the most extraordinary civilization that has existed in world history (so far). It has risen to become a globe-spanning industrial society espousing democracy and the rule of law.
The articles in the TimeMap of World History cover topics in greater depth than can be done on the map pages of the atlas and are designed for students and general readers alike.
For the purposes of this article, the “West” is that civilization which grew up in Europe after the Middle Ages, and which spread to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and much of the rest of the world. Its roots lay in medieval Europe, in which a Christian feudal society developed after the fall of the Roman empire; and before that, in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome (which themselves built on foundations laid in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia).
A rich heritage
This mixed ancestry gave Western civilization a rich heritage to draw on. Greek achievements in mathematics, science, philosophy and art, and Roman developments in law, government and technology, all had a deep impact on later European civilization. The religion of Christianity, deriving from the Middle East but absorbed into the Graeco-Roman civilization, constituted one of the great pillars of the medieval and modern West. Added to these elements were major Indian, Chinese, Persian and Arabian achievements in science and technology, transmitted to Europe via the Islamic world.
Both Greece and Rome also contributed the idea of republican government, and this, plus the fragmented power structures fostered by medieval feudalism, enabled a feature unique to Western civilization to emerge: representative government.
A second unique feature developed in early modern times, a distinct and rigorous way of looking at the world. Today we call this approach “science”. Over the past few centuries this has powered unparalleled technological advance, and with it, economic growth. This combination of technology and wealth has made the West into the dominant world civilization on the planet.
Early modern Europe
From the early 15th century, medieval Europe began to morph into early modern Europe. In the later Middle ages trade had expanded, towns grew in number and size, and a new, more sophisticated society had emerged. In large parts of western Europe feudalism, with its fragmented power-structures, had begun to give way to centralised monarchies, with their concentration of power in the hands of the king (or queen) and the officials who did the royal bidding.
This process had been enabled by the rise of gunpowder armies. Cannons and handguns put a final end to the military superiority of heavily armoured knights. Being expensive, they placed enhanced military power in the hands of those best able to afford them, the monarchs. With the rise of central power came an expansion in royal bureaucracies.
A movement which modern scholars call the Italian Renaissance moved European civilization on away from its medieval past towards modernity. Artists and architects looked back to Roman models for their inspiration, and so remade much of the physical environment of European town and countryside. Writers and thinkers also looked back to Greek and Roman philosophers, and this prompted them to rethink not only much of their understanding about the world, but, more importantly, the way they sought this understanding.
From this would arise the experimental techniques of modern scientific enquiry; over the next few centuries the work of Vesalius, Copernicus, Kepler, Harvey, Galileo, Newton and many others would revolutionise the West’s knowledge of the material universe.
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/Toruń - 1580)
The Age of Discovery
In the meantime, the West’s knowledge of the geography of the world expanded enormously with the voyages of discovery which began in the 15th century. Over the next couple of centuries, the Americas were opened up to European conquest and colonization, and trade routes were pioneered linking the Atlantic with the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Western sailors and merchants developed maritime trade routes which, for the first time in world history, spanned the globe, and directed much of the world’s trade towards Europe. This had a multiplier effect in stimulating the European economy, especially in those regions bordering the Atlantic coast.
Within Europe itself, one invention of the mid-15th century helped above any other to move Europe towards the modern world. This was moveable-type printing. To what extent this was an original development to Europe, or had spread to Europe from China (where it had been invented several centuries before) is a hotly debated topic, but what is beyond doubt is that its impact on Europe was far more profound than it was on China. The ability to print books, leaflets and posters brought down their cost dramatically. New knowledge and ideas could spread around the continent much more swiftly - and widely - than before, so that a discovery made by a Portuguese explorer or a German astronomer could soon be being read about by ordinary shopkeepers in Paris or London. This greatly increased the stock of knowledge, and stimulated a thirst for more.
The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.
The impact printing had on the religious life of Europeans was even more profound. In the early 16th century, long-term unease about the state of the Catholic Church led to the outbreak of a movement called the Reformation, This split the Christian world of Europe into two hostile camps, the Protestant nations to the north and the Roman Catholic nations to the south, and resulted in a series of bitter wars of religion, culminating in the terrible Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48).
These wars affected all aspects of European life. The western Christian world was no longer united, and the papacy, which had hitherto claimed spiritual leadership over all western Europe (eastern Europe was home to the Orthodox Church), was now a divisive office, utterly rejected by the Protestants of England, Scotland, Holland, north Germany, Scandinavia and some other areas. Here, a new, simpler style of Christianity emerged. Its emphasis on individual spirituality led to the printing of the Bible and other religious books in the vernacular languages of the different nations. It would also open the way to greater value being given to personal choice. This would become a defining feature of Western civilization, and amongst other things would open the way to the rise of the secular society which we know today.
The Age of Enlightenment
Post-Reformation European thinkers thus felt more able to pursue their own individual quests for understanding. This, coupled with a strong reaction against the religious dogmatism which had caused so much bloodshed in the wars of religion, led to a new spirt of rationalism, apparent from the later 17th century onwards. Everything - religion, society, government, the material world - was scrutinised in a new way: cause and consequence rooted in the material world were sought, and traditionally accepted notions of divine providence were relegated to the margins.
This was the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. Nowhere was its effects more clear felt than in politics - first, in political thought, and then in the practice of government. More rational foundations for governing were sought, and, once this thinking had penetrated the courts of Europe, more rational ways of governing countries were put into practice. The reforms of such “enlightened despots” as Louis XIV in France Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in Russia, Frederick the Great in Germany, and other monarchs, were the fruits of this thinking. They created more efficient governing machines by giving more power to bureaucrats appointed on merit instead of hereditary aristocrats, and applying rational thinking to the problems of administration.
In all this, popular democracy was not high on the agenda. However, in certain Protestant countries, especially Holland and Britain, long-standing trends had been at work limiting the power of the monarch and placing more power in the hands of elected representatives of the people (albeit only a small proportion of the people were actually able to vote). By the end of the 17th century the Dutch Estates and English (later British) Parliament had become the seat of sovereignty in these two nations.
It is no coincidence that these two countries had the most advanced economies in Europe. During the 17th century their overseas trade had multiplied many times over (sadly, much of it at the expense of millions of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas to work on plantations there), and both of them had acquired trading settlements and colonies in North America, the West India, the coast of Africa and the East Indies. At home, agricultural improvements had boosted their farming, and better roads and canals were constructed to lubricate the wheels of trade and industry. Innovations such as joint-stock companies (above all the great east India Companies), national banks, stock exchanges and patent protection had eased the financing of commercial expansion, and the first booms and busts were soon causing excitement - the "tulip mania" of Holland and the South Sea Bubble in Britain. The modern world was fast approaching.
Overseas expanion and empire
Holland, Britain and France were long-term rivals for overseas trade and empire. In North America, the Caribbean, the coast of Africa and the East, they fought each other for strategic advantage. Out of this rivalry grew a new kind of fighting force, the oceanic navy. Britain’s navy eventually emerged as the most effective of these, and through her sea power Britain would build one of the largest empire that world history has ever seen (the only possible rivals, by different measures, are the Mongol empire and Qing dynasty China).
One by-product of this global rivalry was the discovery by Europeans of the southern landmasses of Australia and New Zealand, together with many much smaller Pacific islands. Although about as far east as it is possible to travel, Australia and New Zealand (and, on a smaller scale, Hawaii) were to become integral parts of “Western” civilization.
The American Revolution
By the mid-18th century the European colonies in North America had become fully functioning societies in their own right. The colonists felt a growing sense of their ability to determine their own future, and this led to the American Revolution (1775-83). By the end of this, a new country, the United States of America, had made its appearance on the world stage.
American Constitution Constitutional Convention - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
The constitution by which it set to govern itself was consciously modelled on Enlightenment principles of rational government. Unlike the “enlightened despots” of continental Europe, however, and because they were used to the British system of representative parliamentary rule, the Americans set up the most democratic government in the world at that time.
The French Revolution
This example acted as a powerful stimulus to critiques of traditional forms of hereditary monarchical government back in Europe, and, combined with internal problems within France itself, led to the French Revolution breaking out in 1789. The revolution challenged the very basis of government of the hereditary monarchies of Europe, and soon the entire continent of Europe was convulsed in war. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of world history’s most brilliant generals, ensured that Revolutionary France dominated much of Europe for several years, spreading more efficient and more equal government around the continent. Eventually Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo, in 1815; but Europeans had had a taste of a new kind of government, and there could be no return to more traditional ways for long.
The Industrial Revolution
A major part in Napoleon’s defeat was played by the British navy. This, along with a diplomacy based to a large extent upon paying subsidies to allies in the fight against Napoleon, did not come cheap; it would have been completely beyond the economic strength of any European power before this period. However, by this time Britain’s economy was being transformed by another kind of revolution - the Industrial Revolution.
This had been gathering pace since the mid-18th century, and had been greatly boosted by the efficient application of steam power to mechanical devices. By the end of the century, large industrial towns were growing up in the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland, in which hundreds of factories churned out vast quantities of manufactured goods.
A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797 by DigbyDalton. Used under Vreative Commons 3.0
The early 19th century saw this economic expansion continuing in Britain, and beginning to spread to North America and (particularly after the end of the Revolutionary wars) in Europe. The application of steam power to transport further stimulated this trend, with railways spreading their tentacles throughout Britain, Europe and North America. These in turn acted as a powerful boost to the expansion of the United States and Canada across the North American content, and by the mid-19th century these two countries had reached the Pacific coast.
By this time, steam ships were beginning to take over from sailing vessels on the sea routes of the world. With the introduction of refrigeration, meat and other perishables could be transported between continents, and the world was being linked by an ever denser network of trade routes.
Nationalism and democracy
Back in Europe, the legacy of the French Revolution and the wars which followed it were a yearning for greater democracy, and for greater national self-determination. Italy, central and eastern Europe and the Balkans were all under large, multinational states (the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires), and the many different nationalities within these states began to agitate for self-rule or independence. In Germany and Italy, meanwhile, two nationalities split amongst many small states, people agitated for the creation of unified states through which these nations could govern themselves. The political history of Europe is largely taken up with these struggles, and in the later 19th century large new European states appeared in Germany and Italy. On the eve of the World War I the Balkan states won their independence from the Ottomans.
In the same period many countries made great strides towards fully-fledged parliamentary democracy. This was true not only for continental nations, but also for Britain, with its long-standing experience of parliamentary rule. The 19th century saw near-universal male suffrage being introduced, and mass-party politics taking over from the much more limited (and aristocratic) political game which had gone before.
The US Civil War and after
Across the Atlantic the expansion of the United States had led to an increasing divergence between its different regions, especially between a slave-owning plantation society in the south and a more industrial and egalitarian society on the north. The differences between these regions led to a bloody civil war (1861-5). With the North triumphant, slavery was abolished in the USA.
The civil war was followed by unprecedented industrial expansion. The late 19th century saw the rise of huge companies, led by vastly wealthy tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan.
Changing world views
The later 19th century also saw Europe industrialising on an unprecedented scale. Towns and cities ballooned in size, the middle classes became a large and influential part of the social mix, and a vast urban working class emerged.
Revolutionary social change was accompanied by revolutionary changes in thought. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became widely accepted, and encouraged the rise of a more secular outlook. Sigmund Freud and others pioneered a scientific understanding of the mind and the emotions, previously regarded as the preserve of spiritual sphere; Einstein’s theory of relativity completely changed people’s views of the cosmos; and Karl Marx and others analysed society in new ways, leading to calls for the creation of radically new economic and social structures. Put together, these multifarious innovations in thought had an enormous impact on people’s view of the world.
The early 20th century continued the trends of the late 19th century. This was the age when the motor car began to take to the roads, when aeroplanes were first invented, and other innovations - radio, telephones, electric lighting - began to make an impact. Henry Ford’s development of the production line made manufacturing more efficient, boosting the rise of enormous corporations. This also began the wholesale shift towards a global economy based on oil.
Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919) Hartsook, photographer. - Library of Congress
In the military sphere, European and American armies and navies were being affected by industrialisation, with machine guns, barbed wire, dreadnought battleships, torpedoes, mines and submarines making their appearance. These innovations gave Western military forces massive advantages over those of other societies, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Western empires expand to cover most of the surface of the world. Western trade networks, their reach extended by the spread of railways around the globe, disrupted local economies; Christian missionary activity challenged local beliefs and traditions; local elites adopted Western-style education, clothing, architecture. Even lands which were not actually ruled directly from Europe, such as China, Thailand and Iran and South America, were absorbed into the Western-dominated global economy, in such a way that deprived them of much of their political independence as well. The only country to successfully enter the Western world on its own terms was Japan - and indeed was soon carving out an empire of its own.
Britain ended up with the largest of these Western empires, and London was, by the end of the 19th century, the de facto financial capital of the world. This laid the foundations for the dominance of English as the lingua franca of the world.
World War One and after
During the early 20th century, however, rivalries between the European powers became increasingly intense. The nationalist movements on the continent had also not been resolved. These issues, plus imperial jostling as countries such as Germany and Italy tried to elbow their way into the group of imperialist powers, led to the outbreak of the World War One.
This horrific conflict mainly took place on European soil and ended in over 10 million deaths. It dealt a huge blow to the economic ability of the European powers to sustain their overseas empires. It also changed Western culture for ever. Previous modes of culture, now associated with the lead up to the terrible carnage of the First World War, were discredited, and in their place new cultural expressions arose. The early post-war years saw new fashions such as the flappers sweep European city life. Jazz became wildly popular. Modern art and architecture, based on completely new forms and ideas, replaced old styles which stretched in an unbroken tradition back to the Renaissance and before. At the same time radios, cars and the cinema widened people’s horizons, and the old parochial outlook of previous times began to weaken. In many countries, equality between the sexes received a major step up when women gained the vote for the first time.
World War Two
The “Roaring Twenties” were a time of economic boom, but underneath all this, World War One had left the world economy in a very fragile state, with many European countries deeply in debt and reliant on American loans to maintain their standard of living.
The boomtimes of the 1920s came to an end all too soon. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in a period of economic depression around the world. Banks were broken, factories closed, millions of workers were throw out of work, middle classes families lost their savings. In Europe, this led directly to the rise of fascism, notably the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany. This in turn led in a straight line to the outbreak of World War Two.
This was a far larger war than World War One had been, and involved a much greater proportion of the world’s surface. As well as Europe, large parts of China and the Pacific became theatres of war.
The Cold War years
The European nations ended the war ruined and bankrupt. The post-war years saw their great empires rapidly dismantled. The United States and Russia, the main victors of the Second World war, were the new superpowers, and these soon their leadership of two rival blocks of nations covering most of the globe: the USA and its allies, championed free market capitalism and (at least in theory) democracy, while Russia and its satellites enforced state-controlled economies (communism).
The rivalry between the superpowers was soon given a sharper edge by the ability of both sides to deploy nuclear weapons in their arsenals, and for 40 years international politics was dominated by the Cold War. It spread communist regimes in central Europe, China, Cuba, South East Asia and Africa. It turned hot in some major episodes, most notably the Korean War (1950-3) and the Vietnam War (1963-75). It encouraged numerous localised but very destructive conflicts in Asia and Africa, and undermined many newly independent nations’ abilities to advance socially and economically along balanced and healthy lines. It spread a pervasive fear of sudden annihilation around the entire world.
The Cold War years also, paradoxically, saw huge economic advance, especially for Western nations. The United States gave or lent money on a vast scale (the Marshall Plan) to get European countries, plus Japan, back on their feet after the Second World War, so as to staunch the spread of communism. The standard of living rose dramatically in these countries, with millions of homes becoming equipped with TVs, fridges, electric cookers and other home appliances.
The Cold War led to great technological innovation, for example with advances in military aviation feeding through to mass air travel and mass tourism. A space race, born of American and Russian efforts to build arsenals of long-range nuclear missiles, ended with the Americans sending a man to the moon. It also led to the placing of numerous satellites in orbit around the world, laying the foundations for dramatic progress in civilian communications, navigation, land surveying and other uses. Military rivalry also resulted in amazing advances in electronics, miniaturisation and computing, laying the foundations for a revolution in automation in the workplace which began to gather pace in the 1980s, as well as the emergence of a whole new entertainments industry.
Cultural and social change
Culturally, the Cold War years built on the jazz age of the inter-war period. Pop music gripped the young, with such figures as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones seen as rebels by the older generation and heroes by the young. In the late 1960s and the 1970s the hippy movement preached a more relaxed attitude to sexual morals, aided by the widespread availability of the pill. With this came a more liberal attitude to homosexuality, and also a greater disrespect for authority and class differences. The use of recreational drugs became more mainstream. Sexual equality gained ground, especially in the work place. Divorce and family breakdown also became more common, and religious belief continued its long-standing decline. Concerns for the environment became much more widespread in the 1970s.
At this time, many European societies were being changed by the migration of millions of people of non-Western origin to their countries. Communities of peoples from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean grew up in many Western cities. These new arrivals were often greeted with suspicion, indeed downright hostility, at first, and it has taken them many years to brome accepted members of their new societies. In some places this tension has never been truly dealt with.
A Global civilization
The Cold War started coming to an end when China embraced economic liberalisation from the mid-1970s, and when it became apparent that the Soviet Union could no longer afford the vast expense of its military rivalry with the West, from the mid-1980s. The entire Soviet system collapsed very suddenly at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. The European Union, which had grown up in western Europe during the Cold War years and was a major exponent of the values of Western free market economics as well as Western democracy, soon expanded to take in former communist countries in central Europe. Indeed, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Western-style democracy spread though out many countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Economic expansion also took hold in many countries, and these years saw a huge drop in poverty around the world. However, new threats were soon emerging. A frightening new disease, AIDS, began killing off millions of people in throughout the world, and especially in poorer nations. Africa was especially hard hit. Concerns about the environment increased when the mainstream scientists began voicing fears that the use of carbon-based fuels was causing potentially catastrophic climate change on a global scale. The search for alternative energy forms based on renewable resources took on a new urgency.
Most frightening of all was the emergence of a radical Islamist movement which espoused terrorism as a weapon to spread Islam. Many Muslims saw the global dominance of what they saw as an aggressively secular Western civilization as an existential threat their religion and way of life, and some saw violence as the only proper response to this. The hostility felt by many Muslims towards the West was sharpened by the latter’s consistent support for Israel in its struggles against Arabs. In 2001 a small group of Islamic militants mounted a spectacular attack on a major landmark in New York, killing three thousand people or more. The outraged American government declared a “War on Terror”, and soon Western forces were involved in heavy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2005 they were still in both places. Further terrorist attacks were taking place on a regular basis, in Madrid, London, Kenya and other countries; and throughout the West a debate was taking place about how to effectively assimilate peoples of non-Western origin into their societies.
Despite these difficulties, as of 2005 the West was still by far the dominant civilization on the planet. It set the terms of global trade, and was the source of most technological innovation, scientific advance and cultural trends.