The example of the American Revolution 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 outbreak of the French Revolution 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.
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 Digby Dalton. Used under Creative 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.
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.
In the military sphere, European and American armies and navies were being affected by industrialization, 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.
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.
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 boom times 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 theaters of war.
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 localized 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.
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 become accepted members of their new societies. In some places this tension has never been truly dealt with.