Common section

Introduction

History is much more than names and dates. History is a story of people, real people who really lived. Some of the people in the story are wonderful and others are downright despicable; some make bad decisions and some are brilliant; some change history accidentally and others set out with a great sense of purpose. The story is an interesting mix of cause and effect, of chain reactions and random events. Some events change the world all at once, while other events create a ripple effect. Some events create a frenzy only for the event to be forgotten, while other events seem to linger in people’s minds for all of history.

History in general, and the history of Europe especially, contains themes that turn up over and over again—not only in Europe but in American history and the rest of the world, too. Especially important to the history of Europe are the themes of struggle and resolution, cause and effect, the desire for improvement, and most importantly the desire to control one’s destiny and make one’s own decisions, especially in light of the repeated attempts of absolutists to keep that control out of the people’s hands.

These themes shouldn’t sound foreign to you or to me, because the characters in the story of history were just like you and me. They may have lived in a different era, on a different continent, in a different socio-economic category, or under a different style of government, but in the end people are the same today as they were 600 years ago. Just like you and me, Europeans wanted food to eat, a place to call home, something to believe in, freedom to make their own choices, and security.

In my experience as a teacher and as a writer, I’ve found that people generally aren’t interested in mountains of facts and lists and dates and statistics. People want to know the stories. Therefore, what you won’t find in this book are pages of names and dates and lists to be committed to memory. All the facts in the world won’t help you understand history. What you will find in this book is a big story composed of many smaller, interconnected stories. The history of modern Europe is really just the story of modern Europe.

What You'll Learn in This Book

Part 1: “Climbing Out of the Middle Ages (c.1300-1600)”

If you want to study modern European history and really understand it, you have to begin in medieval Europe. The major events of the Middle Ages in Europe were not so pleasant and life was tough for nearly all medieval Europeans. They constantly dealt with war, disease, and the uncertainty of religious conflict. In many ways, at the low point of the Middle Ages Europeans probably felt like the end of the world was just around the corner.

After the terrible wars and diseases of the Middle Ages, things looked brighter. Europe reconnected with its historical roots, scholarship and art flourished, and humanity achieved glorious new heights in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

The printed word became available everywhere, to everyone. The spread of both new and rediscovered ancient ideas encouraged people to think and express themselves. People began questioning traditions, especially those dealing with religion. Before long, independent thinkers broke away from established religion and approached it from new perspectives, much to the dismay of the established Church. Just like today, people throughout European history had a hard time accepting new ideas. Needless to say, religion will be a major issue for the rest of the story.

Part 2: “Might Makes Right, Right? (c.1450-1750)”

The emphasis on learning made Europeans curious about the world around them. This curiosity led certain Europeans to bravely explore uncharted oceans and mysterious lands in search of fame and fortune—and, of course, to impose their “superior” European ideas on whomever they found. Overseas they found beautiful lands full of untold riches. However, they also found new peoples with different ideas than their own. The courageous and daring explorers who traveled the world for the first time made amazing and remarkable discoveries that forever changed the world, but the clash of cultures in the New World wasn’t pretty.

Back in Europe, ideas about religion grew more and more diverse. Religious and political leaders grew uncomfortable with that diversity and used whatever means necessary to either bring the strays back into the fold or to get rid of them altogether. This lack of tolerance and understanding produced a great deal of violence. Many politicians believed that the way to keep the violence and disagreements in check was to establish total control. The monarchs who successfully did this defined their cultures and single-handedly directed the course of their nations’ history, but the people who lived under them burned for the chance to live without oppression and make their own decisions about government, religion, and more. This, too, will be a major theme in the story.

Part 3: “Revolutions Galore (c.1500-1800)”

Revolutions have come in a wide variety of forms. Some have been military and political revolutions. Some have been intellectual and philosophical revolutions.

Some have been religious revolutions and still others have been technological revolutions. Somehow, though, all successful revolutions share two common characteristics. First, revolutions are a reaction and, second, revolutions cause change.

Humans have always had a desire to improve themselves, the conditions in which they live, and the world around them. Europeans got tired of being told that the current way to do something is the best and only way, and the current body of knowledge is the absolute, unchangeable truth. Industrious Europeans set out to question the answers they had been given and to find new and better ways of doing things.

The results were intellectual revolutions and a technological revolution of sorts. The intellectuals reached heights that equaled or surpassed everyone who had ever come before them. While the intellectual revolutions didn’t have many immediate effects on the average European, the technological revolution in agriculture sure did. As a result of the ingenuity of a few Europeans, millions enjoyed a higher quality of life.

Politically, Europeans looked for better ways of doing things but found themselves held up against the wall by rulers who wouldn’t give them an opportunity to test their new political ideas. In those cases, the Europeans armed themselves and took the opportunity by force. Over and over in the story, people will take what governments are not willing to give if they believe the governments are being unfair and unreasonable.

Part 4: “You Say You Want More Revolution? (c.1776-1900)”

It’s human nature for a person to want what another person has. Europeans were the same way. When they saw the revolutionary successes of one country, they wanted the same freedoms and opportunities. Much to the chagrin of the classes who traditionally held power in Europe, the revolutionary spirit spread through Europe. A driving force behind that revolutionary spirit was a sense of community and belonging called nationalism, which was very similar to patriotism.

Nationalism and the desire for a group of like-minded people with much in common to rule themselves turned into powerful forces. Nationalism toppled regimes, united people scattered over large areas, and inspired progress, unity, and pride. Unfortunately, some Europeans forgot what oppression felt like. A fierce competition developed between the powerful nations to see who could conquer the most land and build up the biggest armies. The tensions created by that competition will come back to bite Europe more than once.

In a truly remarkable chapter of European history, Europeans once again reached incredible new heights by using their minds to overcome problems and challenges. Another incredible technological revolution changed the world forever, again. The products of the technological revolution improved people’s lives, made transportation easier and faster, and provided much needed work. With the new technological revolution, though, came growing pains and unforeseen challenges to overcome. Europeans created wonderful, helpful inventions but they also devised new ways to threaten and harm one another. For the remainder of the story, Europeans will struggle to keep that technology in check and out of the hands of those who will use the technology against other humans.

Part 5: “Big Wars and Big Bangs (Twentieth Century)”

The final chapter of the story features the age-old struggle between good and evil. The good news is that the good guys win over and over, but at a high price each time. After Europeans have had centuries to develop their own ideas, their own national identities, their own religious beliefs, and their own political preferences, disagreements were bound to arise. In the final chapter all the themes, all the major issues, and all the trends play out. The result is a tumultuous struggle for the truth, for freedom, for self-determination, for tolerance, and for a better way of life.

For all the struggle and hardship in the story of modern Europe there is even more beauty and creation and achievement. In spite of the conflict, Europe produced much of the world’s finest literature, art, music, architecture, philosophical ideas, ideas about government, and ideas about religion. Over and over the human spirit triumphs over those who try to suppress it. If you want to study modern European history and really understand it, start in the Middle Ages, and read the history like a story.

Appendix A: “Timeline of Major Events in European History”

If you’re like me, a visual learner, then a timeline is a great way to organize a list of events. A timeline is great not necessarily because the dates and events are listed side by side, though that is helpful. A timeline is great for historical events because a timeline makes it easy to follow chains of events and easy to see the cause-and-effect relationship between events.

Sidebars

Sidebars provide additional information and insight, and they often expand upon, or clarify, the main text. To make it easier to locate (or identify) different kinds of information, there are three categories of sidebars:

Would You Believe?

Figures and factoids to enhance your understanding of events.

As a Matter of Fact

Longer sidebars that give you further background on historical events or people.

Continental Quotes

The wit and wisdom of figures, in their own historical words.

Define Your Terms

Definitions of difficult words and elusive concepts.

Acknowledgments

This project would not have been possible without the significant contributions of some very important people. Thanks first and foremost to my family for allowing me the time to work. Thanks to Jackie Sach for helping me land the project. Thanks to Randy Ladenheim-Gil for getting this project off on the right foot. Many, many thanks to Phil Kitchel, without whom this book would look nothing like it does now, for his tireless work and invaluable input on the manuscript.

Special Thanks to the Technical Reviewer

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to European History was reviewed by an expert who doublechecked the accuracy of what you’ll learn here, to help us ensure that this book gives you everything you need to know. Special thanks are extended to Dave White.

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