Europe History

By | March 8, 2021

The history of Europe is the history of the continent of Europe, the western extremity of the Eurasian landmass. When talking about the history of Europe, one must distinguish between the history of the concept of Europe and the history of the areas covered by the term. Europe as a purely geographical term derives from ancient Greeks. Europe as a separate cultural area has its origins in the Middle Ages.

Concept History

While the other parts of the world are relatively clearly separated from each other, the border between Europe and Asia, the second and geographically clearly larger part of Eurasia, is unclear. This unclear divide, as well as close economic and cultural ties to North Africa and later to America, have characterized the history of European self-awareness. The very concept of Europe has been shaped by this self-awareness.

Origin of Europe

The name Europe is of Greek origin (Εὐρώπη), Eurys (εὐρύς) means “broad”, and ops (ὤψ) “face”. Originally, the term Europe was only used for what is now the European part of Turkey (Thrake) and surrounding areas south of the mountainous areas towards present-day Bulgaria. A smaller part of this area was the Roman province of Europe from the 300s to the mid-600s.

According to Countryaah, Europe was the daughter of Agenor, the Phoenician king of Tire in present-day Lebanon. She was charmed by Zeus, disguised as a white ox. The god took her across the ocean to the continent that received her name and seduced her there. The famous Greek historian Herodotus claimed that it was the Cretans who kidnapped Europe, in a boat decked out like a bull. The Trojans took revenge, on behalf of Asia, by kidnapping Helena, the wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaos, and thus started the Trojan War.

However, the story itself, as well as Herodot’s comments on it, point out that the term Europe had already been given two ingredients that have characterized it since: First, the concept was vaguely geographical. Europe was transported to the island of Crete, not to the mainland area that first got her name. Second, Herodotus and other ancient Greek and Roman writers used the legend of Europe as an explanation of the cultural differences between Europeans and Asians: Romans and Greeks were civilized, free and rational, Persians and other Asians were civilized, emotional and despotic of temper. Both the vague geographical definition of Europe and the cultural definition of Europe based on how to differ from Asia have characterized European self-understanding to this day.

Despite these historical similarities, there are major differences between the use of Europe as a term now compared to ancient times. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was only themselves, not Europeans in general, who were free, rational and civilized. Other peoples north of the Mediterranean were barbarians, like the peoples of Africa and Asia.

For both Greeks and Romans, the distinction between Europe and Asia was less important than the distinction between themselves and other peoples. Europe was one of the three major continents in their world, and there were Greeks and Romans living in all three. Libya, the name of the Greeks in Africa, was the area between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Nile along the southern Mediterranean coast. Asia lay between the Nile and the Bosphorus in the east. Europe was between Bosphorus and Gibraltar in the north. To the north of the Black Sea, Europe and Asia signs of legends river Phasis. But unlike other major powers in the Mediterranean, such as Persians, Egyptians and Phoenicians, the Greeks and Romans considered themselves European. This self-understanding has characterized European self-understanding in the millennia that followed. Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers read ancient writers and were inspired by Greek and Roman self-understanding. Their virtues became the virtues of Europe.

Country Proportion of women working (percent) Proportion of men working (percent)
Albania 47.2 (2018) 64.9 (2018)
Armenia 49.6 (2018) 69.9 (2018)
Azerbaijan 63.1 (2018) 69.7 (2018)
Belgium 47.9 (2018) 58.9 (2018)
Bosnia and Herzegovina 35.6 (2018) 58.6 (2018)
Bulgaria 49.5 (2018) 61.6 (2018)
Cyprus 57.2 (2018) 67.2 (2018)
Denmark 58.0 (2018) 65.9 (2018)
Estonia 57.0 (2018) 70.9 (2018)
Finland 55.0 (2018) 62.2 (2018)
France 50.3 (2018) 60.0 (2018)
Georgia 57.8 (2018) 78.7 (2018)
Greece 45.3 (2018) 60.7 (2018)
Ireland 55.1 (2018) 68.1 (2018)
Iceland 72.1 (2018) 80.6 (2018)
Italy 40.0 (2018) 58.4 (2018)
Croatia 45.7 (2018) 58.2 (2018)
Latvia 55.4 (2018) 67.9 (2018)
Lithuania 56.4 (2018) 66.7 (2018)
Luxembourg 53.5 (2018) 62.7 (2018)
Northern Macedonia
Malta 43.3 (2018) 66.2 (2018)
Moldova 38.9 (2018) 45.6 (2018)
Montenegro 43.6 (2018) 58.1 (2018)
Netherlands 58.0 (2018) 68.9 (2018)
Norway 60.2 (2018) 66.7 (2018)
Poland 48.9 (2018) 65.5 (2018)
Portugal 53.9 (2018) 64.2 (2018)
Romania 45.6 (2018) 64.2 (2018)
Russia 54.9 (2018) 70.5 (2018)
San Marino
Switzerland 62.6 (2018) 74.1 (2018)
Serbia 46.8 (2018) 62.1 (2018)
Slovakia 52.7 (2018) 67.3 (2018)
Slovenia 53.3 (2018) 62.7 (2018)
Spain 51.7 (2018) 63.4 (2018)
UK 57.1 (2018) 67.8 (2018)
Sweden 61.1 (2018) 67.6 (2018)
Czech Republic 52.4 (2018) 68.4 (2018)
Turkey 33.5 (2018) 72.6 (2018)
Germany 55.2 (2018) 66.2 (2018)
Ukraine 46.7 (2018) 62.8 (2018)
Hungary 48.3 (2018) 65.0 (2018)
Vatican City State
Belarus 58.1 (2018) 70.3 (2018)
Austria 54.8 (2018) 65.9 (2018)

The biggest city in Europe is Moscow, the capital city of Russia. The second largest city is Paris, the capital of France.

The medieval Christianity

The first specifically European self-understanding began to emerge after the period of migration and the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, it was the Islamic Caliphate’s growth and takeover of most of the former Roman territories in Asia and Africa that was the trigger for the formation of a separate European identity.

This self-understanding grew into a sharply reduced cultural sphere. The ancient Greco-Roman world, which had stretched from the Rhine and northern England in the northwest to Egypt and Syria in the southeast, had been split into three. The ancient Roman Empire was reduced to a strong pressure by Byzantium in the east. In the west, the Roman Empire was divided into unstable feudal states, with the pope in Rome as nominally religious head. In the former Roman and Persian territories of North Africa and Asia, the economic, cultural and military leading power prevailed; the Islamic Caliphate.

The division of the Roman sphere shifted the balance of power in the earlier parts of the ancient Roman Empire. The Mediterranean ceased to be the core of a world empire and became a permanent frontier area, characterized by pirate activity and constant warfare. Both Byzantine and Western European feudal states were put under intense pressure by the caliphate its first century. Against Byzant, however, the Islamic Caliphate never managed to cross the Bosphorus Strait and take the capital Constantinople. In the many wars that followed, the two powers fought back and forth in Asia Minor and the surrounding areas. In the west, the caliphate first invaded the entire coast of North Africa, and then Malta, Sicily and much of it The Iberian Peninsula. They fought their way past the Pyrenees and into what is now southern France before being beaten in 732 by Tours by Karl Martell, king of the Franks. After this, the borders between the Caliphate and Western European states also stabilized.

The split led to an incipient European identity. It followed Christian missionaries north into Northern Europe and the Russian steppes: the idea of Christianity. Western Europe, the areas under the Pope’s authority, was the core of Christianity. The Orthodox in the East were part of Christianity, but not fully.

Charles I the Great, who gathered large parts of Western Europe under his control, was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in the year 800. His kingdom, which was quickly disintegrated after his death, stood as a symbol of European fellowship in posterity.

Enlightenment Europe

Europe as the name of a distinct continent with distinctive cultural features emerged after the Middle Ages. This cultural understanding combined many of the features of medieval Christianity with the geographical term Europe from antiquity.

The religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation made it difficult to maintain as much medieval Christianity as a neutral cultural common identification. Philosophy and science also began to free themselves from the religious ties they had in the Middle Ages, when the pope church was the intellectual center in Europe.

With increasing power and prosperity, and a secularizing intelligentsia, a new understanding of Europe began to emerge: Europe was the civilized part of the world, while the rest of the world consisted of barbarians or indigenous people. The thinkers of the Enlightenment took the concept of civilization to the ancient Greeks and Romans and applied it to Christianity.

For the Scandinavian countries, this shift meant a change in status. Along with Russia, the Scandinavian countries had, since ancient times, been regarded as the barbaric north. Undoubtedly, they were enthusiastic members of Christianity after they became Christian, but were not seen as particularly civilized.

However, with the Enlightenment, the countries of Northern Europe were taken into the heat as a natural part of the European cultural community. Russia, on the other hand, was still seen as only partially European, and therefore only partially civilized. Where did the borders between Europe and Asia really go, and was not the isolated and brutal Russian tsarism more like Asian despotism than enlightened European rule? This blurred border area was therefore separated as a separate cultural-geographical sphere; Eastern Europe.

Russia’s special status in the European cultural sphere was in part equal to the status of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans controlled large parts of the Balkans until the end of the 19th century, but were not considered part of the European cultural sphere. However, the people they ruled in the Balkans were undoubtedly European, which in turn led to an unclear boundary between the cultural European and non-European in this area. This cultural understanding of the Balkans as only partially European, has, like Russia’s special position, survived to this day.

Geographical extent

Although the concept of Europe of the Enlightenment claimed to unify Europe as a geographical and cultural concept, there has rarely been complete overlap between the two. Europe defined as a geographical area has generally covered a larger area than Europe as a cultural sphere.

Geographically, the definition of Europe has changed a great deal since antiquity, partly because of changed geographical knowledge and migrations. The main battle has largely been about where to draw the northeastern border. The borders from the Bosphorus Strait to Gibraltar and up to the Arctic Ocean were clear, but the Russian steppes did not represent an equally clear geographical dividing line in the northeast.

In ancient times it was simply assumed that it was a river or sea north of the Black Sea that separated the continents. As geographical knowledge increased, cartographers began to focus on the river Don as a dividing line, but until the Enlightenment, they did not know much about the areas the river ran from and to what extent it constituted a real distinction between Europe and Asia.

There is still no widely accepted definition of Europe’s eastern border, but it has built up a majority over the last hundred years for a definition of Europe’s eastern border that extends from the Ural Mountains, along the Ural River, across the Caspian Sea, overland to the watershed. The Caucasus Mountains, over the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus.

Political history

Today, Europe stands as a concept between the purely geographical definition on the one hand and competing ideas for a European community on the other. Since medieval Christianity, these community ideas can be briefly defined as, on the one hand, an attempt to unify Europe and, on the other, to create a European community of equal, culturally distinct states. Centralizing forces have also tended to question whether geographically peripheral powers, such as Russia and the United Kingdom, were truly European. Decentralizing forces, on the other hand, have questioned how European these centralizing forces really were.


Europe’s political history dates back to the 16th century with the rivalry between the powerful states of France, Spain, England and the Habsburg monarchy. A number of wars replaced each other at shorter or longer intervals, notably the Italian wars between Karl 5 and Frans 1, the Thirty Years ‘War, the Spanish War of Succession, the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars.

The changing alliances prevented any single power from gaining supremacy. The greatest power on the mainland had the Habsburg monarchy in the 16th century and France in the 17th century under Richelieu and Louis 14. In the 18th century, Peter led the great Russia into European politics, and with Prussia under Frederick 2 another state rose into the ranks among European great powers. From the 16th century, England steadily increased its power. The country pursued a policy of equilibrium without aiming at conquests in Europe. As colonial power, England took the lead from Spain and the Netherlands, becoming the main tool in the spread of the European civilization in foreign continents.

With Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, the dream of a united Europe arose again, but he wanted to realize it as a French supremacy without regard to the principle of nationality.


The Vienna Congress in 1815 stood out as a picture of Europe’s collection after Napoleon was defeated, but in reality it was first and foremost an expression of the will of the victorious great powers. The aim was to maintain the status quo to the greatest extent possible and secure the rulers’ position towards the people. At the beginning of the 19th century we see that the ideals of the French Revolution spread in Europe. A number of liberal movements occurred, and in several countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, the unrestricted monopoly ended and a restricted democracy was introduced.

The liberal currents soon coincided with the national ones, and the requirement for “national grounds” gathering became clearer, including in Italy and Germany. The opposition to monopoly grew and spread in 1830 in France (the July revolution) and Belgium. Soon after, the harmony in Europe was over. Europe was divided into a group of liberal states led by the United Kingdom and another group (Austria, Prussia and Russia) that led a more conservative course.

At this time, radical movements increased. New ideals of liberty emerged, and the theoretical basis for a socialist view of society was formulated by Karl Marx from around 1850. The demands for political equality, voting reforms and labor protection were expressed in the first political party programs, through demonstrations and riots. The revolutionary movement in 1848 began in Sicily in January, and in February it broke loose in France. The effects of the so-called February Revolution were felt throughout Europe.

When this wave was over, the reaction started. Both in Germany, Austria and Italy, absolute government was re-established, and the empire was introduced in France in 1852. In the latter half of the century Europe was divided by wars where the great powers were engaged on both sides (the Crimean War, the war between Austria and Prussia, and the Franco-German War). The battle was for positions that could consolidate the power of the power groups.

In 1882, the triple alliance (Italy, Austria and Germany) came into being under Otto von Bismarck’s strong leadership. Germany was at this time the dominant power on the continent, and the German policy led France and Russia to seek together in the early 1890s. Later, the British, who until then had remained in “splendid isolation”, became more active in European politics again. In 1904, a British-French agreement was signed, and a few years later the triple tent (France, Russia and the United Kingdom) came into being. Thus, a kind of balance of power was restored in Europe.

Two world wars

In the years before the First World War, it was in particular the conditions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans (the Balkan wars) that led to entanglements and wars. The equilibrium in Europe was again upset, especially by Austria’s actions to increase its influence in the Balkans. The explosion came at the end of July 1914, when Austria declared Serbia war, and World War I began. Towards the end of the war, the Russian Empire was abolished during the Russian Revolution (1917), and the Bolsheviks (Communists) took power in what from 1922 was called the Soviet Union.

The Treaty of Versailles tried to establish a new European system after the World War, but the attempt was stranded. New borders were drawn up, and new states were added. The victorious forces in various ways sought to ensure that the Germans would again become some military threat. In particular, France was interested in securing its security; the British were more reserved, and the Americans almost pulled out of European politics. Nevertheless, an agreement was reached on a mutual guarantee system in the Locarno Pact in 1925, an attempt to create greater unity and understanding in Europe. The agreement seemed to usher in a new era after the bitter war.

But the conciliatory atmosphere did not last long. In 1929, Europe was hit hard by the economic world crisis. Political unrest and economic chaos ensued in countries after countries. 1930 gave again a certain financial stability, while the political crisis lasted in fact the World War II broke out in 1939. After the National Socialist seizure of power in Germany in 1933 (dictatorship had already conquered government power in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania and Yugoslavia on this time), increased tension in Europe.

On the one hand, democracies, with France and Britain in the first place, on the other were the totalitarian states of Italy and Germany. Germany’s relations with Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in particular created difficulties. The leaders of the Western powers were insecure and hesitant and secured themselves by the Munich agreement in 1938 for preliminary relaxation by sacrificing Czechoslovakia to Germany.

During the summer of 1939, the crisis became acute. The relationship with Poland was crucial. The Western powers had guaranteed Poland’s integrity, but the guarantee provided little protection after Germany and the Soviet Union (SSSR) reached a non-assault agreement in August 1939. When the German forces invaded Poland on September 1 of that year, Britain and France remained loyal to its obligations and declared Germany war. Thus World War II was underway. During the war, cooperation was established between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, after the Russians themselves were overthrown by their German allies in 1941.


World War II in many ways made a distinction in the history of Europe, and the development after 1945 was characterized for 40 years by an increasingly marked division of Europe, gradually called the Cold War. The attempt to allow wartime cooperation and friendship to continue during the reconstruction period was partially stranded, primarily because of the contradictions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Americans actively went in to maintain friendship with the European Western powers and made a great effort for Europe’s economic recovery and development (Marshall Plan). The contradictions between the Western powers and the Russians were particularly evident in Germany, where an actual division of the country and the establishment of two German states, East Germany (GDR) and West Germany, were established.

The countries in the west sought to solve their economic and political problems within cooperative organizations such as the OEEC (later the OECD) and the Council of Europe, while the countries east of the “Iron Curtain” created their own cooperation bodies such as Kominform and the Economic Coordination Council (Comecon). The differences in governance in the European countries also reflected post-war shared Europe.

The countries of the East (the ” Eastern Bloc “) became peoples’ republics with state- carrying Communist parties. The Western European countries (the ” Western bloc “) became largely parliamentary democracies, although Spain, Portugal and Greece experienced some long periods of dictatorship. Security cooperation also grew on a regional basis, with NATO in the west and the organization of the Warsaw Pact in the east. Only a few states in Europe stood outside these organizations.

In the 1970s, some progress was made towards political relaxation between the two parts of Europe. The relationship between the two German states was normalized and several conferences on European Security and Cooperation (KSSE) were held in the 1970s and 1980s. But the opportunities for relaxation in Europe proved to be related to the climate between the United States and the Soviet Union, and in the early 1980s, among other things, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 and the question of deploying new rockets in Europe led to several setbacks to the relaxation in Europe.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took over as party leader in the Soviet Union, and the reform process that was then initiated in the Soviet Union led to a wave of events that would dramatically change the European map and political reality for all European countries over the course of five years.

Within the Soviet Union, independence was demanded in several republics; farthest away went the Baltic States. The perestroika policy (restructuring) led to a critical focus on the country’s economic and political structures. The Brezhnev doctrine was abandoned; Moscow renounces its “right” to interfere with the internal affairs of the Eastern European countries.

In the aftermath of this, Poland and Hungary started a process towards more democracy and the dissolution of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. This development took a dramatic turn in the fall of 1989, when East Germany (GDR), Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania in a few weeks got rid of the old leaders and introduced reforms. In the following years, these countries (and eventually also Albania) initiated a trend towards market economy and parliamentary democracies.

The GDR turned out to weather faster than most people had expected. Already in the summer of 1990, the West German mark was introduced as currency in the East, and on October 3, the two German states were reunited. The reunion happened after negotiations with the four post- World War II powers (US, USSR, UK and France), who at the same time renounced their authority over Berlin.

The time after 1990

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the German Assembly in 1990 marked the end of the period under the term “post-war”. It was also the end of the Cold War with its dual division of Europe. The Comecon and Warsaw Pact cooperatives were disbanded in 1991. Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev sought to keep the union united. However, the failed coup d’état in August 1991 led to the disintegration tendencies being amplified.

The Baltic Republics gained their independence in September, and in December the Soviet Union was disbanded. In the former Soviet area, ten new countries emerged, including seven Europeans: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova and three countries in Asia’s border region with Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The post-war stable state of conflict between East and West had ended, and the danger of a major war was drastically reduced. But the danger of smaller wars increased, as old national contradictions came to the surface again. In Czechoslovakia, the conflict between Czechs and Slovaks ended with a peaceful division of the country, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, at the turn of the year 1992/1993.

In former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, the national conflicts ended in several years of bloody and bitter civil war, especially in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (see Bosnia War). With the 1995 peace agreements for Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, conditions stabilized somewhat, although a large number of unresolved conflicts still affected the region. Seven countries have emerged in the area of former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia.

The KSSE was transformed into a pan-European organization (OSCE) in 1995, but it was in particular NATO and the European Union (EU) that became the center of cooperation throughout Europe in the 1990s. Both organizations became attractive to the former communist-ruled countries. In 1994, NATO established Partnership for Peace Agreements with a wide range of states in Eastern and Central Europe, and took a leading role in the multinational force that entered Bosnia and Herzegovina following the peace agreement in 1995.

NATO was gradually expanded with most of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, and the organization was given completely different tasks than when the organization was created. In 1999 NATO went to war against Yugoslavia in connection with the Kosovo crisis ; the main purpose was to ensure European stability and security. A completely new command structure was developed, and from 2003 NATO gained an international emergency force as part of the reorganization of the defense organization to meet new threats from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Within the European Union (formerly the European Communities), the tendency of the mid-1980s was towards increasingly integrated cooperation. A new internal market was established from 1 January 1993, where goods, services, persons and capital could “flow freely” between the member countries. The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1991, entered into force in 1993 and laid the foundation for a move towards a political and economic union, including the introduction of the euro as a single currency.

The EEA Agreement, which entered into force in 1994, extended the EU internal market to the EFTA area (except Switzerland). Three of the EFTA countries, Sweden, Finland and Austria became new members of the EU from 1995. The increasing integration into the EU was continued through various treaties in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The single European currency euro was used and in 2002 replaced the old currencies in most member countries. In 2004, the EU was expanded with ten new member states; eight of them belonged to the former Eastern bloc.

The vast majority of European colonies became independent in the 1960s and 1970s, but Europe has maintained a dominant position as a highly industrialized and politically influential area. Nevertheless, Japan and the other newly industrialized countries in East Asia have emerged as strong competitors in the economy and world trade. The US’s reduced military presence in Europe since the 1990s also indicates that Europe’s special position in the world community is changing character.

Europe History