Modern European History
*Although by the 1500s the Catholic Church no longer had the political
power it once did, it was still a wealthy and influential institution,
but it was increasingly corrupt. Many priests and bishops held
several offices (in order to collect the tithes from all of them) and,
in consequence, could not do a very good job of taking care of most of
them. There were also many controversies over who the correct
pope ought to be, and there were some heretics in the 1300s and 1400s
who had even rejected the pope’s authority outright. Even those
who did not reject the pope’s authority over the church did resent the
use of Latin in mass, which they said kept the common people from
understanding their religion.
*The 1500s also saw an increase in the sale of indulgences, or the
purchase of forgiveness for sins for yourself or others.
*On 31 October 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95
Theses (statements or arguments) to the church door in
Wittenberg. In these he condemned the sale of indulgences, and
questioned the authority of the pope and other church practises.
Eventually he was excommunicated, but the recently invented printing
press allowed his followers to spread his ideal across Europe.
This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
*Luther’s followers became Lutherans; John Calvin left France for
Switzerland, and began what is now the Presbyterian Church. In
1534 King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic
Church, but many of its practises stayed the same. In the end,
most of Northern Europe became Protestant, most of Southern Europe
remained Catholic, Eastern Europe had some Catholic nations (like
Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary) and some Orthodox nations (like Russia
and Romania), and Southeastern Europe was increasingly dominated by the
*The 16th and 17th centuries saw numerous wars over religion.
*France was split in the 1500s between the Catholics and a group of
Protestants called the Huguenots. Although the government tried
to offer religious toleration, many of the nobles would not stand for
it, and in 1562, a Catholic lord attacked a Huguenot town and massacred
its people. The French Wars of Religion lasted, off and on, until
1598, when King Henri IV (who had recently converted from Protestantism
to Catholicism) issued the Edict of Nantes, offering religious
toleration, or at least a sort of truce, to the Huguenots.
*The Protestants and Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire had also made
war on one another in the early 1500s, but this was ended in 1555 by
the Peace of Augsburg, which allowed each local lord (and Germany had
hundreds of these) to decide whether his lands would be Lutheran or
Catholic (thus leaving out the Calvinists).
*The Holy Roman Emperors who followed tried religious toleration, in
order to avoid a religious war like those in France. This did not
prevent some violence in the Empire, but nothing serious happened until
*The year before, Ferdinand of Styria had been chosen to be the next
King of Bohemia, but he was an extremist Catholic, and most Bohemians
were Protestants. In 1618 Ferdinand sent to representatives to
Prague to deal with his new subjects, and they were ritually thrown out
a window in the Defenestration of Prague. Soon Bohemia and the
areas around it were in revolt against their Catholic lords. In
1619 the old Emperor died, and Ferdinand became the Holy Roman Emperor,
despite the efforts of many to have Frederick, Elector Palatine, chosen
instead, or at least made King of Bohemia. This angered many
Protestants (in part because Ferdinand II used his new powers to try to
crush the Bohemian Revolt).
*A series of wars followed, in part for religious dominance, and in
part because the various lords in Germany and the various nations
around it wanted to gain control of more land. The Holy Roman
Empire’s various states, Sweden, Spain, France, Denmark, and other
powers all fought over Germany, and mostly within its borders, so that
by 1648, after a Thirty Years’ War, most of Germany was devastated,
with 15-20% of the population (or possibly 30% or more) killed by
warfare and disease.
*Germany was mostly destroyed in the War, and Spain lost part of the
Netherlands (the part it kept became Belgium) and Portugal (which it
had taken over for about 100 years). The War ended with the Peace
of Westphalia, which did a number of things. Partly it defined
the borders of many states which had either changed or been previously
unclear. It also defined a citizen or subject’s loyalty as
primarily to his own government, not to people with similar religious
or cultural backgrounds. The war also (almost) brought an end to
religious warfare within Europe, and saw the beginning of the decline
of the use of mercenary soldiers in Europe.
*There was one other major religious war in Europe in the late 1600s,
and that was the defence of Christian Europe against the Ottoman
Empire, which had not stopped at Constantinople, but had slowly
continued to advance into South-eastern Europe.
*By 1683, the Ottoman Turks had gotten as far as Vienna, the capital of
Austria, and seat of the Habsburg family. To defend Vienna, Pope
Innocent XI called for the formation of a Holy League to fight
them. It was formed of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, the
Republic of Venice, Poland, and later Russia. Under the command
of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, they Holy League defeated the
Turks outside Vienna, and slowly began to push them out of Europe, a
process that would take until 1913 (and, some say, still is not
complete). This has left a Balkan Peninsula with many Catholic,
Orthodox, and Moslem inhabitants, many of whom remain deeply resentful
over wrongs done them centuries before—and about which they are still
willing to fight.
*In the 1600s, most of Europe began to see the rise of much more
powerful monarchies, and kings took more and more power from their
nobles and from the already weakened church. Kings who ruled
absolutely were called absolute monarchs, and Louis XIV of France was a
great example—his control was so great that his motto could be ‘l’etat,
c’est moi.’ Absolutism was also practised in Sweden, Spain,
Russia, Austria (although not all of the Empire), and was attempted in
*However, when Charles I tried to take too much power for himself,
Parliament rose against him in the English Civil War (1642-1651), and
he was eventually captured and executed in 1649. England was
ruled first by Parliament, then by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, then
briefly by his son Richard, who turned the kingdom back over to Charles
II. Charles II died without an heir, so his brother, James II
(formerly Duke of York), became King, but he too tried to take too much
power, and he was also a Catholic, which was unacceptable in Protestant
England, so Parliament invited James’ sister and her husband (and
cousin) William of Orange (already Stadtholder of the Netherlands), and
in 1688, in the Glorious Revolution, they recaptured all of Great
Britain, but on the condition that they agree to the Declaration (or
Bill) of Rights in 1689, which was not exactly a bill of rights, but
more a document explaining the relationship between the King and
Parliament. Over the 1600s, Britain developed a much less
authoritarian and a more democratic government than almost any other in
*Other parts of Europe did not experience Absolutism. The Holy
Roman Empire, of course, experienced increased fragmentation, and the
Emperor’s power, always weak, grew weaker and weaker outside the areas
of his family lands. Poland-Lithuania created a government with
an elected king, but with a parliament of nobles so powerful that any
one lord could veto any act of government. Eventually this made
Poland so weak that between 1772 and 1795, Poland was partitioned on
three occasions, giving all its land to Prussia, Russia, and Austria;
in 1795, Poland ceased to exist.
*The 1700s were an age of continental wars and eventually
revolutions. Between 1775 and 1783, Britain tried to prevent a
revolution in its American colonies, without much luck. France
helped the colonies, not because it loved liberty, but instead to hurt
Great Britain. However, the ideas of independence filtered back
*France was famous for the power and decadence of its monarchy.
Louis XIV might no longer be the state, but the state still served his
great-great-great-grandson, Louis XVI, whose predecessors had spent
France into deep debt. The Royal Palace at Versailles (which,
admittedly, housed the entire court and much of the government
apparatus) cost between 6% and 25% of the entire income of the French
Government to maintain-and was so admired throughout Europe (and the
world) that many other monarchs copied it, or tried to. Louis XVI
was also deeply conservative, and refused many reforms that might have
kept France financially sound or politically stable.
*In 1789, the French Government needed new taxes, but every attempt to
create them was opposed by the powerful people of the country.
They demanded that the Estates-General meet to agree to new taxes,
something that had not happened since 1614. The Estates-General
represented the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (Nobility), and
Third Estate (everybody else). Each Estate got one vote.
The Third Estate (and a few disaffected members of the other two) got
fed up with being ignored, and moved to form their own assembly.
This National Assembly passed a document called the Rights of Man, and
ultimately tried to set up a constitutional monarchy, sort of like that
*The King went along with this at first, but eventually tried to flee
the country, as violence against the nobility increased. There
was also evidence that he had tried to assist nobles who had fled in a
civil war or coup against his own government. He (and later his
wife) was charged with treason, stripped of his title, and beheaded
with the new killing machine, the Guillotine, in 1793. By that
time, France had been declared a republic (in 1792), and nobility
across the country were executed for the crime of being rich and
powerful. There were also attacks against the church (which had
also been rich and powerful, and which had been seen as supporting the
king and the nobles), and even statues of saints within churches were
beheaded. They even re-created the calendar (with ten-day weeks
and new names for the months) and changed the official way to count
*Eventually the wave of beheadings, known as the Reign Terror, would
take up many common people, too, and probably killed between 18,000 and
40,000 people in 1793-1794 (including 1,300 in July 1794).
*The nations around France were almost all ruled by Kings, and were not
comfortable with the notion of executing them. The French
Republic ended up at war with most of the nations around them.
However, France won many of these wars, as they went to fight for
Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. However, as the Republic’s
internal politics grew more and more chaotic, a strong leader arose who
eventually crowned himself emperor in 1804: Napoleon Bonaparte.
*Napoleon was one of the greatest generals in history, and between the
years 1799 & 1815 he conquered (and then lost) most of Europe (but
never Britain), either ruling it outright, setting his brothers and
other relatives up as kings in his place, or bullying the existing
rulers into serving him—sometimes rewarding them by promoting them
(many of Germany’s old counts and dukes ended up calling themselves
kings after Napoleon was done).
*Napoleon took the metric system with him throughout Europe, and
introduced the Code Napoleon, a system of laws in which each crime had
a penalty set by statute—it was not based on tradition and precedent,
as many other legal systems had been (and as most of America and
Britain’s still are). This streamlined the legal systems of much
*Napoleon also streamlined Europe by dissolving the Holy Roman Empire
in 1806, after defeating the Emperor in battle. However, the
Hapsburgs remained as emperors of Austria until 1918.
*In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and was defeated by the size of the
place, the severity of the winter, and the Russian policy of scorched
earth. He was forced to retreat in December 1812, having lost 98%
of his army.
*In 1814, with almost all of Europe allied against him, Napoleon was
forced to surrender. He was exiled to the Island of Elba, but
returned in 1815, and the French people rose up to support him.
All Europe rose against him again, and he was defeated for the last
time at Waterloo, then exiled to St. Helena.
*After Napoleon’s defeat, the leaders of Europe met in the Congress of
Vienna to re-draw the borders of Europe, make sure the old nobility was
put back in charge, and keep everyone acting together, in a ‘Concert of
Europe.’ Among other things, this reduced the number of German
states in the old Holy Roman Empire from several hundred to
thirty-five, with Austria, Bavaria, and Prussia being the main
ones. France became a kingdom again (under Louis XVIII), and
would eventually see a total of two or three kingdoms, two empires, and
at least five republics.
*The nineteenth century was a period of tremendous nationalism—indeed,
nationalism had fuelled the French Revolution as well, but it also
inspired those who fought against French occupation. This was
particularly the case in French-occupied Germany.
*In Germany, more and more people began to identify themselves as part
of a German nation, with a common language, common customs, and a
common identity. The Brothers Grimm had a role in this, as they
were German nationalists. Although famous for collecting stories
from around Germany (to preserve and promote German culture) they also
studied the German language in an attempt to promote it as a vehicle
for national expression.
*Eventually a notion of Germany as a country of German-speaking peoples
became more and more concrete, although its boundaries (as described in
‘Deutschland über Alles’) were not what they are today.
However, Germany was split between the two powerful states of Prussia
and Austria, and states willing to follow them.
*In 1848 (the Springtime of Nations), a wave of nationalism spread
across Europe, along with efforts as democratisation, as
revolutionaries in many countries tried to either create republics, or
at least constitutional monarchies. A convention in Frankfurt
offered to make the King of Prussia the Emperor of Germany, but he
refused, saying he would not take a crown rolled to him from the gutter.
*Eventually most of the revolutions were put down (although many kings
made minor concessions to placate or distract the revolutionaries), and
many of those involved (especially in Germany) fled to the United
*Later, though, the rulers of Prussia would use this nationalism for
their own ends. The Chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck,
famously said "the great questions of the day will not be decided by
speeches and the resolutions of majorities — that was the great mistake
from 1848 to 1849 — but by iron and blood." Under Bismarck (and
King Wilhelm I), Prussia engaged in three wars in 1864 (against
Denmark), 1866 (against Austria), and 1870-71 (against France, to
regain Alsace-Lorraine, taken from the Holy Roman Empire by Louis
XIV). In the process, Prussia either conquered the rest of
Germany or convinced it to ally with Prussia, and, in 1871, to unify
under Wilhelm I, now Kaiser of the Germans (all except
*Austria (despite being German) was left out of Germany, but that was
all right—they wanted nothing to do with nationalism, because they
controlled eleven different nationalities in their empire, and did not
want any of them getting any ideas. Their only concession was to
raise Hungary to equal status within the Empire, and change the name to
Austria-Hungary—that let the two largest ethnic groups work together to
keep the rest down.
*Italy was also not a unified state until the late 19th century. Much
of it was made up of republics or small kingdoms, and much of it was
part of the Papal States—which were not always governed kindly or
*Napoleon had made all of Italy a republic, and later a kingdom, but it
was divided again under the Congress of Vienna. However, many
Italians wanted their own country, and between 1820 and 1870 a series
of revolutions overthrew various local lords, and eventually united
Italy (except San Marino) under the rulership of Victor Emmanuel II,
already the King of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia, three large regions
*The Pope claimed the right to rule Rome (and most of Italy), and
claimed to be a prisoner in the Vatican. Italy and the Pope did
not fully recognise the other’s existence until 1929, when the Pope
admitted that the King of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) was the ruler of
most of the country, while Italy conceded that the Vatican was
independent of their control.
*During the mid to late 1800s, Europe conquered the rest of the world
(which is part of the reason they did not all fight each other between
1815 and 1914). Britain and France got the most colonies
overseas, and became incredibly wealthy doing so, as they could extract
raw materials and cheap labour from them, and use them as captive
markets for their own finished products. They also (at least in
their eyes) brought civilisation to the world.
*Other countries wanted colonies too, and there was debate over exactly
where colonial borders lay, particularly in Africa, which had never
been properly explored. To solve this, the leaders of Europe met
in the Berlin Conference in 1884-85. There they divided up almost
all of Africa, drawing borders to suit the colonial powers, without
much attention being paid to the tribes or nations already in existence
there. The only nations left alone were the Boer states of South
Africa (although the British would later conquer them) and the Kingdom
of Ethiopia. The Congo was left as the private property of King
Leopold II of Belgium.
*Germany and Italy did not get much (they were still too new and weak),
and a generation later, they would yearn for a ‘place in the sun.’