8 Major Events in European History

Europe has long been a seed of political, cultural, and economic influence. The power of its countries has stretched far beyond the continent, touching every corner of the Earth. Europe is known not only for its revolutions and wars but also for its sociocultural changes, including the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and colonialism. The effects of these changes can still be seen in the world today.

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The Renaissance

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel. Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

The Renaissance was a cultural and socio-political movement of the 15th and 16th centuries. It stressed the rediscovery of texts and ideas from classical antiquity.

This movement actually began over the course of a few centuries, occurring as the class and political structures of medieval Europe began to break down. The Renaissance got its start in Italy but soon encompassed all of Europe. This was the time of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. It saw revolutions in thinking, science, and art, as well as world exploration. The Renaissance was a cultural rebirth that touched all of Europe.

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Colonialism and Imperialism

Officials In India
British colonialism in India circa 1907. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Europeans have conquered, settled, and ruled a huge proportion of the Earth’s land mass. The effects of these overseas empires are still felt today.

Historians generally agree that Europe's colonial expansion happened in several phases. The 15th century saw the first settlements in the Americas and this extended into the 19th century. At the same time, the English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and other European countries explored and colonized Africa, India, Asia, and the continent that would become Australia.

These empires were more than governing bodies over foreign lands. The impact also spread to religion and culture, leaving a touch of European influence throughout the world.

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The Reformation

A statue of 16th-century theologian Martin Luther
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The Reformation was a split in the Latin Christian church during the 16th century. It introduced Protestantism to the world and created a major division which lasts to this day.

It all began in Germany in 1517 with the ideals of Martin Luther. His preaching appealed to a populace who were unhappy with the Catholic Church's overreach. It was not long before the Reformation swept through Europe. 

The Protestant Reformation was both a spiritual and political revolution that led to a number of reform churches. It helped shape modern government and religious institutions and how those two interact.

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The Enlightenment

The philosopher Voltaire And King
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The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The major thinkers of the Enlightenment stressed the value of reason over blind faith and superstition.

This movement was spearheaded over the years by a group of educated writers and thinkers. The philosophies of men like Hobbes, Locke, and Voltaire led to new ways of thinking about society, government, and education that would forever change the world. Likewise, the work of Newton reshaped "natural philosophy." Many of these men were persecuted for their new ways of thinking. Their influence, though, is undeniable.

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The French Revolution

The Tennis Court Oath (Jeu de paume Oath), 20th June 1789
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The French Revolution, which began in 1789, affected every aspect of France and much of Europe. Quite often, it is called the start of the modern era. The revolution began with a financial crisis and a monarchy that had overtaxed and overburdened its people. The initial revolt was just the beginning of the chaos that would sweep France and challenge every tradition and custom of the government.

In the end, the French Revolution was not without its consequences. Chief among them was the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. He would throw all of Europe into war and, in the process, redefine the continent forever.

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The Industrial Revolution

Industrial landscape, England
Industrial landscape, England. Leemage/Contributor/Getty Images

The second half of the 18th century saw scientific and technological changes that would radically change the world. The first "industrial revolution" began around the 1760s and ended sometime in the 1840s. During this time, mechanization and factories altered the nature of economics and society. In addition, urbanization and industrialization reshaped both the physical and mental landscape.

This was the age when coal and iron took over industries and began to modernize production systems. It also witnessed the introduction of steam power that revolutionized transportation. This led to a great population shift and growth as the world had never seen.

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The Russian Revolutions

Striking Putilov workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. Artist: Anon
Striking Putilov workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. Artist: Anon. Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 1917, two revolutions convulsed Russia. The first led to civil war and the overthrow of the Tsars. This was near the end of World War I and ended in the second revolution and the creation of a communist government.

By October of that year, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had taken over the country. This introduction of Communism in such a great world power helped transform world politics.

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Interwar Germany

Adolf Hitler
The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

Imperial Germany collapsed at the end of World War I. After this, Germany experienced a tumultuous time which climaxed with the rise of Nazism and World War II.

The Weimar Republic held control of the German Republic after the first war. It was through this unique government structure—which lasted only 15 years—that the Nazi Party rose.

Led by Adolf Hitler, Germany would be faced with its biggest challenges, politically, socially, and morally. The devastation caused by Hitler and his counterparts in World War II would permanently scar Europe and the entire world.