8 Major Events in European History

How Europe Changed the World Over the Centuries

European history is marked with many major events that have shaped the course of the modern world. The influence and power of countries stretched far beyond the continent, touching every corner of the Earth.

Not only is Europe known for its political revolutions and wars, it also had a number of socio-cultural changes that are worthy of note. The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and colonialism each brought a new idealism whose influences remain in place today.

To fully understand the impact, let's explore these monumental events that changed the course of human history in Europe.

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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 thought from classical antiquity.

This movement actually began over the course of a few centuries. It occurred as the class and political structure 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. Truly, 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.

It is accepted that Europe's colonial expansion happened in three 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 more countries explored and colonized Africa, India, Asia and what 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
A statue of 16th-century theologian Martin Luther. Sean Gallup/Staff/Getty Images

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 it 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 religion and how those two bodies interact.

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The Enlightenment

Denis Diderot, Editor of the Encyclopédie
Denis Diderot, Editor of the Encyclopédie. Wikimedia Commons

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. During it, reason and criticism were stressed 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. Yet, their influence can never be discounted.

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The French Revolution

Sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution affected every aspect of France and much of Europe. Quite often, it is called the start of the modern era.

It began with a financial crisis and a monarchy that overtaxed and overburdened its people. The initial revolt was just a beginning to 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. Cheif 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 not seen to date.

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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, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had taken over the country. This introduction of Communism in such a great world power would help transform the world and remains in evidence today.

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Interwar Germany

Erich Ludendorff, cica 1930
Erich Ludendorff, cica 1930. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Imperial Germany collapsed at the end of World War I. After this, Germany experienced a tumultuous time which climaxed with the Nazis 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, as it turns out, morally. The devastation caused by Hitler and his counterparts in World War II would forever scar Europe and the entire world.