European History: Napoleon to the Cold War

European History: Napoleon to the Cold War
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European history is filled with change, revolution and violence. Napoleon was born 1769. In the two hundred year time period between Napoleon’s wars and the cold war Europe witnessed it’s most devastating wars with millions of casualties and untold suffering. Political change, both violent and peaceful, was also a constant during this era; civil rights expanded, empires collapsed and new ideologies such as communism and fascism took hold. More than any other period in history, Europe also witnesses dramatic economic change and development as trains, steam power, electricity and other technologies were invented and perfected.

Napoleonic Wars

Following the French Revolution and the establishment of the Republic, France was involved in constant warfare against the other major powers of Europe for over twenty years. The military and political leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) is one of the most important reasons for French success during this era. He successfully led France to victory against the armies of Austria, Prussia and other armies of the period. Years of war and overwhelming opposition finally led to France’s defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. The Congress of Vienna, one of the 19th century’s most important diplomatic conferences, set the terms of the peace. The system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 endured until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The Industrial Revolution

Steam Power Engine (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Industrial revolution can be thought of as a combination of new technologies, production methods and social upheaval. The early Industrial revolution started in late 18th century Britain as textile production and steam power were harnessed to improve the speed of production. In an age with few health and safety laws, the factories and mines of the Industrial revolution were often dangerous places to work. Child labor, exploitation of women and injuries were common occurrences. The work of political activists, trade unionists and journalists slowly led to improved conditions for many workers.

The economic improvements of the Industrial revolution also changed the social structure of Europe. A new class of capitalists and manufacturers become more powerful, often at the expense of aristocrats whose wealth largely depended on land ownership. Economic changes, such as the abolishment of serfdom in most European countries, marked a conclusive break with the feudal era. Millions of Europeans also moved to cities during this era seeking a better life than subsistence farming provided; many emigrated to the United States, Canada and other parts of the New World.

European Colonies and Imperial Expansion

As Europe’s political and military power grew in this era, many European governments and companies sought to create empires in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century, France and Britain sought to colonize and control much of the African continent. European efforts to extract natural resources from these colonies often aroused controversy: Belgium’s activities in the Congo continue to be notorious to this day. In contrast, the British administration in the Indian subcontinent was relatively more stable and peaceful. Resentment over European control and exploitation would eventually lead to almost all European colonies around the world becoming independent countries by the 1960s.

[Please continue reading page two of this article to learn about World War 1, World War 2 and the Cold War.]

World War 1 (1914-1918)

Nearly a century after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, the First World War (also known as World War 1 or WW1) began and changed Europe forever. The causes of the war have been much debated by historians for nearly a century. The system of European alliances, German aggression, and conflict over colonies are some of the causes that have been advanced. The war also witnessed the involvement of non-European countries, such as Canada, the United States and Australia, which ensured this European conflict had global effects. Millions of soldiers were mobilized to fight in the war using new weapons such as the machine gun, submarine, tank and airplanes. The use of planes during the war meant thousands of trained pilots and aircraft were available for the new aviation industry that began to grow in the 1920s. The contribution of women to the war effort was also recognized; women gained the vote in America, Canada, Great Britain and other countries shortly after the war concluded.

By the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian and German empires had collapsed. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia led to several years of civil war before the USSR was established under Lenin’s leadership. Like the Napoleonic Wars, World War 1 was concluded with a major peace conference. The diplomatic conference produced a number of controversial treaties and led to the establishment of the League of Nations, an international organization advocated by American President Woodrow Wilson. The effects of WW1 would be felt for decades in Europe; the post WW1 peace agreement also led to resentment in some parts of German society.

World War 2 (1939-1945)

The Second World War, which began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, changed Europe forever. From 1939 to 1941, the advance of German forces across Europe appeared to be unstoppable. For a time, only Great Britain under Winston Churchill’s leadership continued the fight. The tide of the war changed in late 1941; Germany invasion of the USSR and the Japanese attack on U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor meant Germany would have to fight a challenging two front war. The combined Allied (USA, Canada, USSR and other countries) powers eventually defeated Germany and the other Axis powers, Italy and Japan in 1945.

At the end of the war, the Allied powers came together to found the United Nations organization to prevent war and encourage greater international cooperation. The ability of the UN to promote peace and international order was significantly impacted by two of its most powerful member states, the United States and the USSR. International law was also forever changed as a result of the war; the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed in the Nuremburg Trials where the political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were put on trial for their crimes. The successful operation of the Nuremburg trials would later involve other war crimes trials and the formation of the International Criminal Court in 2002.

The Cold War (1947-1991)

Joseph Stalin (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years after the conclusion of World War 2, the Cold War began between the USSR and the United States. Some historians have described the conflict as fundamentally ideological; a clash of democratic capitalism led by the USA and authoritarian communism led by the USSR. Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin (pictured on the left), the Soviet Union expanded considerably and developed nuclear weapons in 1949. Even though the two superpowers did not engage in battle directly, the availability of nuclear weapons on both sides meant that any conflict could escalate into a war more devastating than World War 2.

For Americans, the effects of the Cold War hit home in two particular conflicts. The Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975; U.S. involvement began in the 1960s) involved large numbers of American soldiers. These conflicts also had a major impact on U.S. politics, popular culture and domestic policy. Both the Korean War and Vietnam War were understood as efforts to stop the spread of Communism - many assumed that Communist countries would automatically side with the Soviet Union and against America in all foreign policy matters.


This article has introduced some of the main developments in European history from Napoleon to Cold War. This article has emphasized political and military history, but there is much more to the European story of this period. The impact of the women’s movement, organized labor and the rise of the European Union all took place during this era. College students or others interested in learning more about this era can find a wealth of books, photos and websites to learn more.