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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

Europe — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: A Brief Overview of The Past 100 Years

Sunday 20 September 2015

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Europe has been in the news of late-for the wrong reasons. The continent is afflicted with the constant threat of terrorist attacks some of which were witnessed in the recent past. The sovereign debt crisis, particularly involving Greece, has been continuing unabated though a temporary solution has recently been found. However the headline grabbing problem which has deprived many of the leaders of the European Union of their sleep is the massive influx of refugees and economic migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and sub Saharan Africa who are making a desperate bid to enter Europe in search of a better life.

 All these developments present the picture of a hapless continent which only, less than a century ago, was the arbiter of world politics. These events obscure the major achievement of contem-porary Europe of overcoming centuries of conflict and rivalry among its major powers for hegemony and domination. This short paper seeks to review the legacy of this history and tries to situate this apparent paradox of a continent which is at peace with itself—keeping the history of the past 500 years in mind—on the one hand and the desperate crisis situations—referred to above—it is trying to grapple with on the other.


On August 2, 1914 the First World War broke out when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The events leading to the outbreak of the war are far too complicated to be narrated in the short space available here. Suffice it to say that prior to the outbreak of the war Europe had been converted into two rival camps—one comprising Great Britain, France and Russia, and the other incorporating Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The system of balance of power which the Congress of Vienna had devised after the defeat and fall of Napoleon in 1815 had roughly preserved the peace of Europe with a few exceptions for a period of 100 years. The German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who orchestrated the unification of Germany in 1871, had followed a foreign policy which was designed to ensure that Germany did not challenge in any way the hegemony of Great Britain which was the most powerful state in the world in the Nineteenth Century. However Kaiser William II, who became the German emperor in 1890, did not subscribe to this Bismarck strategy and mounted a challenge against Great Britain and France, the two most dominant continental and colonial powers of the time, which ultimately culminated in the division of Europe along the lines suggested above.

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War Europe’s political and strategic space was dominated by four empires: the German empire which was ruled by the Hohenzollern dynasty, the Russian empire which was ruled by the Romanov dynasty of the Czars, the Austro-Hungarian empire ruled by the Habsburg dynasty, and the Ottoman empire of the Turkish sultans. As already mentioned, Great Britain and France, the only two democratic countries in Europe at the time, were the other two great powers. A large number of ethnic people in different parts of Europe like the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Rumanians, Bulgars, Serbs and other such ethnic groups were parts of the four empires mentioned above. As nationalism was becoming a significant force in Europe these subordinate ethnic peoples were also developing aspirations for establishing their own national states. Consequently Europe of 1914 presented a picture of a powder keg ready to explode which was ultimately manifested in the outbreak of the First World War.

Therefore the First World War was essentially a culmination of Europe’s long history of conflict dating back to the rise of the sovereign state from the time of the peace of Westphalia in 1648 which was the first successful attempt in European history to establish a continental diplomatic order based on the doctrine of sovereignty. However, such an order did not end conflict and warfare among the European great powers became a common form of relationship. The First World War turned out to be the first of the two great civil wars in Europe as these wars originated in Europe though they subse-quently spread to other parts of the world.

The First World War was, till date, the greatest war in the history of humanity which killed eight million people. Its outcome had serious consequences for the European polity. It led to the destruction of four continental empires—Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the empire of Czarist Russia and the Ottoman empire. Europe’s map underwent a dramatic transformation. A large number of new states emerged in Central and Eastern Europe such as Poland, Czechos-lovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia whose peoples, as already mentioned, had been kept subordinated to the four large empires. However, the territorial boundaries of these newly emerged states had been drawn arbitrarily which made them mostly unviable.

Uncertain frontiers, ethnic minorities, political instability and economic turbulence in these states produced a disastrous mixture for the Europe of the inter-war period (1919-1939).

The new map of Europe was drawn at the Peace Conference at Paris at the end of the First World War. The principal element of this peace settlement was the Treaty of Versailles which dealt with defeated Germany. The very harsh treatment meted out to Germany provided the fuel for the resurgence of an aggressive German nationalism whose focal point was the Franco-German rivalry. It ultimately paved the way for the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor in January 1933.

Germany under Hitler set out on a course to shake off the burden of the Treaty of Versailles leading to an open defiance of the main clauses of the treaty as well as the subsequent annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Great Britain and France, the principal guardians of the new order created at Paris in 1919, resorted to a policy of appeasement of Hitler in order to avert another catastrophic conflict as well as divert the focus of this aggressive German nationalism in the direction of the Soviet Union which had ushered in the dream of a new socialist order as an alternative to capitalism in 1917.

These developments made another great war inevitable and it became a reality when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Second World War, which initially pitted Britain and France against Germany and Italy, ultimately dragged in the Soviet Union, the United States and Japan. This war was not only the greatest in the history of humanity with nearly 33 million people dead (civilians as well as armed personnel) but it turned out to be a landmark for Europe and the world. The war ended when Germany and Japan were comprehensively defeated and subjected to partition and occupation respectively by the victorious Allied powers. The subsequent history of Europe and the world was the history of the Cold War which pitted the West led by the United States in an ideological confrontation against the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern and Central Europe.


However, the post-war history of Europe with which we are concerned here is the history of European Integration. Thinking statesmen in Western Europe, led by the great Frenchman Jean Monnet, dreamt of a new Europe which would be free from all wars and conflicts. They were particularly concerned with how to diffuse the perpetual rivalry between Germany and France which had been the bedrock of European conflict and insecurity for centuries. They also thought of constructing a United States of Europe along the lines of the USA. These ideas led to the formation of the European Community (now the European Union) which initially started its journey with France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

This Community expanded in the past nearly six decades into the present 28-member European Union. The Union now comprises nearly the whole of Europe and has a very sophisticated structure of common institutions, common policies including a common Foreign and Security Policy and a common currency. It also has a common immigration and asylum policy which is under a severe test now. While the EU is not a state in the conventional sense of the term, it reflects many of the features to be found in a sovereign state. Most importantly, it has solved the longstanding European problem of wars and conflicts among the great powers of the continent which led to so much bloodshed in the past 500 years.

Today’s Europe is a Europe which is at peace with itself. While the dream of a United States of Europe has not materialised it certainly presents to the world the image of a united continent which can act in unison on many of the burning issues that confront today’s Europe and the world. This is not to suggest that there are no problems. As has already been mentioned at the very outset, the EU has been passing through an economic and sovereign debt crisis that afflicts some of its member-states such as Greece A lot of discussion has already been undertaken in the pages of this journal on this issue in the recent past.

The leaders of the EU are making efforts to counter the three most critical problems—terrorism, the sovereign debt crisis and the continuing influx of economic migrants primarily from Africa and the war-torn parts of Asia such as Syria and Afghanistan. While on surface it may seem that the EU is on the verge of collapse under the weight of the crises it faces, knowledgeable experts can point out to the organisation’s history of successfully overcoming many a crises it faced in the past 63 years. Sceptics may argue that the nature and the contours of the present problems are very different and the EU’s institutions which were designed for a smaller and much more cohesive group of states are simply not adequate to counter the mind numbing, apparently irreconcilable issues like terrorism, sovereign debt problem and most importantly the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants.

The optimists would argue that over the past seven decades the EU has produced a culture of accommodation of diverse and divergent views in its policy making process which enabled the organisation to make the kind of progress it has made on the road to integration. It is true that the EU did not deal with the kind of issues in the past it is facing today. But its institutional dynamics is sufficiently resilient and it is to be noted that, even in the face of the greatest of odds the organisation’s leaders are patiently trying to evolve an EU-wide policy of accommodating the millions who are flocking to Europe at the moment. There is of course no guarantee that the issue will be successfully resolved. But the EU leaders are at least trying to do their best in dealing with what is probably the largest mass migration since the end of the Second World War and a humanitarian crisis of the greatest proportion.

The current crises apart (whose outcomes are at the moment unpredictable to say the least), the Europe of today, besides resolving the problem of great power conflict of the past, is a vehicle of the legacy of the human values born out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. All the EU member-states have embraced democratic pluralism and a commitment to the protection, promotion and advancement of basic human rights. Even after admitting the fact that today’s European societies have not been able to overcome the challenges of racism and xenophobia which are very often on display, these societies, nevertheless, are making a bold effort at social engineering by accommodating diverse religious and racial groups in their midst. These efforts at establishing multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious societies in countries which were relatively homogeneous even before the Second World War is a notable landmark in contemporary human history.

So, in conclusion, it would be premature to write the obituary of the EU on the basis of what is apparent on the surface. The more knowledgeable experts, as already pointed out, are more optimistic about the resilience and sound structural dynamics of the EU which will, perhaps, enable it to negotiate the perilous waters that lie ahead.

The author is a Professor of International Relations, and former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He can be contacted at e-mail: purusottam. bhattacharya@gmail.com

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