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'In the beginning, there was no Europe,’ writes Professor Norman Davies in Europe: A History. In the beginning all that existed was an unpopulated peninsula attached to the western edge of the world’s largest landmass (Asia). But after humanoid settlers arrived between 850,000 and 700,000 BC, Europe’s temperate climate and unthreatening environment would make it ripe for agricultural exploitation and the birthplace of great civilisations.

It was in Greece and Rome that the continent’s two great ancient societies arose. Greece (first emerging around 2000 BC) was renowned for its philosophers (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates) and democratic principles. Rome – boasting brilliant politicians, and writers like Cicero, Ovid and Virgil – spread its influence by military might. At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched from England to the Sahara and from Spain to Persia.

By the 4th century AD both empires were in terminal decline. Greece had been swallowed by Macedonia under Alexander the Great, then by Rome itself in AD 146. Although Roman emperors in Constantinople (İstanbul) hung on for another 1000 years, the empire’s western half fell to Germanic tribes in 476.

This marked the start of the Dark Ages in Western Europe. From 768 Charlemagne, King of the Franks, brought together much of Western Europe under his rule into what would later be known as the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. After this territory passed into the hands of Austrian Habsburgs in the 13th century, it became the continent’s dominant political power. Elsewhere, an alliance of Christian nations repeatedly sent troops to reclaim the Holy Land from Islamic control. These unsuccessful ‘Crusades’ (1096–1291) unfortunately set the stage for centuries of skirmishes with the neighbouring Ottoman Empire as it took control of Asia Minor and parts of the Balkans from 1453 onwards.

Europe’s grand reawakening also began in the mid-15th century, and the subsequent Renaissance, Reformation and French Revolution ushered in enormous social upheaval.

The Renaissance fomented mainly artistic expression and ideas. The Reformation was a question of religion. Challenging Catholic ‘corruption’ in 1517, German theologian Martin Luther established a breakaway branch of Christianity, Protestantism. Struggles between Catholics and Protestants for supremacy were behind the bloody Thirty Years War (1618–48).

Forced to pick just one defining era and philosophy to sum up modern Europe, it would be hard to pass over the Enlightenment, or the so-called ‘Age of Reason’. This was the period in the 18th century when science and human logic for the first time took supremacy over religious belief. Heavily intertwined with the rapid scientific advances of the time, it ushered in the modern age with its move away from the church and its emphasis on logic, education, individualism and liberal social values.

Whole university courses are taught on the Enlightenment, its factions (eg rationalism versus empiricism), and its pros and cons. However, two thinkers closely associated with it were the antimonarchist, antireligious liberal Voltaire (1694–1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who believed humans are rational and autonomous beings, so universal moral laws are possible. Kant was also intensely interested in how humans made sense of the surrounding world.

René Descartes (1596–1650), who famously declared ‘I think, therefore I am’, was one of the rationalist forerunners of the Enlightenment. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) started off as a believer but later fell out with the movement – whose main social consequence was the French Revolution.

The French Revolution in 1789 was about the populace’s attempt to wrest political power from the monarchy. But in the ensuing vacuum, plucky general Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) crowned himself emperor. Napoleon’s efforts to colonise all Europe ended in defeat by the British at Waterloo in 1815, but the civil laws he introduced in France in 1804 would spread the revolutionary ideas of liberty and equality across the globe.

Having vanquished Napoleon, Britain became a major world player itself. With the invention of the steam engine, railways and factories, it unleashed the Industrial Revolution. Needing markets for goods, it and other European powers accelerated their colonisation of countries around the world, bringing new and exotic riches back to Europe.

Meanwhile the death throes of the Habsburg Empire, or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were about to rock the continent. Serbia was accused of backing the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in 1914 and the battle between the two states developed into WWI, as allies lined up on each side (Germany and the Ottoman Empire on the Austro-Hungarian side; Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the USA with Serbia).

Crippled by a huge bill for reparations imposed at the war’s end in 1918, Austria’s humbled ally, Germany, proved susceptible to politician Adolf Hitler’s nationalist rhetoric during the 1930s. Other nations watched as Nazi Germany annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, but its invasion of Poland in 1939 sparked WWII. During the final liberation of Europe in 1945, Allied troops from Britain, France, the USA and the USSR uncovered the full extent of the genocide that had occurred in Hitler’s concentration camps for Jews, Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, homosexuals, communists and other ‘degenerates’.

The Allies carved out spheres of influence, and Germany was divided to avoid its rising up again militarily. Differences in ideology between the Western powers and the communist USSR soon led to a stand-off. The USSR closed off its assigned sectors – East Germany, East Berlin and much of Eastern Europe – behind the figurative Iron Curtain. With the Stasi, Stalinist purges and more, many Eastern European citizens have appalling tales of political repression to relate from these times.

The ‘Cold War’ lasted until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Germany was unified in 1990. A year later the USSR was dissolved. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania all grasped multiparty democracy shortly afterwards.

The downfall of communism had a terrible effect in Yugoslavia, where nationalist leaders seized the chance to stir up political unrest and war: some of the young independent nations there are still recovering. For the most part, however, the end of the Cold War has brought a sense of peace to Europe. A sense of cooperation is proving slightly trickier to locate. The EU was formed in 1957 as a trade alliance and has developed fitfully into a political entity since. At this stage, while 16 members have adopted a common currency, governments are having difficulty pushing through the European Constitution needed.