Monday, 16 April 2018

European history in 100 words

Recently I've visited a number of Spanish cathedrals, which are some of the most absurdly ornate buildings I've ever seen (apparently, statues of Jesus aren't regal enough unless both his cross and his crown of thorns are inlaid with gold). They're a poignant reminder that Spain was once the wealthiest and most powerful country in Europe. This made me think about how, if you wanted to compress European history into only a few dozen words, probably the best way to do it would be to list which was the most influential and/or dominant European power during which time periods. This is inherently subjective and misses a lot, but is still a fun exercise. I also think that pithy frameworks which allow you to have basic reference points for a whole area of knowledge are underrated (for a similarly broad framework for machine learning, see point 1 in this essay). So here's my crack at it:

Roman Empire - from 27 BC, formation of the Empire.
Byzantine Empire - from 476, fall of the Western Empire.
Holy Roman Empire - from 962, (re)formation under Otto.
Italian city-states - from 1250, defeat and death of Frederick II.
Ottoman Empire - from 1453, conquest of Constantinople.
Spain - from 1529, Ottoman siege of Vienna defeated.
France - from 1648, victory in the wars of religion and Peace of Westphalia.
Britain - from 1763, victory in Seven Years' War.
Germany - from 1871, unification.
Britain - from 1918, end of WW1.
USSR - from 1949, creation of nuclear weapons.
Germany - from 1989, fall of the Berlin wall and reunification.

Notes:
  • I've ignored turns in fortune which only lasted a few years, e.g. temporary strategic gains during wars. Otherwise France under Napoleon and Germany under Hitler would feature.
  • The most dubious inclusion is the Italian city-states. But the list feels incomplete without them, given the Lombard League's defeat of the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II, plus the spiritual authority wielded by the Pope, plus the general economic and cultural flourishing of the area during that period.
  • 1529 is a decade after the Habsburg unification under Charles V, and also around when Spain started getting significant income from its South American colonies.
  • France's ascendancy over Spain is often dated more specifically to the Battle of Rocroi in 1643, an important symbolic defeat for the Spanish tercio military units; or else to the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. I've gone with the more broadly significant Westphalian treaties.
  • The end of the Seven Years' War is an easy line to draw between periods of French and English dominance. But two other factors around the same time would have ensured English supremacy regardless: the conquest of India, and the industrial revolution.
  • I put 1949 because with nuclear weapons, the USSR was undeniably the world’s second superpower. The formation of NATO in the same year indicates how threatened the UK felt. And only a few years beforehand, the British Empire had lost "the jewel in its crown", India.
  • To convert this to an equivalent history of the world, just replace everything between Rome and Spain with China, then replace everything after WW1 with America.

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