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Historical Changes in Europe Across the Twentieth Century

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Map of Twentieth-Century Europe

Europe during the Twentieth Century.

Europe during the Twentieth Century.


Throughout the twentieth century, Europe underwent drastic changes within its social, political, and diplomatic realms. As a result of these changes, individual relationships and governmental associations with their people, as well as Europe’s interactions and standing with the rest of the world, were forever altered in fundamental ways. These changes have, in turn, sparked considerable debates amongst modern-day historians.

Of particular interest for this article is: how do modern historians differ in their analysis of the various changes that took place across twentieth-century Europe? Specifically, were these changes consistent across the European continent? Or did these changes vary from country to country? If so, how? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do modern historians interpret the changing interactions between Europe and the rest of the world during this tumultuous century?

Photos of the First World War.

Photos of the First World War.

Interactions Between Individual Europeans

One of the most dramatic changes that occurred over the course of the twentieth century involved the relationship amongst individual Europeans across the continent. Socially and economically speaking, the beginning of the twentieth century provided many positive conduits of change for Europeans that had not existed in centuries prior. For instance, Phillipp Blom points out in his book, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900–1914, that the years prior to 1914 were a time of great scientific, technological, and economic development for Europe and the world at large. As he states, “the uncertain future facing us early in the twenty-first century arose from the inventions, thoughts and transformations of those unusually rich fifteen years between 1900 and 1914, a period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves” (Blom, 3). Advances in science gave way to dramatic innovations that drew people closer together and forged feelings of excitement and fear amongst Europeans toward the coming future. Greater rights for women, as well as an increase in sexual liberties were also beginning to spread during this time. As Dagmar Herzog states in her book Sexuality in Europe, the period “between 1900 and 1914” introduced “new notions of sexual rights, dysfunctions, values, behaviors, and identities” many years before World War One even began (Herzog, 41). As a result of these newfound liberties and advances, these historians point out that the early changes in European society brought about greater feelings of closeness amongst individuals in their day-to-day lives that did not exist in years prior. Yet, at the same time, Blom also acknowledges that these mass changes also gave way to feelings of uncertainty in the buildup to the First World War. As he states, “more knowledge made the world a darker, less familiar place” (Blom, 42).

While these basic advances in society resulted in many positive changes for individual Europeans and their relationships to one another, many historians do not share the more positive perspectives offered by Blom and Herzog. As they point out, advances in science and technology don’t always mean positive changes within society (particularly when these advances are used for weaponry in warfare). Moreover, they posit that these early years of positive relations were greatly overshadowed by later wars and revolutions. These violent events, in turn, created an environment that promulgated a deep sense of racism as well as hatred of other nations and nationalities across the European continent. Revolution and war always seem to have a tendency to wreak havoc upon societies—particularly its social underpinnings. In Europe’s case, the continent underwent two major World Wars, multiple nationalist uprisings across the Balkans, the collapse of empires (such as the Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires), as well as nearly forty years of tension between the West and Soviet Union during the ensuing Cold War. As a result, historians such as Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau, Annette Becker, and Nicholas Stargardt tend to interpret the societal and individual-based changes that occurred in a far more negative light—particularly in the aftermath of the First World War.

As historians Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker point out in their book, 14–18: Understanding the Great War, the Great War helped transform the mindset of ordinary Europeans (both soldiers and civilians) to a manner that encouraged racist thoughts that emphasized a dehumanization of outsiders to one’s country. Part of this aspect, they posit, is a direct result of the advances in science and technology as discussed, originally, by Philipp Blom. Why? These advances in technology allowed for weaponry that resulted in bodily devastation on a scale nearly unimaginable in the years and centuries prior to the twentieth century. As a result, this new type of warfare resulted in horrors never before experienced in warfare, thus, making the demonization of one’s enemy and “reciprocal hatreds” an inevitable aspect of combat (Audoin-Rouzeau, 30). Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker also point out that the war deeply affected civilians—particularly women—who were the victims of rape and war crimes during the advance of enemy troops into civilian zones (Audoin-Rouzeau, 45). Because of these horrendous aspects of warfare, an inevitable outcome of the First World War was that elements of shock and victimhood correlated strongly with the later development of hate and racism towards other Europeans. Moreover, this change in attitude carried over well into the interwar years and greatly aided in the development of future hostilities, as well as the expansion of extreme nationalism – such as the sentiments espoused by the Nazi party. Therefore, these historians demonstrate that great divisions amongst European societies developed in the interwar years that did not reflect a positive course of change.

Such notions of division were not short-lived either. Rather, they progressed onwards within European society for many decades after the end of World War One. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. In Nicholas Stargardt’s book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1942, the author discusses how this element of division and racism swept the German people by storm – especially when one considers the pervasive racism that Germans maintained towards non-Aryan races under the guidance of Adolf Hitler. This, he describes, was a direct result of nationalist sentiment and propaganda that was derived from the experiences and failures of World War One, and which aimed to demonize enemies of the Axis powers. By the end of the Second World War, such sentiments resulted in the death of millions of innocent civilians, including Jews, Russians, Gypsies, homosexuals, as well as the mentally ill and handicapped. However, these sentiments also resulted in the near destruction of the German people as both a nation and as a race due to the strong racist sentiments that lay buried within their mindsets. Instead of surrendering, as in the First World War, Germans fought to the bitter end (in many cases) due to fear, and their long-standing hatreds of other Europeans that developed from the divisions created in the previous World War. Even at the end of the war, Stargardt states that “‘terror bombing’ [by the Allies] was ascribed to ‘the Jewish retaliation…Nazi propaganda had played its part in preparing this response by insisting that the Jewish lobby in London and Washington was behind the bombing in an attempt to exterminate the German nation” (Stargardt, 375). As such, Stargardt points out in his introduction that “Germany’s mid-war crises resulted not in defeatism but in a hardening of social attitudes” (Stargardt, 8). These sentiments even persisted into the post-WWII years as Germans continued to view themselves as victims. As Stargardt proclaims, even in the postwar years, “it was clear that most Germans still believed they had fought a legitimate war of national defence” against supposedly hostile European nations bent on destroying the German people (Stargardt, 564).

As seen with each of these authors, the social interactions and changes incurred by the twentieth century are often seen in a negative, destructive manner that typically overshadows any positive elements of societal change. In turn, the effects of these strong divisions and hatreds amongst Europeans culminated in atrocities and destruction never before seen during the First and Second World Wars and carried well over into the latter half of the twentieth century as well.

Portrait of Paris Peace Conference (1919).

Portrait of Paris Peace Conference (1919).

Relations with Government

Changes in the interactions between governments and individuals across Europe are another area of interest for modern historians. As with the changes wrought by war in regard to interpersonal relationships, historians such as Geoffrey Field and Orlando Figes both demonstrate how the World Wars (as well as revolutionary actions) managed to transform the European attitudes towards their government in a profound manner. To what extent these changes in attitudes occurred, however, is an area of major debate amongst these historians. As each of these historians demonstrates, changes in the realm of government relations toward their people were inconsistent and varied greatly according to one’s location on the European continent. This is especially true when one considers the differences that occurred between Eastern and Western Europe across the twentieth century.

Historian Geoffrey Field’s book, Blood, Sweat, and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939–1945, for instance, points out that fundamental changes developed within Britain during the Second World War—particularly in regard to the British working class. Why is this the case? Throughout his book, Field describes how the need for supplies and materials prompted the British government to resort to a war economy aimed at maximizing efforts in all sectors of the economy. As he points out, however, this resulted in numerous positive changes for the British people. A government-controlled war economy had the effect of organizing labor and pressing women into the forefront of factory work and jobs that were once excluded to them. In other words, “the war transformed the power and status of the working classes within society” (Field, 374). Moreover, the war had the added effect of pressing the Labour Party of Britain back into the forefront of the nation, giving working-class individuals far more representation with their government. Because of this aspect, the war inspired change within the British government that offered a closer-knit connection between political leaders and individual citizens. As Field states:

“wartime multiplied the connections between people’s lives and the state; they were constantly addressed as a vital part of the nation and they found ways to assert their own needs…this kind of patriotism underscored the ties that bound different social strata together, but it also generated popular expectations and the idea, however ill-defined, that Britain was moving towards a more democratic and less unequal future” (Field, 377).

Moreover, this type of expansion allowed for greater governmental action in regard to “social welfare reform” aimed at benefitting the poor, as well as working-class individuals (Field, 377). Thus, according to Field, relational shifts with the British people and their government resulted in far-reaching, positive effects throughout the twentieth century.

In contrast to Field’s more positive outlook on governmental relations with their people, historian Orlando Figes provides a detailed analysis of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that takes more of a neutral approach to this issue. While Figes maintains that Russia underwent multiple changes during the Communist seizure of power, he points out that the ensuing repression was only an extension of the hardships experienced under the tsarist regimes. As he states:

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“As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian. It was a mirror image of the tsarist state. Lenin (Later Stalin) occupied the place of the Tsar-God; his commissars and Cheka henchmen played the same roles as the provincial governors, the oprichniki, and the Tsar’s other plenipotentiaries; while his party’s comrades had the same power and privileged position as the aristocracy under the old regime” (Figes, 813).

Additionally, Figes points out that the Revolution of 1917 was a “people’s tragedy” in that it did not succeed in establishing a form of government that catered to the needs of the people like the British government’s in World War Two (Figes, 808). Just like the years of repression experienced under the tsars, the Communist regime silenced dissenters and crippled rebellious aspirations whenever they arose. This, he alludes to, is very similar to the massacre that occurred on “Bloody Sunday” in 1905 when Tsar Nicholas II allowed the Russian military to fire on unarmed civilians protesting against the government (Figes, 176). Thus, as Figes concludes, the revolutionary actions of 1917 were not necessarily revolutionary at all. They did not result in changes that benefitted the people. The actions only drifted Russia towards a more negative path under the Communist regime. As he states, “they [the Russian people] had failed to become their own political masters, to free themselves from emperors and become citizens” (Figes, 176).

Thus, Russia offers a good case in point that demonstrates the unevenness and sporadic elements of change that swept Europe in regard to government interactions with their people in the twentieth century. This aspect of change in Eastern Europe, contrary to the Western experience after World War Two, continued throughout much of the twentieth century and still affects nations once dominated by the former Soviet Union. This issue is discussed in more detail by historian, James Mark. According to Mark, former Soviet states such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Lithuania still grapple with their Communist pasts today as they attempt to forge a new identity for themselves in the modern world. As he states, the continued “presence of former Communists and the continuation of earlier attitudes and outlooks derived from the Communist period” resulted in “a negative impact on the course of democratization and the establishment of a new post-Communist identity” (Mark, xv).

Paris Peace Talk Quote

"We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission. We were bent on doing great, permanent noble things."

— Harold Nicolson - British Delegate to Paris Peace Talks (1919)

Worldwide Relations with Europe

Finally, one last area of change that occurred across Europe during the twentieth century involved the continent’s relationship to the rest of the world. During the twentieth century, Europe underwent numerous shifts that resulted in far-sweeping changes for its world relations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the interwar years following the First World War. During this period, European leaders attempted to institute and forge a period of peace following the great devastation wreaked upon Europe by years of warfare. How best to achieve this peace, however, was a question of great concern for statesmen and political figures during the post-WWI years. Both the Paris Peace Conference as well as the League of Nations were established as a means of promoting peace, better relations, as well as promoting the well-being of Europe. However, because the war destroyed many long-standing empires, such as the Ottoman, Russian, German, and Hapsburg empires, the peace process was complicated by the fact that the war disrupted many former colonies and imperial possessions of these once-powerful empires. Thus, the victorious Allies were left to deal with new groups of territories that possessed no rulers, and with borders that no longer existed due to the collapse of these former empires. How do historians interpret these changes within this realm of study? More specifically, were these changes for the best? Did they result in better relationships among world powers as originally planned? Or did they, ultimately, fail to accomplish their intended goals?

Historian Margaret MacMillan argues in her book, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed The World, that the Paris Peace Conference was filled with problems from the beginning due to the contending voices vying for their own particular interests (Voices such as Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson). As she states, “from the outset the Peace Conference suffered from confusion over its organization, its purpose and its procedures” (MacMillan, xxviii). As a result of the interests desired by each of these Allied leaders, the Paris Peace Conference resulted in new boundaries that did not take into consideration national and cultural issues. Moreover, in the aftermath of the proclamations and decisions made in Paris, former territories of the defeated European empires (such as the Middle East), found themselves in even worse predicaments than in years prior since they were devised by men with little knowledge of their culture or way of life. As she states:

“The peacemakers of 1919 made mistakes, of course. By their offhand treatment of the non-European world, they stirred up resentments for which the West is still paying for today. They took pains over the borders in Europe, even if they did not draw them to everyone’s satisfaction, but in Africa, they carried on the old practice of handing out territory to suit the imperialist powers. In the Middle East, they threw together peoples, in Iraq most notably, who still have not managed to cohere into a civil society” (MacMillan, 493).

As a result, MacMillan points out that relations between Europe and the rest of the world were forever changed in a negative manner due to the inability of the peacemakers to fully appreciate and consider the future of world affairs. Thus, according to MacMillan’s rendition of the changes that resulted from the Conference and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles, many of the decisions made at Paris shaped modern conflicts within the world that are still seen today.

Susan Pedersen’s book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, also makes the point that many of the failures of the Paris Peace Conference are embedded within the League of Nations as well. The mandates system which was established as a means of ruling over the large territories lost by the defeated armies of WWI, ended up establishing a newfound imperialist system that subjugated former colonies to fates that were sometimes worse than they experienced in years past. As Pedersen states, “mandatory oversight was supposed to make imperial rule more humane and therefore more legitimate; it was to ‘uplift’ backward populations and…even to prepare them for self rule…it did not do these things: mandated territories were not better governed than colonies across the board and in some cases were governed more oppressively” (Pedersen, 4). In stark contrast to MacMillan’s argument, however, Pedersen argues that the changes instituted in the Twenties, and the impact made by the League of Nations benefitted Europe greatly in the long term. How? Maltreatment and further subjugation of colonial territories—while certainly bad —helped expedite the eventual freedom and end of imperialism due to the rise in human rights groups, activists, and organizations that sought to reveal the devastation resulting under the mandates system. Thus, according to Pedersen, the mandates system served “as an agent of geopolitical transformation” in that it helped reshape world borders, and helped to free territories from the grip of European dominance (Pedersen, 5). In this light, therefore, interactions between Europe and the rest of the world benefited greatly.


In conclusion, Europe underwent multiple changes across the twentieth century that still affect society to this day. While historians may never agree on their interpretations regarding the social, political, and diplomatic changes that swept across Europe during this time period, one thing is for certain: war, revolution, science, and technology all changed the European continent (and the world) in a manner never before experienced. Whether or not these changes were for the better or worse, however, may never be known. Only time will tell.

Works Cited


Audoin-Rouzeau, Stephane, and Annette Becker. 14-18: Understanding the Great War. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).

Blom, Philipp. The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. (New York: Perseus Books, 2008).

Field, Geoffrey. Blood, Sweat, and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939-1945. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution. (New York: Viking, 1996).

Herzog, Dagmar. Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. (New York: Random House, 2003).

Mark, James. The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Pedersen, Susan. The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Stargardt, Nicholas. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945. (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

Images / Photographs:

"Europe." World Atlas - Maps, Geography, travel. September 19, 2016. Accessed November 19, 2017.

Wikipedia contributors, "Paris Peace Conference, 1919," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,,_1919&oldid=906434950(accessed July 21, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "World War I," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 21, 2019).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Larry Slawson

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