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Western Civilization

This article offers a brief survey of Western civilization from early modern times (15th-16th centuries) onwards.

Western civilization arose in Europe, and then spread across the world. As it grew geographically scope, it became an increasingly dominant strand in world history – to the extent that the histories of every civilization and region of the world was impacted by it in a profound way.

The Roots of Western Civilization

For the purposes of this article, the “West” is that civilization which grew up in western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire.

Its roots lay in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome (which themselves built on foundations laid in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia).  It took shape in medieval Europe, with its Christian religion, feudal society, dispersed power-structures and growing economic dynamism. It was in the modern era that Western civilization took flight, however. It spread from Europe to the North and South America, Australasia and much of the rest of the world; it achieved a level of economic power which far surpassed that of any other civilization; it developed the habit of systematic scientific and technological advance; and it evolved a unique set of personal freedoms which gave its culture an utterly different flavor to anything that had come before.

A rich heritage

The mixed ancestry of Western civilization gave it a rich heritage to draw on. Greek achievements in mathematics, science, philosophy and art, and Roman developments in law, government and technology, all had a deep impact on later European civilization. The religion of Christianity, deriving from the Middle East but absorbed into the Graeco-Roman civilization, constituted one of the great pillars of the medieval and modern West. Added to these elements were major Indian, Chinese, and Arabian achievements in science and technology, transmitted to Europe via the Islamic world and the Mongol empire.


Early Modern Europe

From the early 15th century, European society was transformed by a succession of revolutionary changes. Trade expanded, towns grew, printing came into use and gunpowder armies caused feudal power structures gave way to centralized monarchies.   The Italian Renaissance led to new learning, and increased curiosity. During this period a distinct and rigorous way of looking at the world, which today we call  “science”, emerged. This would powered unparalleled technological advance, and with it, economic growth.

At the same time, European explorers began charting the coasts of the Oceans of the world, and penetrating lands previously unknown to Europeans. Where explorers went, merchants, conquerors and settlers followed. Globe-spanning trade routes brought vast wealth back to Europe, transforming its economy and society and laying the foundations for European dominance on a world-wide scale. Even in the early phase of this overseas expansion (16th and 17th centuries), an entire continent, South America, was colonized by Europeans, and North America, the areas of the present-day United States and Canada, followed soon after (from the 17th century).

While this expansion was going on, Europe was tearing itself apart with religious conflict, as a movement known as  the Reformation split the Christian world  of western Europe into two hostile camps.  Protestantism triumphed in most of northern Europe, while the Roman Catholic Church kept its hold of southern Europe. Protestants advocated a new, simpler style of Christianity, and its emphasis on individual spirituality opened the way to greater value being given to personal choice. This would become a defining feature of Western civilization, and amongst other things would give rise to of the secular society which we know today.

The rise of secularism was given a huge boost by the development of scientific knowledge which had been going on since the Renaissance. Such figures as Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton had transformed the way Europeans thought about the universe. They had also shown that using scientific thinking and methodology was an extraordinarily powerful tool in expanding knowledge. This encouraged the rationalist thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment to scrutinize everything – religion, society, government – in a new way: causes and consequences rooted in the material world were sought, and traditionally-accepted notions of divine providence were relegated to the margins.

Since the time of the Renaissance, several European countries had been building overseas empires. Fierce rivalry developed, and European forces found themselves fighting each other across the globe, in North America and the Caribbean, and in India.


The Age of Revolutions

The American Revolution

By the mid-18th century the European colonies in North America had become fully functioning societies in their own right. The colonists felt a growing sense of their ability to determine their own future, and this led to the American Revolution (1775-83). By the end of this, a new country, the United States of America, had made its appearance on the world stage.

American Constitution  Constitutional Convention – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The constitution by which it set to govern itself was consciously modeled on Enlightenment principles of rational government. Unlike the “enlightened despots” of continental Europe, however, and because they were used to the British system of representative parliamentary rule, the Americans set up the most democratic government in the world at that time.

The French Revolution

This example acted as a powerful stimulus to critiques of traditional forms of hereditary monarchical government back in Europe, and, combined with internal problems within France itself, led to the French Revolution breaking out in 1789. The revolution challenged the very basis of government of the hereditary monarchies of Europe, and soon the entire continent of Europe was convulsed in war. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of world history’s most brilliant generals, ensured that Revolutionary France dominated much of Europe for several years, spreading more efficient and more equal government around the continent. Eventually Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo, in 1815; but Europeans had had a taste of a new kind of government, and there could be no return to more traditional ways for long.

The Industrial Revolution

A major part in Napoleon’s defeat was played by the British navy. This, along with a diplomacy based to a large extent upon paying subsidies to allies in the fight against Napoleon, did not come cheap; it would have been completely beyond the economic strength of any European power before this period. However, by this time Britain’s economy was being transformed by another kind of revolution – the Industrial Revolution.

This had been gathering pace since the mid-18th century in Britain, and had been greatly boosted by the efficient application of steam power to mechanical devices.  By the end of the century, large industrial towns were growing up in the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland, in which hundreds of factories churned out vast quantities of manufactured goods.

A drawing of James Watt’s Steam Engine
Printed in the 3rd edition Britannica 1797 by  Digby Dalton. Used under Creative Commons 3.0 

The early 19th century saw this economic expansion continuing in Britain, and beginning to spread to North America and (particularly after the end of the Revolutionary wars) in Europe. The application of steam power to transport further stimulated this trend, with railways spreading their tentacles throughout Britain, Europe and North America. These in turn acted as a powerful boost to the expansion of the United States and Canada across the North American content, and by the mid-19th century these two countries had reached the Pacific coast.

By this time, steam ships were beginning to take over from sailing vessels on the sea routes of the world. With the introduction of refrigeration, meat and other perishables could be transported between continents, and the world was being linked by an ever denser network of trade routes.


Towards the Modern World

Nationalism and democracy

Back in Europe, the legacy of the French Revolution and the wars which followed it were a yearning for greater democracy, and for greater national self-determination. Much of central Europe and the Balkans were all under large, multinational states (the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires), and the many different nationalities within these states began to agitate for self-rule or independence. In Germany and Italy, meanwhile, two nationalities split amongst many small states, people agitated for the creation of unified states through which these nations could govern themselves. The political history of Europe is largely taken up with these struggles, and in the later 19th century large new European states appeared in Germany and Italy. On the eve of the World War I the Balkan states won their independence from the Ottomans.

In the same period many countries made great strides towards fully-fledged parliamentary democracy. This was true not only for continental nations, but also for Britain, with its long-standing experience of parliamentary rule. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw near-universal male suffrage being introduced, and mass-party politics taking over from the much more limited (and aristocratic) political game which had gone before.

The US Civil War and after

Across the Atlantic the expansion of the United States had led to an increasing divergence between its different regions, especially between a slave-owning plantation society in the south and a more industrial and egalitarian society on the north. The differences between these regions led to a bloody civil war (1861-5). With the North triumphant, slavery was abolished in the USA.

The civil war was followed by unprecedented industrial expansion. The late 19th century saw the rise of huge companies, led by vastly wealthy tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan.

Changing world views

The later 19th century also saw Europe industrializing on an unprecedented scale. Towns and cities ballooned in size, the middle classes became a large and influential part of the social mix, and a vast urban working class emerged.

Revolutionary social change was accompanied by revolutionary changes in thought. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became widely accepted, and encouraged the rise of a more secular outlook. For many people, this theory meant that the concept of God could be done away with, while others happily incorporated it into their world-view alongside with their Christian faith. But for both groups the theory meant that the development of life (including human beings) could have a rational and scientific explanation.

Sigmund Freud and others pioneered a scientific understanding of the mind and the emotions, previously, as the development of the natural world, regarded as the preserve of spiritual sphere.

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity completely changed people’s views of the cosmos, with his explanations of the relationship between mater and energy opening up vast new vistas for discovery.

Karl Marx and others analyzed society in fundamentally new ways. This went hand in hand with calls to work towards radically new economic and social structures.

Put together, these multifarious innovations in thinking had an enormous impact on people’s view of the universe, and of man’s place within it.

The early 20th century continued the trends of the late 19th century. This was the age when the motor car began to take to the roads, when airplanes were first invented, and other innovations – radio, telephones, electric lighting – began to make an impact. Henry Ford’s development of the production line made manufacturing more efficient, boosting the rise of enormous corporations. This also began the wholesale shift towards a global economy based on oil.

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Hartsook, photographer. – Library of Congress

World domination

In the military sphere, European and American armies and navies were being affected by industrialization, with machine guns, barbed wire, dreadnought battleships, torpedoes, mines and submarines making their appearance. These innovations gave Western military forces massive advantages over those of other societies, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Western empires expand to cover most of the surface of the world. Western trade networks, their reach extended by the spread of railways around the globe, disrupted local economies; Christian missionary activity challenged local beliefs and traditions; local elites adopted Western-style education, clothing, architecture.  Even lands which were not actually ruled directly from Europe, such as China, Thailand and Iran, were absorbed into the Western-dominated global economy, in such a way that deprived them of much of their political independence as well. The only country to successfully enter the Western world on its own terms was Japan – and indeed was soon carving out an empire of its own.

Britain ended up with the largest of these Western empires, and London was, by the end of the 19th century, the de facto financial capital of the world. This laid the foundations for the dominance of English as the lingua franca of the world.


Total War

World War One and after

During the early 20th century, however, rivalries between the European powers became increasingly intense. The nationalist movements on the continent had also not been resolved. These issues, plus imperial jostling as countries such as Germany and Italy tried to elbow their way into the group of imperialist powers, led to the outbreak of the World War One.

This horrific conflict mainly took place on European soil and resulted in more than 10 million deaths. The defeated European powers, the German, Austrian and Ottoman empires, ended the war in a state of complete collapse, and were wiped off the map by the Treaty of Versailles and other treaties which ended the war.

One other power which had started the war had also vanished. This was the Russian Empire, which had originally been part of the alliance that won the war, . The stresses of waging total war had been too much for this huge but ramshackle state, and it had fallen to Communist agitators in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The old Russian Empire had been replaced with a new entity, the Soviet Union.

The war dealt a huge blow to the economic ability of western European powers like Britain and France to sustain their overseas empires. It also changed Western culture for ever. Previous modes of culture, now associated with the lead up to the terrible carnage of the First World War, were discredited, and in their place new cultural expressions arose.

The early post-war years saw new fashions from America, such as the flappers and jazz music, become wildly popular. Modern art and architecture, based on completely new forms and ideas, replaced old styles which stretched in an unbroken tradition back, via the Renaissance, to Greece and Rome. At the same time radios, cars and the cinema widened people’s horizons, and the old parochial outlook of previous times began to weaken. In many countries, equality between the sexes received a major step up when women gained the vote for the first time

World War Two

The “Roaring Twenties” were a time of economic boom for much of the world, but underneath all this, the First World War had left the world economy in a fragile state, with many European countries deeply in debt and reliant on American loans to maintain their standard of living.

The boom times of the 1920s came to an end all too soon. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in a period of economic depression around the world. Banks were broken, factories closed, millions of workers were throw out of work, middle classes families lost their savings. In Europe, this led directly to the rise of fascism, above all the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany. This in turn led in a straight line to the outbreak of World War Two.

This was a far larger conflict than World War One had been, and involved a much greater proportion of the world. As well as Europe and North Africa, large parts of China and the Pacific became theaters of war. It also involved one of the most horrific episodes in world history, the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

The Cold War years

The United States and the Soviet Union, the main victors of the Second World War, were the new superpowers, and they soon assumed leadership of two rival blocks of nations covering most of the globe: the USA and its allies championed free market capitalism and (at least in theory) democracy, while Russia and its satellites enforced state-controlled “communist” economies and (in practice though not in theory) authoritarian governments. This rivalry led to a new period of tension known as the Cold War.

The European nations ended Word War 2 economically ruined. The Central European countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany were under Soviet occupation. The western European nations were allies of the United States and members of the defensive Western alliance, NATO.

The rivalry between the superpowers was soon given a sharper edge by the ability of both sides to deploy nuclear weapons in their arsenals. This spread a pervasive fear of sudden annihilation around the entire world.

The Cold War soon spread right around the world. The post-war years saw the rapid dismantling of the worldwide empires of European nations such as Britain and France. In their place, the superpowers began to compete for influence. In this, the Soviet Union was apparent the more successful, as communist regimes became established in China, South East Asia, Africa and even the Caribbean. Other newly-independent nations took on a non-aligned stance, though many of these leaned more towards the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc.

Western Europe during the Cold War



The Cold War years also, paradoxically, saw huge economic advance, especially for Western nations. The United States gave or lent money on a vast scale (the Marshall Plan) to get European countries, plus Japan, back on their feet after the Second World War, so as to staunch the spread of communism. The standard of living rose dramatically in these countries, with millions of homes becoming equipped with TVs, fridges, electric cookers and other home appliances.

The Cold War led to great technological innovation, for example with advances in military aviation feeding through to mass air travel and mass tourism. A space race, born of American and Russian efforts to build arsenals of long-range nuclear missiles, ended with the Americans sending a man to the moon. It also led to the placing of numerous satellites in orbit around the world, laying the foundations for dramatic progress in civilian communications, navigation, land surveying and other uses. Military rivalry stimulated amazing advances in electronics, miniaturization and computing, laying the foundations for a revolution in automation in the workplace which began to gather pace in the 1980s, as well as the emergence of a whole new entertainments industry.

On the other hand, superpower rivalry undermined the political stability and economic welfare of many countries in the poorer parts of the world. Countries in South East Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, experienced long and bloody communist insurgencies, and in Africa anti-communist forces tended to keep in power minority White regimes, especially in South Africa and in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. These in turn provoked uprisings which looked to the Communist Bloc for support.

Cultural and social change

Culturally, the Cold War years built on the jazz age of the inter-war period. Pop music gripped the young,  with such figures as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones seen as rebels by the older generation and heroes by the young. In the late 1960s and the 1970s the hippy movement preached a more relaxed attitude to sexual morals, aided by the widespread availability of the pill. With this came a more liberal attitude to homosexuality, and also a greater disrespect for authority and class differences. The use of recreational drugs became more mainstream. Sexual equality gained ground, especially in the work place. Divorce and family breakdown also became more common, and religious belief continued its long-standing decline. Concerns for the environment became much more widespread in the 1970s.

At this time, many European societies were being changed by the migration of millions of people of non-Western origin to their countries. Communities of peoples from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean grew up in many Western cities. These new arrivals were often greeted with suspicion, indeed downright hostility, at first, and it has taken them many years to become accepted members of their new societies. In some places this tension has never been truly dealt with.


A Global Civilization

The Cold War started coming to an end when China embraced economic liberalization from the mid-1970s, and when it became apparent that the Soviet Union could no longer afford the vast expense of its military rivalry with the West, from the mid-1980s. The entire Soviet system collapsed very suddenly at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. The European Union, which had grown up in western Europe during the Cold War years and was a major exponent of the values of Western free market economics as well as Western democracy, soon expanded to take in former communist countries in central Europe.

Indeed, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Western-style democracy spread though out many countries in Africa, East Asia, South East Asia and South America. Economic expansion also took hold in many countries, and these years saw a huge drop in poverty around the world.

New threats were soon emerging, however. A frightening new disease, AIDS, began killing off millions of people in throughout the world, and especially in poorer nations. Africa was especially hard hit. Concerns about the environment increased when scientists began voicing fears that the use of carbon-based fuels was causing potentially catastrophic climate change on a global scale. The search for alternative energy forms based on renewable resources took on a new urgency.

Most frightening of all was the emergence of a radical Islamist movement which espoused terrorism as a weapon to spread Islam. Many Muslims saw the global dominance of what they saw as an aggressively secular Western civilization as an existential threat their religion and way of life, and some saw violence as the only proper response to this.

The hostility felt by many Muslims towards the West was sharpened by the latter’s consistent support for Israel in its struggles against Arabs. In 2001 a small group of Islamic militants mounted a spectacular attack on a major landmark in New York, killing three thousand people or more. The outraged American government declared a “War on Terror”,  and soon Western forces were involved in heavy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of 2005 they were still in both places. Further terrorist attacks were taking place on a regular basis, in Madrid, London, Kenya and other countries; and throughout the West a debate was taking place about how to effectively assimilate peoples of non-Western origin into their societies.

Despite these difficulties, as of 2005 the West was still by far the dominant civilization on the planet. It set the terms of global trade, and was the source of most technological innovation, scientific advance and cultural trends.


Further study:


– of Europe in modern times

– of North America in modern times

– of the World showing the gradually increasing impact of Western civilization on the world

Regional maps with references to the impact of Western civilization:

– of South America and Central America after their colonization by Europeans

– of India and South Asia after the Europeans arrived

– of Africa after the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade and other Western impacts on the continent

– of the Pacific after the arrival of Western explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers, guns and diseases

– of East Asia , from the time of the Opium Wars

– of the Middle East, from the time when the West began its impact.