After 1450, the old ideal that Europe constituted a unified Christendom was weakened by the rise of sovereign states. These states asserted a monopoly over law and the management of all institutions, including the church. The growth of secular power played a critical role in the success of the Protestant Reformation, and states gained increasing influence over religious affairs. The military revolution of the early modern period forced states to find new and better sources of revenue, and it spurred the expansion of state control over political and economic functions. In the long
view, war became increasingly costly, technologically sophisticated, and deadly. As Europeans expanded overseas, the theaters of European warfare expanded as well.
European polities took a variety of forms — empires, nation-states, and small republics. Absolute monarchies concentrated all authority in a single person who was regarded as divinely ordained, whereas in constitutional governments, power was shared between the monarch and representative institutions. Early modern advances in education, publishing, and prosperity created public opinion and civil society independent of government — developments that supported and were promoted by Enlightenment theories of natural rights and the social contract. Political revolutions and industrialization shifted governance from monarchies and aristocracies to parliamentary institutions that both generated and embodied the rule of law while gradually widening the participation of citizens in governance through the extension of suffrage. In the late 19th century, as European states became increasingly responsive to public opinion and developed mass political parties, they ironically became impersonal and bureaucratic. After World War I, under the pressure of political and economic crises, totalitarian regimes threatened parliamentary governments.
The European state system, originating in the Peace of Westphalia and structuring interstate relations through World War I, assumed that the continent would be divided into independent sovereign states and that war and diplomacy would be the normal means of interstate relations. In the 19th century, the goal of establishing and maintaining a balance of power was challenged by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the emergence of Italy and Germany as states, the weakening of traditional empires, and shifts in the alliance system. New and hardened alliances between countries driven by overseas competition and the growing influence of nationalism undermined diplomatic efforts to stave off war in the first half of the 20th century. In the 20th century, new international organizations (the League of Nations, the United Nations, NGOs) attempted to develop international law and modes of dispute resolution that would promote peace. After the catastrophe of two world wars, European states returned to the goal of a unified Europe, embodied this time not in Christendom but in the secular institutions of the European Union.
*Language on this page is provided by the College Board.
Students Will Be Able To: