This theme focuses on the development of various forms of government and civil institutions since 1450 and social cultural, and economic impact of political change.
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. With the military revolution of the early modern period, states and political leaders sought new and better sources of revenue, and it spurred the expansion of state control over political and economic functions.
European politics 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. The late 19th century saw the proliferation of political parties and the rise of mass politics. European states became more responsive to public opinion, and newly expanded government bureaucracies played an increasingly important role in the lives of average Europeans. After World War I, under the pressure of political and economic crises, totalitarian regimes threatened parliamentary governments.
The European state system, which originated in the Peace of Westphalia and shaped diplomatic 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 new nation-states such as Italy and Germany, the transformation of traditional empires, and shifts in the alliance system. 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 the modes of dispute resolution that would promote peace. After the catastrophe of two world wars, Western European states turned to the prospect of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while in Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact allied communist nations with the Soviet Union.
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