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The 20th Century

- The World Wars -

- The Postwar Era -

- The End of the Cold War -

- The Growth of Cooperation and Intergration -

- The Future of Europe -

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For most Europeans, the years from 1871 to 1914 constituted La Belle Epoque (“the beautiful times”). Science had made life more comfortable and secure, representative government had achieved wide acceptance in principle, and continued progress was confidently expected. Proud of their accomplishments and convinced that history had assigned them a civilizing mission, Europe’s powers laid colonial claim to vast territories in Africa and Asia. Some believed, however, that Europe was dancing on a volcano. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and German sociologist Max Weber cautioned against a facile optimism and dismissed the liberal conception of rational humanity, while artists such as Dutch Vincent van Gogh and Norwegian Edvard Munch explored the darker regions of the human heart. Such forebodings began to seem less eccentric in the light of contemporary challenges to the liberal consensus. A new and virulent strain of anti-Semitism infected the political life of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and France; in the home of the revolution, the Dreyfus affair threatened to bring down the Third Republic. National rivalries were exacerbated by imperial competition, and the nationality problem in the Hungarian half of the Habsburg monarchy intensified as a result of the government’s Magyarization policies and the example German and Italian unifications set for the Slavic peoples.

As the industrial working class grew in number and organized strength, Marxist social-democratic parties pressured European governments to equalize conditions as well as opportunities. In the midst of an increasingly unsettled atmosphere, Emperor William II of Germany dismissed Bismarck in 1890. For two decades the Iron Chancellor had served as Europe’s “honest broker,” juggling with great dexterity a bewildering array of alliances and alignments and thereby maintaining the peace. None of his successors possessed the skill needed to preserve Bismarck’s system, and when the incompetent emperor jettisoned realpolitik in favor of Weltpolitik (imperial politics), England, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente.

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