Global Expansion

The Age of Revolution (1750-1914)

The French Revolution

The ideas of the Enlightenment led to revolutions first in America in 1776 and then in France in 1789. In both cases, the revolutionaries said that they were fighting to regain their natural rights. In France, the society was divided into three estates, or classes. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate was everyone else—merchants, lawyers, teachers, peasants, etc. The vast majority of people belonged to the Third Estate, yet the First and Second Estates had almost all the political power and wealth, especially in terms of land.

On July 14, 1789, the French people stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris, and launched the French Revolution. King Louis XVI asked a duke if it was a revolt. “No,” answered the duke, “It’s a revolution.” A revolution is a total change in the way a country is governed. In the beginning, the French Revolution wasn’t particularly violent. Then, in 1792, a group of radicals took over and began the bloody “reign of terror.” The king, his queen, and thousands of others lost their heads to a new device called the guillotine. By mid-1794, the leaders of the terror lost popular support and they, too, went to the guillotine.

A new government was set up, but it was weak and corrupt. Then a strong new leader named Napoleon Bonaparte appeared. He took over the government in 1799 and five years later crowned himself emperor. Although Napoleon reformed many aspects of society—adopting a new uniform legal code, improving the school system, etc.—he did great harm as well. His army invaded and conquered most of Europe. Many thousands of people died as a result. To rule these new conquests, Napoleon placed members of his own family on the various thrones. Later, there would be revolts against his foreign rule.

There were two nations, however, that Napoleon couldn’t conquer—Russia and Great Britain. In 1812 Napoleon attacked Russia with an army of 500,000 soldiers. A brutal Russian winter and the stubborn determination of the Russians forced him to retreat with only a small fraction of his army intact. Napoleon’s final defeat came at the hands of the British and their allies in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was then exiled to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic where he died in 1821.

The Dynasties of Asia

After 1707, the British gradually replaced the Moguls as the rulers of India. The Mogul Empire was undone by a series of civil wars and religious conflicts with the Hindus. Meanwhile, the British East India Company slowly gained power and even acted as a kind of government in parts of India. Some Indians resented this and rose up in rebellion but they were defeated. By the mid-1800s all of India was under control of the British. In 1877 Queen Victoria of England became the Empress of India. India became the crown jewel of Britain’s colonial empire.

The Moguls, however, left behind one of the most beautiful buildings in the world—the Taj Mahal. Sah Jahan had it built with white marble as a tomb for his wife in the city of Agra. Started in 1623, it took 20,000 workers nearly 20 years to finish it. The top of the dome is 243 feet high and can be seen from many miles away.

In Japan, a warrior society emerged in the 12th century. While Japan had an emperor, power rested in the hands of the shogun, or supreme military general. Like Europe, Japan developed a feudal society with its own forms of lords and vassals. The emperor and the shogun were at the top. Just below them came the loyal samurai, who adhered to a strict code of conduct that lasted into the 20th century. All other classes fell below them.

Beginning in the early 17th century, the Japanese deliberately cut themselves off from the rest of the world. No one was allowed to leave Japan and anyone who did was not allowed to return. That changed only when an American sailor named Matthew Perry sailed to Japan in 1853. He greatly impressed the Japanese with his guns and machines. The Japanese, unlike the Chinese, soon decided to adopt some Western ways.

Meanwhile, in China, the Manchu Dynasty replaced the Ming Dynasty in 1644. Before their fall, however, the Mings built the awesome Forbidden City in their new capital city of Beijing. Only members of the royal family and government officials were allowed inside its walls. When Europeans came to China, they won trade concessions from the Chinese and, in the 19th century, gained more and more control over the country. The Chinese, clinging to old traditions and beliefs, were almost powerless to stop this foreign domination.

Nationalism and the Industrial Revolution

After the Wars of Napoleon, Europe had a few large kingdoms or empires, such as the Kingdom of France and the Austrian Empire, and many small states. Some of the countries that are prominent today didn’t even exist in 1815. There was, for example, no Germany or Italy. As the 19th century moved along, a spirit of nationalism developed. People with the same language and culture wanted to have their own country. Germany, however, was just a scattering of many states. Italy was also divided into small states and, even worse, the Italians were ruled by a foreign power—the Austrian Empire.

Germany began to unify under its largest state—Prussia. More and more of the smaller northern German states joined Prussia. A successful war with France in 1870 encouraged the last southern German states to unite with Prussia. Finally, in 1871, the nation of Germany was born with William of Prussia as its emperor. In Italy, after several false starts, the Italians finally defeated Austria on the battlefield, and the modern nation of Italy was born in 1870.

If the 19th century was the age of nationalism, it was also the age of industrialism. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1769 launched the Industrial Revolution. Previously everything had been done by hand, usually at home. During the 1800s steam-driven machines increasingly did the work once done by human hands. This was especially true in the textile industry. Machines were, however, far too large and expensive to be used at home. So buildings called factories were built to house the machines. This system created a new and modern class of labor—the factory worker. In order to be close to their work, factory workers moved into new cities that sprang up around the factories.

This urbanization changed the face of Europe. In 1800 there were no cities with more than a million people. By 1900, however, there were several European cities with more than a million people. The population of London, for example, exceeded 6 million. This rapid urbanization caused many problems—diseases from poor sanitation, bad housing, and inadequate police.

Steam also changed how people traveled. Before the invention of the steam engine, the fastest a person could travel over land was on horseback. Someone such as Julius Caesar traveled as fast as, say, George Washington. Steam-powered boats and steam-powered railroads, however, reduced travel time dramatically in the 19th century.


The British once bragged that the sun never set on the British Empire. That was true in the 1800s and early 1900s. The British Empire spanned the globe. The British had colonies and protectorates in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific region, and in the Americas. So at any given moment, the sun was already high in the sky shining on one or more of these possessions. The empire included India, “the crown jewel of the Empire,” Australia, Hong Kong, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, among others.

Other European nations tried to keep pace with Britain. These nations, too, thought that having colonies added to their national strength. So they developed colonization policies of their own. France, for example, established protectorates in Cambodia, Laos, and in northern and central Vietnam. It turned southern Vietnam into a colony. France also had colonies in Africa and South America. Portugal had colonies in Africa and China. Even the Netherlands had colonies in Africa and South America as well as the West and East Indies. New nations, such as Germany and Italy, joined the race by establishing colonies in Africa.

The imperialism of Europe was made possible by its industrial strength. Europeans could dominate native peoples because the European countries were economically and militarily so much stronger. The one great exception to this rule was Japan. Because the Japanese so quickly adopted certain Western ways, they became strong enough militarily to defeat Russia in a war in 1905. Japan even became an imperial power in its own right, taking over Taiwan and Korea.

Between 1870 and 1914 the European colonial race often led to conflict among the Europeans themselves. In South Africa, for example, the British fought Dutch settlers, called the Boers. The Boer War (1899–1902) ended in a British victory.

The Half-Century Crisis 1900-1945

World War I

The “’isms” of the 1800s and early 1900s—nationalism, imperialism, and industrialism—helped to create conflict among Europeans. Nations tried to gain power and influence at their neighbor’s expense. No single nation, however, felt powerful enough to stand alone. So most nations formed military alliances. If one member of an alliance was attacked, the other members would come to its aid. One such alliance was made up of Britain, France, and Russia. Another alliance was made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

Then, on June 28, 1914, a single act sparked a world war. A nationalist from Serbia shot and killed the Austrian archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, as the couple drove through the streets. Austria, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia, which was supported by Russia. The alliances clicked into gear and World War I began. On one side were the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. On the other side were the Allied—Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and several other countries. The United States joined the Allies in 1917 after German submarines attacked American ships.

In the beginning most people thought the war would be brief and glorious. Instead, it lasted for four long bloody years. On the Western Front, both sides dug trenches and fought to a stalemate. Neither side could gain the upper hand—until the arrival of fresh American troops tipped the balance in favor of the Allies.

World War I ended in 1918 when a new German government asked for an armistice, or temporary peace agreement. The actual fighting ended at 11 A.M. on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. By then more than 8 million soldiers on both sides had died.

World War I changed the map of Europe. The old monarchies in Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary disappeared. New nations such as Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania emerged. In addition, Germany was forced to sign the harsh Treaty of Versailles. To prevent a repetition of World War I, the Allies created the League of Nations. The hopes of this world peace-keeping body were crushed, however, when the United States refused to join.

The Rise of Communism

Although Russia was allied with the winning side in World War I, it had a lot of problems during and after the war. The old Russian Government under Czar (Tsar) Nicholas II was overthrown during the war. In 1917 Nicholas was forced to abdicate, or give up, his throne. (He and his family were arrested and later executed by the communists.) A new government under Vladimir Lenin took over. In March of 1918, Lenin signed a treaty ending the war with Germany.

The Russian Revolution completely changed Russian society. The old nobility was crushed and a small group of dedicated communists took over the reigns of government. Under the communist philosophy, these rulers would stay in power until the people were ready to rule themselves.

Despite the peace with Germany, Lenin still had a war on his hands—a civil war. Many Russians did not want to be governed by the communists. Neither did many non-Russian nationals, such as the Finns, Poles, and Ukrainians. This civil war between the Reds (communists) and the Whites (their opponents) was a bloody affair. Millions of Russians were killed in the fighting or died as a result of famine or disease. In the end, the communists prevailed.

In 1922 Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the U.S.S.R. The country, most often called simply the Soviet Union, had 15 republics, one for each major national group. The communists, now in total control, began to reorganize society. One step was to get rid of private farms. In their place, the communists organized “collectives,” or farms run by the peasants collectively. All the peasants farmed the land together and sold their crops to the government.

Fascism vs. Democracy

Many Europeans craved strong leadership in the uncertain world of the 1920s and 1930s. They wanted someone who could get results and who could restore national pride. In Russia, the people got more than they bargained for in Joseph Stalin. He took over after the death of Lenin in 1924. Stalin ruled with an iron fist, never flinching to eliminate anyone who opposed him. He was, however, just one of the dictators who emerged out of the ashes of World War I.

The Weimar Republic ruled Germany immediately after World War I. It was a democratic form of government with constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and religion. It leaders, however, had great difficulties dealing with the economy and the war debts left over from World War I. A new party arose in the 1920s with different answers. It was called the Nazi Party, and its leader was Adolf Hitler. Hitler hated democracy and he hated the Jews. He tried unsuccessfully to seize power in 1923. Hitler was arrested and sent to prison. There he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which outlined his plans for Germany.

Once out of prison, Hitler resumed his political activity. Many Germans were drawn to his program. Then in 1933 they voted him chancellor, or prime minister, of Germany. Before long, he gained total control over the country. He did revive the economy through large-scale building programs, but his followers also burned books. They attacked Jewish businesses and synagogues, and they began forcing the Jews to wear a yellow star on their clothing. Despite such actions, Hitler enjoyed popularity with most Germans during the 1930s.

In Italy, another dictator came to power. He was Benito Mussolini, the head of the Fascist Party. Mussolini shared many of Hitler’s beliefs. He believed in dictatorship with a single party and a single leader. The Fascists wanted Italy to be a strong and powerful country again. Like Hitler in Germany, Mussolini turned his country into a totalitarian state.

The Nazis and the Fascists, however, wanted more. They soon built strong armies to threaten their neighbors. Hitler took over German-speaking territories on Germany’s border. Italy invaded Ethiopia in Africa. Meanwhile, the democracies—principally Britain and France—did nothing to stop them. In 1938 the British and the French, wanting to avoid war at all costs, gave in to Hitler at a meeting in Munich, Germany. Hitler had demanded the right to take over the non-German nation of Czechoslovakia.

World War II

At the Munich meeting, Hitler had promised he would make no more territorial demands after Czechoslovakia. He lied. Hitler had much greater ambitions for his government, which was known as the Third Reich. But first he had to deal with the Soviet Union. Although both countries were ruled by dictators, the communists hated the Nazis and vice versa. Yet they agreed on one thing. They did not want to fight each other—at least, not yet. So in 1939, the two enemies signed a nonaggression pact. Freed from his worry about a war with the Soviet Union, Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later Britain and France finally declared war on Germany. The war that the democracies had tried to hard to avoid had now begun.

After crushing Poland, Hitler turned west and attacked France, which fell in June of 1940. There was now only one free nation left standing in Western Europe—the United Kingdom. Hitler tried to bomb England into surrender with a blitzkrieg, or lightning war. But somehow England held out. After ten months of an air war in the skies over England, Hitler quit. He had lost the Battle of Britain.

Then, in June of 1941, Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Stalin by attacking the Soviet Union. The move caught Stalin by surprise. The Germans pushed deep into Russian territory. But Russia wasn’t a pushover like Belgium or France had been. It proved to be too vast, its winters too cold, and its people too stubborn. Eventually Hitler was forced to retreat after suffering massive losses.

Meanwhile on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States declared war on Japan. Germany, an ally of Japan, then declared war on the United States. The United States and Britain agreed it was more important to defeat Germany first. But the Allies were too weak and Germany was still too strong to attack Europe directly. So they attacked German forces in North Africa first and then defeated Germany’s other ally, Italy. Finally, on June 6, 1944, a day known as D-Day, the Allies landed in France. Meanwhile, the Russians were pushing back the Germans in the East. Soon victory was in sight.

At last, in May, the Germans surrendered. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. It was only then that the Allies discovered the full extent of the horrors that had occurred during the war. The Germans had set up concentration camps, where they sent Jews and other groups of people they did not like. More than 6 million people died in these camps.

In the Pacific, American forces began to close in on Japan by moving from one island to another. Then, in August of 1945, the United States used a new and horrible weapon on Japan. Americans dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—killing a couple of hundred thousand people, On August 14, Japan surrendered, and World War II was over.


Helpful Links:

  1. Khan Academy Page on this Time Period:
  2. Class Notes on this Time Period:

Video Links:

  1. World History 1750-1900: