History As Metamorphosis

Final protocol of the Vienna CongressThe most fascinating aspect of history is in understanding how the chain reaction catalyzed by the past paved the way to the present.

Over the last few days, I spent my free time cramming for a comprehensive test on Western Civilization since 1648. “Cramming” can be an effective way of studying when done right. I shall tread on ice and bash the sacred cows of qualified researchers who might possibly negate this. Given coffee, Nutella, and an indefatigable attention span (which I do not pretend to possess), along with a sense of urgency (the night before will do the trick), and depending on the subject (I can’t speak for Calc XVIII), cramming can allow one to see the larger picture of the subject under consideration. Give me the storyline; show me the important details upon which hinged the turn of European history. Show me how it all changed, and you will pique my curiosity as to why it did.

The virtue I find in cramming, therefore, is that it allows a faster comprehension of the big picture. Granted, this is with history and it may not work so well with other subjects. But my point here is not to give advice on studying tips. Rather, I am always reminded how fascinating the scope and storyline of history truly is. Studying it under pressure forces a greater comprehension of its fluidity and motion.

Since I have recently been studying it, let us take Europe Since The 17th Century as our example. Let us start with 1618, the year that a proto-World War first broke out. This war had four phases, involved six European kingdoms and multiple nations, and lasted (with intermittent years of peace) until 1648—hence the “Thirty Years’ War”. The Peace of Westphalia ended the conflict, giving new territories to France, diminishing the authority of the Austrian Hapsburgs, bringing an end to the Holy Roman Empire as a dominant political entity, and separating church and state in political affairs. The states that had ruled Europe for centuries were rearranged, power was shifted, and territorial bounds were changed. The Thirty Years’ War set the ball rolling for the next three centuries.

Turning to the eighteenth century, we see four major powers dominate European history. A stronger France developed under Louis XIV who embarked on four territorial wars and lavished the upper classes with extravagance. Under Frederick II, the Prussian state (formerly the kingdom of Brandenburg) strengthened and developed a massive military disproportionate to the size and population of Prussia itself. It was not long before Prussia began rubbing shoulders against Austria and Russia, and in 1772 the three powers divided Poland to satisfy their expansive hunger. Like the Thirty Years war, it was a prototype of future appeasements and agreements that would characterize modern European diplomacy.

In 1789, what many historians call the long 19th century kicked off with the French Revolution. Enlightenment philosophy and mass dissatisfaction with the current political conditions birthed ten gory years of change and revolt for France. From this confusion eventually rose Napoleon Bonaparte, who established France as a fearsome empire and attempted complete domination of the European continent, venturing as far as Moscow in his endeavors. Alarmed at his greedy ambitions, Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia convened in Vienna in 1815 to form an alliance that would serve to balance the European powers for the next century. From this Congress of Vienna came the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium (created to constrain France), a buffer zone for Prussia along the French border, and financial and territorial punishment of France. The Congress of Vienna diminished France’s power, set the stage for current European boundaries, and provided major balance amongst European powers that would generally last till 1914, when an assassin’s bullet would defy the plans of Metternich.

The rest of the nineteenth century featured events like the Crimean War (a land grab for former Ottoman territory), scattered revolutions inspired by socialism, the rise of imperialism and industrialization, the prominence of the British Empire, and the respective unification of Germany and Italy. All these were factors that turned the heat on to a pot that would begin boiling in 1914.

This is a very broad sweep, of course, and I fear that it may be too simplistic. But I have wished not to provide every detail, but to show the main skeleton of the course of European events since 1618. To truly understand World War I, one must understand imperialism; to understand imperialism and the balance of powers, one must understand the Congress of Vienna; to understand the Congress of Vienna one must look to France and its history since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; and to understand the implications of the Peace of Westphalia, one must look to European history prior to and during the war.

Looking forward, then, we may see where World War I took us. The collapse of imperialism, the growing dominance of the United States as a world power, and the punishment of Germany resulted after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. From World War I we see the factors that gave us World War II. From World War II we see the emergence of two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—and the interrelation of world movements, powers, and ideologies since then.

And now suddenly we are at the present  day. This is where history is most fascinating, because as an individual living in 2013, I may understand the present (and how the world has looked in my twenty-year lifespan so far) in light of what it has been. I look at the modern-day Republique Francaise, and see it as it was all the way back to 1618. I look at Britain and its former colonies, and think of the great empire it once was. I look at Germany, and understand that it was once splintered into three hundred kingdoms.

The history of these nations is not all there is to Western Civilization, of course. There are many other factors. But understanding the rise and fall of these nations, the metamorphosis of modern powers, and the influence they have had on the world, one may feel a stronger connection and fascination with the world around him–which, after all, is the true joy of studying history.

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