The four centuries following 1500 would see the meteoric rise of Western Europe from a cultural backwater to the first culture to dominate the planet. Given Western Europe’s tiny size, the question arises: what singled it out as the civilization to rise to global dominance? A century ago, Europeans would attribute their dominance to the moral and religious superiority of European and Christian culture. However, life and history are not quite so simple. Rather, there was a unique combination of forces that converged at the right time and place to make European civilization the culture that would largely define the modern world, especially in terms of its technology and political ideologies.
On the surface, other civilizations seemed more likely to predominate, having larger populations, strongly centralized governments, wealth, and technologies comparable to, if not greater than, Western Europe’s. For example, Ming China had a population two to three times that of Western Europe. Traditionally, Chinese technology had been among the most innovative in the world, heavily influencing Europe itself with such inventions as gunpowder, the clock, paper, and the compass. China’s government was strongly centralized and autocratic, being run by what was probably the best civil service in the world at that time.
The other major civilizations in the world, such as the Ottoman Turks, Mughal India, Tokugawa Japan, Muscovite Russia, and the Incan and Aztec Empires in the Western Hemisphere, told a similar story of being populous, wealthy (except for Russia), and highly centralized under strong autocratic rulers. In fact, it was Western Europe’s lack of autocratic rulers, such as these other cultures had, which would be the key to its leaping ahead of the pack. For, while the absolute rulers outside of Europe tended to exploit and suppress their middle class and, in the process, stifle inventiveness and initiative, the spirit of free enterprise and inventiveness had much more free rein in Western Europe. That freedom created a powerful dynamic that allowed Europeans to forge ahead with new ideas, business techniques, and technologies that would shape the modern world. And if freedom was the key to Europe’s success, geography was much of its underlying basis.
Europe’s geography and its effects
There were two main geographic factors that would help lead to Western Europe’s later dominance. First of all, Western Europe was broken up by mountains, forests, and bodies of water: the Alps and Pyrenees cutting Italy, Spain, and Portugal off from northern Europe; the English Channel cutting England off from the continent; and the Baltic Sea separating Scandinavia from the rest of Europe in the south. This broke Western Europe into a large number of independent states that no one ruler had the power and resources to conquer and hold. Second, Western Europe had a wide diversity of climates, resources, and waterways which promoted a large number of separate economies, but which were linked together for trade by the extensive coastlines and river systems covering the region. Therefore, just as no one power could control all of Europe politically, no one power could monopolize one vital aspect of its economy. Thus Europe was characterized by what we call political and economic pluralism, which also reinforced each other.
Political and economic pluralism also combined to promote the rise of a prosperous and innovative middle class that could create and spread new ideas, business techniques, and technology if the local rulers would allow it. If they did not allow it, there was always the option of moving to another state that did give them the freedom to pursue their interests. The results of such moves, such as when the French Protestant Huguenots left France en masse to avoid Louis XIV’s religious persecution in 1685, were to deprive the economies of the persecuting nations of some of their wealthiest and most innovative people while boosting the economies of the countries that took these immigrants in. As a result, the balance of power would constantly shift away from powerful and repressive states and in favor of the more progressive and free thinking ones, thus reinforcing political pluralism in Western Europe.
The rise of a free middle class had two other important effects. First of all, in conjunction with Western Europe’s political pluralism, it could spread new technology (e.g., the printing press) and ideas (e.g., the Reformation). Second, in conjunction with Western Europe’s economic pluralism, the middle class was able to create a freer capitalist economy and promote a competitive spirit that encouraged new technologies and generated profits for those with the drive and imagination to invent and sell them.
These two factors combined to generate even more rapid technological development, especially in the realm of military inventions. There were three main areas of military technology developed. First of all there was the new gunpowder technology which, when combined with the Roman drill and march recently rediscovered and revived during the Renaissance, created the most powerful and efficient armies in the world by the late 1600’s. The defensive response to gunpowder gave Europe the second military factor: stronger and more sophisticated fortresses to resist artillery. These fortresses tied invading armies down to prolonged and tedious sieges that stopped, or at least drastically slowed, the progress of invading armies. One side effect of this was that it fed back into and further reinforced Western Europe’s political pluralism. The third military innovation (or more properly, application of peaceful technology to military purposes) was the development of large bulky ships to withstand long voyages over the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Such ships also served as excellent gun platforms, thus making European navies the most deadly on the planet.
These three factors converged to help Western Europe establish large overseas colonial empires which were conquered by Europe’s small but well armed and disciplined armies and navies and held under control by powerful European fortresses. As time and Western Europe’s technology progressed, European armies would show an amazing ability to defeat non-European armies many times their size with astounding regularity, each time increasing and strengthening their hold on their overseas colonies.
Europe’s large colonial empires brought an influx of money and resources into Europe. This fed back into Europe’s economic and political pluralism, especially after 1600 when smaller states such as England and the Dutch Republic were taking their share of overseas trade and colonies, thus starting the cycle all over again. These colonial empires also made Western Europe the center of a world economy, providing it with the money and resources needed for the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700’s. It is no accident that the Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain, which also happened to be the foremost colonial power of its day.
Thanks to this cycle, Europe and European derived cultures (e.g., the United States, Canada, and Australia) were able to control 85% of the globe by 1900. Since then, Europe has lost its colonial empire, thanks primarily to two highly destructive world wars, but not before it could spread its ideas and technology across the globe where they have taken firm root.