The beginnings of civilization in Europe can be traced to very ancient times, but they are not as old as the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Roman and Greek cultures flourished in Europe, and European civilization—language, technology, political concepts, and the Christian religion—have been spread throughout the world by European colonists and immigrants. Throughout history, Europe has been the scene of many great and destructive wars that have ravaged both rural and urban areas. Once embraced by vast and powerful empires and kingdoms, successful nationalistic uprisings (especially in the 19th cent.) divided the continent into many sovereign states. The political fragmentation led to economic competition and political strife among the states.
After World War II, Europe became divided into two ideological blocs (Eastern Europe, dominated by the USSR, and Western Europe, dominated by the United States) and became engaged in the cold war. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed as a military deterrent to the spread of Communism and sought to maintain a military balance with its eastern equivalent, the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Cold war tensions eased in the 1960s, and signs of normalization of East-West relations appeared in the 1970s.
In Western Europe, the European Economic Community (Common Market), the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) merged in 1967 to form the European Community. Known since 1993 as the European Union, the organization aims to develop economic and monetary union among its members, ultimately leading to political union. The Eastern European counterpart was the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), which, like the Warsaw Treaty Organization, dissolved with the breakup of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.
The loosening of political control sparked a revival of the long pent-up ethnic nationalism and a wave of democratization that led to an overthrow of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe. In the former Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs were unleashed, leading to civil war and massacres of members of ethnic groups, or "ethnic cleansing," in areas where other groups won military control. During the early and mid-1990s most of the former Soviet bloc countries embarked on economic restructuring programs to transform their centralized economies into market-based ones. The pace of reform varied, especially as the hardships involved became increasingly evident. Meanwhile, in Western Europe the European Union, amid some tensions, continued working toward greater political and economic unity, including the creation of a common European currency.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.