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European Wars

European Wars

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By the dawn of the 20th century, Europe had established itself as the most important and most dangerous continent on the planet. After centuries of European revolutions, colonial expansionism, maritime dominance, and economic supremacy, the nations of Europe had become nothing short of global empires in a race against time. World War I and World War II, the two largest conflicts in World History, would unfold from 20th-century conflicts within Europe. But the people of Europe were no strangers to the war. Ranging back to the Gothic Wars of the Classical Era, the Hundred Years War of the Medieval Era, and the 30 Years' War of the Early Modern Period, Europe has acted as a theatre of war between the greatest powers in all of history.

Europeans have been involved in many conflicts throughout history, many of them within foreign continents such as Africa and North America. This article focuses on and explores European wars within the European continent. As such, events such as the Conquistador's invasion of South America, the American Revolution against Britain, and theatres of war outside of Europe during the World Wars will not be discussed.

European Wars Timeline

The following outline provides a brief progression of important events related to European Wars, spanning over 2,000 years. It is divided into four main historical periods and is not all-encompassing:

European Wars in the Classical Era:

  • 249 BCE - 554 CE: Gothic Wars between the Germanic Goths and Roman Empire

  • 58 BCE - 50 BCE: Gaulic Wars between the Celts and the Roman Empire

European Wars in the Medieval Era:

  • Early 700's CE - 1492: The Reconquista between Iberian Catholic Kingdoms and the Islamic Moors

  • 8th century - 11th century: The Viking Invasions

  • 1095 - 1291: The Crusades

  • 13th century - 20th century: The Ottoman Wars, including many conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Europe

  • 1337 - 1453: The Hundred Years' War between France and England.

European Wars in the Early Modern Period:

  • 1455 - 1485: The War of the Roses in England.

  • 1618 - 1648: The 30 Years' War

  • 1740 - 1748: War of Austrian Succession (Bourbons vs Habsburgs)

  • 1756 - 1763: The Seven Years' War

  • 1803 - 1815: The Napoleonic Wars

European Wars in the Modern Period:

  • 1914 - 1918: World War I

  • 1917 - 1923: Russian Revolution

  • 1939 - 1945: World War II

European Wars Map

To understand the nature of European Wars, it is helpful to understand the shape of Europe. As a continent, Europe is connected to Asia in the east and faces the Atlantic Ocean to its west. To its south is the Mediterranean Ocean, and the continent of Africa beyond the Mediterranean. Europe is connected to the Middle East through modern-day Turkey. All of these lands and bodies of water served as battlefields for European wars throughout history.

European Wars, Modern Map, StudySmarterFig. 1- 21st-century map of Europe.

Europe is a dense continent of many bordering political states. Fascinatingly, almost all of Europe can fit inside the country of China. Traveling from Paris in France to Warsaw in Poland is less than 1,000 miles. Imagine Napoleon's army marching from France throughout Europe or Adolf Hitler's multi-front invasion of France and Poland. Imagine the Spanish Armada from Spain sailing across the English Channel or the transportation of French troops on Italian ships to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) to fight in the Crusades. The North Sea, now largely used for European trade, was once crossed by Vikings from Sweden in their invasions of England and France; less than a century ago, Nazi Germany was launching its mighty fleets into the waters of the North Sea during World War II.

The Changing Maps of European Wars

The above map of modern-day Europe may be familiar to you. But that is only a contemporary map, and the political borders of Europe have shifted many times across the centuries. Take, for example, the map below:

European Wars, Medieval Map, StudySmarterFig. 2- Map depicting the political boundaries of territories within and around Europe in 1328.

This map, depicting late-Medieval Europe, reveals a very different world of European warfare. Instead of Spain, the Catholic kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula were battling with the Islamic Moors of Granada. The now-extinct Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the Roman Empire, set itself against the Seljuk Turks in the Crusades. To the Northeast, the Mongolian Golden Horde invaded Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary in Eastern Europe. Medieval France and England were almost continuously engaged in warfare.

But who exactly fought in European Wars, and why? How have European Wars changed over the centuries, and what lasting impacts have they left on the world?

History of European Wars

From spears to tanks, very different wars have been fought on the same European soil throughout history. In many ways, European history is the history of its wars.

Early European Wars

As previously mentioned, European wars span back to Rome's invasions (and defenses) against the European Celts and Goths of the Classical Era. With the fall of the Roman Empire (at least in the west), the shape of European history changed forever. Christianity and feudalism swept through Europe, reshaping it into a land of many (often warring) Christian Kingdoms. Knights and bannerman gathered beneath kings in battles and sieges against their rivals. Chivalry defined the characteristics of the noble knight, a righteous Medieval European warrior.

European Wars, Hundred Years' War, StudySmarterFig. 3- Art depicting Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years' War.

Term Definition
Feudalism The defining social structure of Medieval Europe; broadly, a system of a large peasant class in service to a local lord in exchange for protection.
Chivalry The system and code of conduct of knighthood.

During the Medieval Era, Europeans waged war against each other and against foes from beyond their realm. The invasion of England by William the Conqueror in the 11th century began multiple centuries of conflict between the English and the French, echoed within the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) and later the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). A large driving force in Medieval European Wars was religion, namely the rising conflict between Christianity and Islam. The Crusades orchestrated in Anatolia, the Reconquista in Spain, and even the battles against the Mongolian Golden Horde featured the united efforts of Christian European kingdoms against foreign Islamic states.

European Wars of Religion

The European Wars of Religion tell the story of warfare during the Early Modern Period (1450-1750). Beginning with the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and ending in 1648 with the end of the Thirty Years' War, Europe was embroiled in devastating wars and revolutions between European Catholics and European Christians. Christianity was divided in two (and defeated in the East, with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453).

In the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Great Britain, divisions caused by political discontent led to multiple Protestant revolutions against Catholic oppressors. The death toll of the European Wars of Religion is estimated to be between 10 and 20 million people.

In the long term we can hope that religion will change the nature of man and reduce conflict. But history is not encouraging in this respect. The bloodiest wars in history have been religious wars.

-Richard Nixon

But a new trend was rising during the European Wars of Religion. What started off as conflicts over religious matters often ended in political settlements between two rising political factions. Increasingly, the European Wars of Religion became more about large-scale political struggles than religion at all, as exemplified in the 30 Years' War. During the Early Modern Period, chivalry and knighthood were replaced by gunpowder and mercenary armies. The shape of European politics and warfare was changing; gradually, monarchs began losing their power, and 18th to 19th-century revolutions threatened to engulf Europe.

Modern European Wars

During the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of France and expanded his dominion across nearly all of Europe. Finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, his terrifying reign changed Europe's understanding of warfare forever. From then on, European nations were desperately afraid of allowing their competitors to gain too much power, as Napoleon proved that logistical might, naval power, and martial excellence were the greatest factors of victory in 19th-century warfare. Despite the relative peace between nations that followed within Europe, political tensions were always growing.

The Great War

The unification of Germany as the kingdom of Prussia spawned a system of increasingly complex political alliances between the nations of Europe. Saturated with power from colonization efforts in Africa, Europe seemed set to explode into mass conflict by the beginning of the 20th century. The assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 lit the fuse. Now equipped with advanced bolt action rifles, tanks, and chemical weapons, World War I (aka the Great War) transformed at last changed European warfare from brave cavalry charges to dismal and impersonal trench warfare. From 1914 to 1918, the lands and people of Europe were ravaged.

European Wars, World War I, StudySmarterFig. 4- Australian soldiers in Belgium during World War I.

World War II and Beyond

After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, Germany was humiliated and left to wither in an economic recession. Following in the footsteps of Napoleon, dictators vied for power in Europe. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini took control of Germany, Russia, and Italy, respectively. Each dictator maneuvered their countries out of recession. The rise of new political ideologies, namely Socialism and Communism, and the emboldened state of a reinvigorated Nazi Germany under Hitler led to the beginning of World War II, the largest and most destructive was in all of human history.

Europeans Wars, World War II, StudySmarterFig. 5- German Panzer division in formation during World War II.

European Wars since WW2:

There have been a handful of conflicts within the European continent since World War II. The Cold War (1947 to 1991), though waged in many proxy wars in foreign countries outside of Europe, involved Russia and many countries within Europe such as Britain and Germany. More recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already established itself as the most-definitive European war since World War II.

From the Gothic Wars to World War II, Europe has acted as the battlefield for thousands of wars. Imperial expansion, religious disputes, politics, and political ideologies caused millions of deaths through European wars, as warfare changed from infantry divisions to cavalry charges, to trench warfare and vehicular supremacy, and eventually nuclear power. European Wars have defined both European and world history.

European Wars - Key takeaways

  • For over two millennia, Europe has acted as the theatre of war for thousands of conflicts waged over religion, politics, and political ideologies.
  • Medieval European warfare was defined by knighthood, cavalry, and chivalry; often, war was waged between Christian kingdoms or as a unified effort against Islamic enemies.
  • During the Early Modern Period, the European Wars of Religion ravaged large swathes of the European population as wars became less about religion and more about politics.
  • Napoleon rose to power in the early 19th century, striking terror into the non-French European nations, who engaged in increasingly complex political alliances throughout the century.
  • The two World Wars of the 20th century exploded from rising political tensions and political ideologies in Europe. The World Wars caused great amounts of destruction in Europe and altered the course of human history.


  1. Fig. 5 German Panzer Division (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-297-1740-19A,_Frankreich,_SS-Division_%22Hitlerjugend%22,_Panzer_IV.jpg) by Kurth and German Federal Archive (https://www.bundesarchiv.de/DE/Navigation/Home/home.html), licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en).

Frequently Asked Questions about European Wars

Major wars in Europe include the One Hundred Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, the Seven Years' War, the Napoleon Wars, and World War I and World War II. 

Europe was seemingly always at war over religious differences, political disputes, and conflicting political ideologies. The nature of European history is defined by its deep and rich culture of warfare. 

World War II ended in 1945 in Europe. 

The rise of fascism in nations such as Germany and Italy spawned fierce political parties that sought to spread their ideologies across the world. 

As part of the European Wars of Religion, the strained division between Protestantism and Catholicism in the Holy Roman Empire caused the Thirty Years' War to begin in Europe. 

Final European Wars Quiz

European Wars Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Define Feudalism

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The defining social structure of Medieval Europe; broadly, a system of a large peasant class in service to a local lord in exchange for protection.

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Define Knighthood

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The system and code of conduct of knighthood.

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Which of the following historical periods included the European Wars of Religion (such as the Thirty Years' War)?

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Early Modern Period 

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Many of the European Wars fought during the Medieval Era were fought between allied Christian Kingdoms and foreign ____ states. 

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The Hundred Years' War and Seven Years' War were fought between which two European countries? (A rivalry that began with the war efforts of William the Conqueror in the 11th century). 

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France and England 

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The European Wars of Religion were caused by religion but were later driven by what? 

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Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of which European country in 1803? 

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What is the largest and most destructive war in world history, caused by tensions in Europe? 

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World War II

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European warfare evolved throughout history. Chivalry and knighthood were replaced by gunpowder and mercenary armies during which time period? 

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Early Modern Period 

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The estimated death toll of the European Wars of Religion is estimated to be in what range? 

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10 and 20 million 

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