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Europe: 100 years of war and transformation

20th century brought many changes in Europe. Ukraine crisis threatens 21st-century stability.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, leave Sarajevo City Hall in Bosnia on June 28, 1914. Minutes later the two are assassinated. The event sparked the start of World War I. (Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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In the summer of 1914, tension was building across Europe. In the east, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were threatened by ethnic groups seeking to break away or expand their reach. To the west, Germany was flexing its industrial muscle, while the powerful British navy was the envy of the world.

A wave of nationalism — pride in one’s country, often in the belief that it is better than any other — was sweeping over the continent. Nations were busy building their militaries and forming alliances with one another for protection. Even so, few people thought a war would result.

That changed in late June when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, went to Bosnia to inspect troops. Bosnia was part of Austria then, but Serbia claimed it, too. As Franz Ferdinand and his wife rode in an open car through Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, a Bosnian Serb who opposed Austro-Hungarian rule shot and killed them.

Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia and declared war. Other nations, united by their treaties, jumped in. By early August, World War I had begun. When it was over, more than four years later, the map of Europe looked very different. Empires had toppled. New countries had formed.

The war set off a century of change in Europe’s borders. They shifted again when a second world war broke out just 20 years after the first one ended. The map has continued to change, right up to the present day.

The countries that fought in World War I split into two camps. Russia, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Ireland) were among those that sided with Serbia. They were called the Allies. Opposing them were the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. A few countries — Spain and Switzerland, for example — stayed neutral, not choosing a side. The United States, largely in response to German submarine attacks on its ships, joined the Allies in April 1917. Most of the fighting took place on two fronts in Europe, but the war also spread to the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia and some Pacific islands.

Family ties

For three of the biggest nations involved, the war was a family affair. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife, Empress Alexandra, were all cousins of Britain’s King George V.

Explanation: George’s father, Wilhelm’s mother and Alexandra’s mother were all children of Queen Victoria. That made George, Wilhelm and Alexandra first cousins. Nicholas’s mother was the sister of George’s mother, so Nicholas and George were first cousins. Nicholas and George looked like twins and were sometimes mistaken for each other.

The Christmas truce

On Christmas Eve 1914, something amazing happened. German and Allied soldiers in trenches along the Western Front in Belgium stopped fighting for a few hours. Instead, they sang carols, exchanged food and small gifts and even played soccer in the narrow strip of “no man’s land” between the armies.

The truce spread along the entire front and lasted for a week in some places.

Trench warfare

Germany hoped to defeat the Allies in the west quickly, then turn and attack Russia. But it got bogged down on the Western Front. Soldiers on both sides hunkered down in hundreds of miles of trenches, sometimes just yards apart. Trenches were dug in zigzag patterns. This reduced the impact of exploding shells and kept machine guns from firing down long lines of men.

Animals and weapons

The war was fought in ways new and old. As in previous wars, horses pulled cannons, ammunition and supplies. Pigeons and dogs carried messages. Dogs also sniffed out explosives and acted as guards. Jars filled with glowworms lit the trenches.

At the same time, tanks and airplanes were used in combat for the first time. And weapons such as machine guns and flamethrowers were updated, with deadly effect.

Flying aces

Airplanes were fairly new when the war broke out. At first, they were used just to spy on the enemy and direct artillery fire. Later, pilots chased and shot at one another in “dogfights.” German pilots had parachutes, though they often failed to work. Allied pilots were not issued parachutes, in part because officers thought pilots would bail out at the first sign of trouble.

Top aviators were called aces. The most famous was Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, who shot down 80 enemy planes. The top Allied pilot, René Fonck of France, had 75. The Red Baron did not live to see the war’s end. He was killed in combat in 1918, at age 25.

Gas attacks

Looking to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the Germans turned to chemical weapons. A yellow-green cloud that drifted over Allied troops at Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915 marked the first use of poison gas in the war. Thousands of soldiers choked to death as the chlorine gas attacked their lungs. Months later, the Allies launched their own gas attacks. In addition to chlorine, both sides used phosgene and mustard gas, which blistered the skin.

Gas attacks are thought to have caused more than 90,000 deaths in the war. The rate dropped a lot once soldiers were issued gas masks. Special masks were made for dogs and horses.

Eastern Front

In the east, the armies of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany battled across a wide-open landscape. Although the Russians claimed early victories, they were soon overrun by the Germans and suffered big losses.

At home, the Russian people were fed up. Riots and strikes led to two revolutions in 1917. First, the czar was forced out. Then the government that replaced him was ousted. The country was then led by Vladimir Lenin and his followers, the Bolsheviks (later called communists).

Lenin had promised to end Russia’s role in the war. In March 1918, Russia signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers, agreeing to give up vast areas such as Poland and Ukraine.

Final tally

World War I had some of the deadliest battles in history. Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli and Tannenberg are names that live on in history books. The cost in human lives was devastating. More than half of the 65 million men who served were killed or wounded. More than 5 million Allied soldiers died, as did 31/2 million on the other side. Almost as many civilians were killed.

The conflict raged until November 1918. The U.S. entry into the war had helped persuade Germany to surrender. The main peace treaty was signed in Versailles, France, on June 28, 1919 — five years from the day in Sarajevo when a gunman fired the shots that set off what some had called “the war to end all wars.”

The last monarchs

Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, was offered a haven in Great Britain after he was forced off the throne in 1917. But his English cousin, King George V, nixed the offer, fearing a riot if the czar moved to Britain. Nicholas and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks the next year.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s last emperor, was forced out in November 1918. He lived in the Netherlands until his death in 1941.

Franz Joseph I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, remained on the throne until his death in 1916. His grandnephew succeeded him, but the monarchy ended when the war did.

A killer flu

In 1918, thousands of American soldiers headed overseas to fight. At the time, no one realized they were carrying a virus that would prove more deadly than the war itself. In fact, it caused the most devastating epidemic the world has known.

It got the name Spanish flu because Spain had the first public reports of the epidemic. Over two years, a billion people — half the world’s population — reportedly fell ill.

Estimates of how many died go as high as 50 million, far more than the 16 million to 17 million people who died in the war. The flu was even said to have altered battle plans when officers realized they didn’t have enough healthy men to mount an attack.

The League of Nations

Hoping never to see another world war, several countries got together and in 1919 created a group dedicated to world peace. They called it the League of Nations. The idea was to resolve disputes peacefully or, if that could not be done, to apply economic and military pressure. Members agreed to defend one another if threatened.

The league had 42 founding members. Germany and Russia were not allowed to join at first. They joined later, with 19 other countries, but did not stay members for long. The United States, one of the league’s biggest backers, worked with it but never joined. Opponents believed that joining would have forced the United States to get involved in disputes overseas.


The face of Europe changed dramatically after World War I. Four empires collapsed: the Russian Empire in 1917, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires a year later and the Ottoman Empire in 1922. As a result, several countries were formed or grew in size. New nations included Austria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Baltic states. Poland was reborn.

In the 1930s, times were hard in Germany. The country’s new leader, Adolf Hitler, and his followers bristled over the harsh punishment Germany was given in the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler decided to rebuild Germany’s armed forces and create a new empire, uniting Germans who lived throughout Europe.

German losses

Germany paid a heavy price for being on the losing side. More than 2.5 million of its soldiers and civilians died and, with defeat, its empire was broken apart. It lost 10 percent of its remaining population and nearly 15 percent of its land to other countries. One parcel gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea while splitting Germany in two. The smaller part became known as East Prussia.

The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to reduce its army to no more than 100,000 men and banned it from having tanks, military aircraft, submarines and chemical weapons.

In addition, the Germans were to pay a big penalty, called reparations, for wartime damage. Some thought the amount was too much. The total was later reduced. Germany made its final payment in 2010.

Poland in the middle

A look at the map explains why Poland’s history has been one of strife. Neighboring Russia, Austria and Prussia (later Germany) had their eyes on it at various times. They succeeded in carving it up in the late 1700s.

As a result, the Polish people were split in World War I. Polish soldiers served on both sides. Civilians suffered greatly, since much of the worst fighting on the Eastern Front was on their land. But when the war ended, land that had been taken by others was returned, and the nation of Poland was reborn after nearly 125 years.

Russia's civil war

The Bolsheviks had promised the Russian people “peace, bread and land.” Instead, food was scarce, land was disappearing and the peace seemed fragile at best. The civil war lasted until 1921. Lenin’s side won. The next year, Russia, Ukraine (which Russia had reclaimed) and regions to the south formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviet Union, as it was called, lasted until 1991.

Who was Hitler?

Adolf Hitler grew up in Austria. He wanted to be an artist but lacked the talent. He moved to Germany as a young man, fought for Germany in World War I and then entered politics. He gave rousing speeches, which led to his becoming head of the Nazi political party.

The Nazis believed Germans were a superior people. They hated Jews and communists and sought to destroy them. Hitler and the Nazis amassed great power in the 1930s. People who opposed them were killed or sent to prisons called concentration camps. Millions died there.

Once he became Germany’s leader, Hitler wanted more land. First, he made Austria part of Germany. Then he took part of Czechoslovakia. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. The war lasted six years. In its last days, when Hitler realized the war was lost, he killed himself.

New era, new flag

The term “Third Reich” describes the period from 1933 to 1945, when the Nazis controlled Germany and overran Europe. The word “reich” (pronounced RIKE) means “empire” or “realm.” The Nazis were creating a third great empire for the German people. The first had been the Holy Roman Empire, which Germany led from 962 to 1806. The second was the German Empire, which began in 1871 and ended with World War I.

Hitler designed the flag for the Nazi party. Its colors — red, white and black — were those of the German empire that ended with World War I. In the middle of the flag was a hooked figure called a swastika (SWAHS-tick-uh). The swastika was a symbol of German national pride. It appeared on posters, armbands and military badges.

If people see a swastika today, they usually think only of the Nazis. But the swastika is an ancient religious symbol for good luck. Swastikas are often seen on houses and temples in India, for example.

The Nazi Olympics

The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Hitler saw this as a chance to show the world how Germany had rebounded from World War I. There were big rallies for the Games, new sports venues and even new sports: Men’s basketball was added that year. But that wasn’t the whole story.

Jews and others whom the Nazis thought inferior were not wanted on Germany’s Olympic team. Hitler’s anti-Jewish campaign — which featured “Jews not welcome” signs — was going strong in 1935. But before foreign visitors arrived in Berlin for the Games, those signs were taken down. In their place were colorful posters promoting Germany and its belief in racial superiority.

The United States and some other countries thought about skipping the Games. Jewish and black athletes weighed that option, too. But African American journalists said the athletes should go, to show how wrong the Nazis’ racial beliefs were. The U.S. team that went to Berlin had nearly two dozen black and Jewish athletes. Track and field star Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals, setting or matching three world records. A top German official, noting the success of black athletes such as Owens, wrote in his diary: “This is a disgrace. White people should be ashamed of themselves.”

Night of Broken Glass

On the night of November 9, 1938, violence broke out across Germany, Austria and the part of Czechoslovakia that Germany controlled. The shops and homes of thousands of Jews were trashed. More than 250 synagogues were set on fire. Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and dozens of Jews were killed.

Police and firefighters stood by and watched. The violence became known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Crystal. It’s also called Night of Broken Glass because of the glass shards in the streets afterward. Nazi officials said the violence was unplanned, but that wasn’t true. They had encouraged it. A day later, 30,000 men were arrested just because they were Jews. They were sent to concentration camps.

Because the German people seemed to accept what had happened, Nazi leaders felt they could be even harsher. Jews were barred from many jobs. They could leave their homes only at certain times. They could not go to theaters or concerts, and their children could not attend public schools. Kristallnacht was a major step in the Nazis’ plan to rid Germany of all its Jews.


Great Britain and France had allowed Germany to take over Austria and then part of Czechoslovakia, thinking that Hitler might stop there. But when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France considered it an act of war. The two countries demanded that Hitler withdraw his troops. He refused. Two days later, they declared war on Germany. Italy and Japan joined Germany as the major Axis Powers. The chief Allied partners were Britain, France and, later, the Soviet Union and the United States. By 1942, the German war machine had rolled over much of Europe. With France occupied, Russia under attack and the United States still gearing up to fight, Germany seemed unstoppable.

British pluck

Germany quickly conquered France. Next, it planned to invade Britain. The first step was to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF). For three months in 1940, pilots from both sides dueled it out in the Battle of Britain. Then German bombs began falling on British cities during nighttime raids. More than 40,000 people died in the eight months of what was called the Blitz.

In the end, though, the RAF and the British people proved tougher than Hitler had expected. As Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, had said just a month before the Blitz: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

D-Day invasion

The beginning of the end for the Nazis came on June 6, 1944. More than 150,000 British, American and Canadian troops landed in Normandy, France. The Allied invasion had been years in the planning, but the Germans were caught off-guard. They thought the invasion, when it happened, would come elsewhere on the coast. It may have helped that the weather was bad that day — not ideal for sending 7,000 ships across the English Channel. That added to the surprise.

Even so, many men never made it off the beach as German guns fired down from the bluffs. The number of Allied troops killed or wounded on the invasion’s first day is estimated at 10,500. For the Germans, the number was between 4,000 and 9,000.

In the days and weeks that followed, the Allies slogged their way through France. The liberation of Europe was underway.

The Holocaust

From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis murdered two-thirds of the Jews in Europe — 6 million people. The Nazis blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I and the punishment that followed. They thought Jews were less than human. They had a plan to get rid of them. They called it the “Final Solution.”

Under this plan, Jews were first stripped of their rights. Their homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked. In some cities, they were forced into sealed-off areas called ghettos and given little food and water. The most horrific part of the plan was the concentration camps. Jews were rounded up and shipped off to these camps. When they got there, some were forced to work, while others, including many children, were killed in large gas chambers. Then their bodies were burned and dumped in pits.

The Nazis didn’t hate only the Jews. They also killed about 5 million Gypsies, Poles, Catholics, communists, disabled people and others they didn’t like. The name given to this mass murder is the “Holocaust,” which comes from a Greek word that means “sacrifice by fire.”

Anne Frank

Of the more than a million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust, none is better known than Anne Frank. Anne’s family fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. The Franks went to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, but eventually the Germans showed up there, too. Then Anne’s family went into hiding. She was 13.

For two years, Anne, her mother, father and older sister hid in a secret apartment in the attic of a family business. Their secret was kept by brave friends who brought them food and clothing.

In August 1944, German police found the attic hideaway. The Franks and the others were taken to concentration camps. Like her sister and her mother, Anne did not survive the war. But the diary she kept while hiding in the attic did. When it was published in 1947, her father, Otto, said: “If she had been here, Anne would have been so proud.”

Final tally

The war in Europe lasted six years and claimed millions of victims. The Soviet Union alone counted 20 million dead, a third of them civilians. In the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted more than two years, thousands of the city’s residents starved or froze to death.

Germany and Poland each lost more than 6 million people in the war. Germany’s death toll was half military, half civilian. Poland’s was almost entirely civilian.


When the war ended, the Allies again changed the map of Germany and Eastern Europe. About 25 percent of Germany’s land was given to Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviets claimed eastern Poland, which resulted in Poland’s boundaries shifting to the west. The rest of Germany was split in two, with the Soviets controlling the eastern side and the Allies controlling the west. France and Czechoslovakia regained land taken by the Germans. The Soviets took back the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which Germany had occupied, and got back a slice of Finland.

The Marshall Plan

At the war’s end in 1945, Europe was in shambles. Cities were in ruins; roads, bridges and factories wiped away. Millions of people were homeless. In some areas, food and jobs were scarce. Countries had no money to rebuild.

The United States had not felt the war in the same way. Financially, it was doing well. President Harry S. Truman and other U.S. leaders agreed that the country should extend a helping hand to nations in need.

The result was the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Under this plan, the United States gave more than $13 billion in assistance to 16 European countries between 1948 and 1951. That amount is equal to about $128 billion in 2014 dollars.

The United States helped partly because it wanted to stop the Soviet Union from spreading communism, a form of government in which there is little or no private property, to Western Europe.

The United Nations

Representatives from 26 nations met in Washington, D.C., in January 1942. They approved a plan setting up a peacekeeping body similar to the League of Nations, which had basically collapsed when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. But these delegates wanted to try again. The new body was to be called the United Nations.

In June 1945, delegates from 50 countries met in San Francisco, California, to sign the U.N. charter, officially launching the organization.


Tension was high in Germany, which was divided in four and occupied by Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. Western European countries became nervous about Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. He wanted a weak Germany. He also wanted more control in Eastern Europe. He insisted that a single political party, the Communist Party, rule all those nations. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said Soviet control was like an “iron curtain” pulled across Europe. Western European countries explored ideas for working together to counter this growing threat.

Berlin Airlift

By 1948, Stalin worried that the economy in western Germany was becoming stronger than in the Soviet-controlled east. He blocked all ground access to the capital, Berlin, which was in the Soviet zone but had portions controlled by the United States, Britain and France. The people in those areas were cut off from supplies.

The three countries organized an airlift, a series of airplanes trips, to get food and medicine to people there. The flights continued for almost a year, until the Soviet blockade was lifted. One pilot who became famous during the airlift was Gail Halvorsen. The U.S. pilot dropped candy from his airplane and became known as “the candy bomber.”

European unity

After Western Europe had been torn apart by two world wars, its leaders began to consider tying their economies and militaries together to form a single, stronger body.

French officials Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman proposed in 1950 that France and West Germany combine their coal and steel resources. This would help both countries and make it difficult for one to wage war against the other. It was a way to prevent World War III.

Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed on to this Coal and Steel Community. Its early success led to a bigger plan to join forces. In 1957, the countries formed the European Economic Community (EEC).

The wall

Long after the airlift, Berlin remained the focus of the East-West divide. East Germany and West Germany had become separate countries in 1949, with the Soviet Union in control of the East. But West Berlin was governed by West Germany.

Thousands of people escaped the harsh East German government by fleeing to West Berlin. East German officials wanted to stop this, and in 1961 they closed the border. A concrete wall went up, with a few official border crossings. East Berliners were forbidden to cross, although many risked their lives to do so. The wall would stand for nearly 30 years.

Soviet breakdown

The Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe always was difficult to maintain. Yugoslavia broke away in 1948. Moscow attempted to strengthen its hold over the remaining East European countries in 1955 by creating a joint military.

In the next three decades, there were revolts in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Soviet troops were sometimes used to crush those rebellions.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, he favored “glasnost,” a Russian word that means “open discussions.” He aimed to break from Soviet policies to help the economy.

In a 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall, U.S. President Ronald Reagan urged the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” About two years later, the wall came down, and by 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed.

A bigger union

Over time, the idea of creating a partnership among European countries became popular. By 1986, six more Western European countries had joined the EEC and a decade later 15 were members of what was renamed the European Union.

Most nations agreed to give up their currency, or money, and adopt the euro. Beginning in 2002, someone could travel from Greece to Ireland and make purchases in euros. That was a big step toward a unified Europe.

In the past 10 years, the partnership has expanded into parts of Eastern Europe. The 28 members that battled one another in two world wars now mostly find common ground.

One part of Eastern Europe shows that peace isn’t permanent. Ukraine lost a part of its country to Russia this year. People living in Crimea voted to join Russia, but questions arose as to whether they had been pressured to do so. At the time, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin said he wasn’t interested in other parts of Ukraine, but now rebels in eastern Ukraine are fighting to join Russia. In the next few years, the map of Europe may be redrawn once again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Adolf Hitler was born in Austria but grew up in Germany. Hitler did not move to Germany until he was an adult. The story has been updated.