A Beginner’s Guide to Western World History

western world history

The traditional history of the world’s first modern civilizations (as defined by historians who study art, culture, economics and religion) is that of a long sequence of political upheavals, wars and other conflicts. It began in ancient Greece, where city states fought each other in a struggle for independence and enlightenment, then evolved into a more hierarchical world of monarchies and empires, with central governments controlling many regions but not all. The story then moved to Europe, where European powers expanded and consolidated their power over most of the continent and its colonies. This expansion grew out of religious conflict, as a movement called the Reformation separated Christianity into two hostile camps. It also grew out of the need to make more efficient use of natural resources and to exploit the world’s people for the benefit of the European economy.

The conceit arrived at its height in the first half of the twentieth century, as the great European powers fell upon each other in World War One. The resulting bloodshed involved a far larger proportion of the world than had been involved in the much more limited conflict in the previous century. In addition, it was accompanied by another major historical event: the massacre of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

After the war, the new definition of the “Western world” became more widely accepted. It now included all the countries in North America and South America that are still mostly inhabited by people of European descent; Europe itself, including its former colonies and the countries in Africa, Asia and Australia that were colonized by Europeans; and Japan after 1955. This is the definition that most historians today use, but there are other ways to define what is and isn’t Western.

Some people also consider Canada and the countries in Latin America to be part of the “Western world” as well. Other scholars, however, point out that they were not “Westernized” in the same way as Western Europe and North America, and that these societies had their own cultures and histories.

The idea of a Western world also has been challenged in recent decades by anti-Western terrorism and other acts of hostility and resentment, as well as growing questions about the role of Western values in the rest of the globe. As a result, there are now a number of different interpretations of the term, with varying degrees of overlap. Some include the United States and its allies in NATO; the countries of the European Union plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland; and the microstates of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino. Others include all of the above, but also the Middle East and a few nations in Southeast Asia that were once ruled by Europeans and have adopted some of their cultural values. The debate over how to define the “Western world” is likely to continue for some time.

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