The 1800s were a formative time for Europe, from the huge-scale Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the century to the colonial jockeying for power that characterized many of the later decades. It was also a time when many countries were born or reborn, as old empires declined and new ones formed. In fact, two of the 20th century’s major European powers only came about during the previous century.
The Unification of Germany
Though today Germany is one of the world’s most affluent countries, its history as a nation is shorter than you might expect. Germanic tribes have lived in Europe since ancient times, and during the Middle Ages most German territories were connected as parts of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. However, this empire was only a loose grouping of often-warring Germanic states that ultimately fell apart, leaving Austria and Prussia the most powerful among many smaller siblings. Austria has remained independent, but it wasn’t until 1871 that Prussia’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck led the other German states to unification as the powerful new German Empire.
The Birth of Italy
The region today known as Italy was once the center of that most famous of ancient European civilizations, the Roman Empire. But after the empire fell in the fifth century, the Italian Peninsula became fragmented between various invading powers and small local states, while the central region around Rome was ruled directly by the popes. After the Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance, political rivalries started to cool and an Italian identity began growing. In 1861, Victor Emmanuel II became the first king of a united Italy. Almost united, anyway -- the country’s current and historic capital of Rome wasn’t included in the new country until 1870.
Bonus Country: The U.K.
Another of today’s world powers is the United Kingdom, or U.K. England itself was of course a country long before the 1800s. But it wasn’t always part of a larger kingdom. England merged with Wales and Scotland prior to the 19th century, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain, but its current designation didn’t come until it absorbed neighboring Ireland in 1801, becoming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In the 20th century its name got longer as its territory shrank, changing to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after most of Ireland became independent again.
But Wait, There’s More
Greece, though once united in ancient times, also became independent for the first time in modern history in 1832, after fighting a war for independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. And during that same decade Belgium and Luxembourg became independent from the Netherlands. The southeastern European nations of Montenegro and Serbia both trace their histories back to the Middle Ages, but later came under control of the Ottoman Empire. They became independent again in 1878, but later joined the new union of Yugoslavia before finally becoming separate countries.
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