Maps, Central Europe and History

How did mosques and Ottoman-built bridges get into South East Europe? Why is it that Austrians brought the glorious architecture to Prague?

This short trip through Europe´s maps explains how borders moved and cultures moved with them.

Study Guides


As Napoleon's France surrendered at the battle of Waterloo, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815 was redrawing the political map of Europe. The Congress of Vienna created what is known as the balance-of-power system, which despite imminent crisis would persist until the start of World War I in 1914. For a more detailed information on the Battle of Waterloo from a British perspective, read this BBC article.


 Progressively growing in size and power in the 19th Century, Prussia unified the numerous German states under the aegis of Emperor Wilhelm I of Prussia to create the German Empire at the beginning of 1871. The German Empire was built on Prussia's victories over Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-1871.

German Unification was mostly the work of Prussia's foreign minister, Otto von Bismarck, and his pragmatic policy, also known as realpolitik. (Watch archive footage of Otto von Bismarck).

From its unification up until World War I, the German Empire gradually became the main power in continental Europe. When Otto von Bismarck stepped down in 1888, Germany replaced its practical realpolitik under the auspices of Emperor Wilhelm II with a more aggressive weltpolitik. This new policy contributed to a widespread international crisis that would lead to World War I.


In 1867, following the 1866 defeat in the Austro-Prussian war, the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria signed the Austro-Hungarian compromise creating the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Frustrated in its hope to unify  the  German States by Prussia's victory; the Austro-Hugarian Emperor hence  focused his attention on the Balkans.

After having occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, Austria-Hungary signed treaties of alliance with Germany (1879) and Italy (1882) in order to counter Russia's growing influence in the region. Austria-Hungary eventually annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne  Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, prompting Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia,  de facto triggering War World I by involving its ally in the Triple Alliance.

Read more on this site about the organizational history of the land forces of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy prior to the outbreak of the Great War until the collapse of the monarchy in 1918. Photographs and biographies are available in addition to this film footage of Franz Josef taken before the outbreak of the First World War.


Despite its great status, and its victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans in 1878, the Russian Empire lagged economically behind other powers during the 19th Century. Industry did not take off until Tsar Alexander II introduced thorough reforms - most notably the emancipation of the Serbs in 1861 and later improvements by his grandson and last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II at the beginning of the 20th Century. (Have a look at the Russian Empire in these historical photographs).

The semblance of Industrial Revolution brought to the Empire through the reforms, combined with the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 initiated the 1905 Revolution and, to a degree, paved the ground for the 1917 October Revolution, which brought Lenin to power and ultimately would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union. 

In 1914, responding to the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, the Russian Empire ordered partial mobilization, which in turn involved its allies of the Triple Entente, France and the British Empire. Russia would leave the war in 1918 following Lenin's accession to power after the October Revolution.


Lasting from 1300 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire at its peak encompassed most of Eastern and Southeastern Europe as well as parts of the Maghreb and the Mashriq. (Read more about the history, culture and heritage of the largest and longest lasting Empire in history.)

Its defeat in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 demonstrates the Ottoman Empire's downfall in the late 19th century which progressively led to the creation of new nation-states in the European continent such as Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. (Learn more about the Treaty of San Stefano that settled the Russo-Turkish conflict and accelerated the progressive independence of the former Ottoman Provinces.)

The "sick man of Europe", as the Ottoman Empire became known in the late 19th century did not survive long after the defeat that followed World War I.


On the June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking World War I. (See the film footage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's July 1914 funeral.)

There are innumerable events, which caused World War I.

You can find a series of useful articles here about the Great War from the BBC, ranging in topics from the descent into war, campaigns and battles, the human experience of the war and on the debates and controversies in the aftermath of WWI. You can also map out the main events of the war.

After the signing of the Armistice that effectively ended World War I on November 11, 1918, the Paris Peace Conference was organized to set new peace terms dealing with war reparations and establishing new borders. A series of separate treaties resulted that would change Europe's borders notably creating a Polish State. Among the many treaties resulting from this Conference, the Treaty of Versailles is the most famous.

Signed in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war between Germany and the Allied Powers - including Great Britain, France and the USA. View Europe's borders in the interwar period and learn more about the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles that reshaped Europe in 1919.


The Great Depression, the worldwide economic crisis that started in the US on October 29, 1929 known as Black Tuesday, amplified Europe's difficulties and struggle for recovery after War World I. Among the European states, the Great Depression hit the Weimar Republic particularly harshly. This young democracy was the regime that replaced the defeated German Empire after World War I and eventually saw Hitler come to power in 1933. Hitler's accession to power set off a series of events that led to World War II.


Triggered by the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II would end in Europe on May 8, 1945 when Germany surrendered. Unlike World War I, World War II battlefields extended across the world. (See more here about how the War goes global, June 1941 - 1942). The battles were particularly fierce in Central and Eastern Europe. (Read more in this article). The term Holocaust has come to describe the murder of six million Jews in Europe orchestrated by the Nazis during World War II. The Final Solution (The Holocaust, The Shoah).


Following the end of World War II a new war began - the Cold War - which lasted for the next forty years. The Cold War can be described as the state of political conflict and military tensions between the Soviet Union along with its satellite states- the East and the United States and its allies - the West.

The Cold War is often represented by the concept of an "Iron Curtain." In March 1946, Winston Churchill coined the expression Iron Curtain to stress that Europe's ideological and physical boundaries were divided. The Iron Curtain turned into a reality with the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 which remained standing until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Soviet Union has its roots in 1917 October Revolution. The revolt led by Vladimir Lenin ended with the Bolsheviks gaining power and led to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, that would last 70 years. After Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin came to power imposing a Terror Regime on the Soviet Union that would be pursued after his own death in 1953.

This BBC website provides a timeline of the key events of the Soviet Union, from the Bolshevik revolution to its dissolution in 1991. 

Few countries protested against communism and the Soviet occupation. Along with Poland, Hungary revolted in 1956 and Czechoslovakia's insurrection is known as the Prague Spring.