Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    This course will present a comparative overview of world history from the 17th century to the present era. You will examine the origins of major economic, political, social, cultural, and technological trends of the past 400 years and explore the impact of these trends on world societies. This course will be structured chronologically and thematically, with each unit focusing on a significant historical subject. The units will include representative primary-source documents and images that illustrate important overarching themes, such as the emergence of modern nation-states, the economic and technological interactions between Western and non-Western peoples, the changing social and cultural perceptions about religion and the state, and the development of physical and virtual networks of information exchange.

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  • Unit 1: Global Networks of Exchange in the 1600s

    By the early 17th century, European merchants had established maritime trade networks across the Atlantic Ocean and eastward to India and China. These networks allowed them to acquire furs, tea, sugar, spices, and other luxury commodities that were in great demand throughout Europe. In the Americas, European settlers began using large numbers of enslaved Africans to grow labor-intensive crops such as sugarcane and tobacco for export to Europe. Portuguese, and later Dutch, merchants acquired many of these slaves from trade posts on the West African coast. Once the slaves had been sold in the Americas, merchants used the proceeds to acquire local commodities to sell in Europe. This circular trade pattern dominated the Atlantic economy until the 1800s. European nations closely guarded their trade networks against rival states. The Dutch East India Company, for example, possessed its own private army and navy, which it used to defend its trade links with India and Southeast Asia. 

    Global trade altered production and consumption patterns throughout the world and led to the rapid growth and development of England and the Netherlands at the expense of older colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal. In this unit, we will examine the growth of global trade networks in the 1600s and evaluate the political, social, and cultural impact of these networks on the peoples of Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

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  • Unit 2: Conflict and Empire in the 1600s and 1700s

    Nations throughout the world experienced profound military and political transformations over the course of the 17th century. Gunpowder technology gradually made its way from Asia through the Middle East to Europe between the 1300s and the 1600s. By the beginning of the 17th century, Europeans were beginning to perfect cannon technology and experiment with handheld firearms. These new military technologies altered warfare across Europe and the Middle East, and they contributed to the development of powerful, centralized states. Nations such as France, Russia, and Japan also witnessed the emergence of absolutist forms of government. Powerful kings and emperors declared themselves to be agents of God and used the military and political power at their disposal to demand total obedience from the lesser nobility and the peasantry of their kingdoms. 

    In this unit, we will examine the development of absolutism in Europe and Asia and compare it with other forms of government. We will also look at the growing conflicts between European states over colonial possessions and resources throughout the world and explore how these conflicts altered the balance of European power in the 1600s and 1700s.

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  • Unit 3: Religious, Intellectual, and Political Revolutions in the 1600s-1800s

    The 1600s and 1700s were a time of profound religious, intellectual, and political turmoil across the globe. In Europe, the Protestant Reformation, which challenged the religious and political power of the Catholic Church, led to the Thirty Years' War in the early 1600s. The Thirty Years' War devastated much of Central Europe and led to profound divisions between Catholic and Protestant political states. In Africa and Asia, Islam continued to spread southward and eastward through trade networks, population migrations, and the activities of missionaries.

    The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church's declining religious and political power led to a period of great intellectual fervor across Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. Known as the Enlightenment, this period witnessed the development of intellectual movements promoting reason, democracy, political freedom, and rational inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers questioned civil authorities and developed new ideas about the relationship between a nation's governments and its people. These ideas gave rise to a period of political revolutions intended to overthrow monarchical rule and to install democratically elected governments in the late 1700s. The French Revolution in 1789 followed the American Revolution in 1776 and encouraged other revolutions throughout the Americas and parts of Europe.

    In this unit, we will examine the interaction between religious and political beliefs in the 1600s and 1700s and look at how these ideas reshaped political, economic, and social life throughout the world by the beginning of the 1800s. We will also look at how political revolutions in the Americas had a global impact on political institutions and reshaped networks of trade and commerce throughout the world. 

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  • Unit 4: Scientific and Industrial Revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s

    The Scientific Revolution began in Europe in the 16th century, but had the greatest impact on Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Drawing on scientific ideas developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as Asian and Hindu-Arabic scientific and mathematical discoveries, researchers used the scientific method to develop the modern disciplines of astronomy, physics, biology, and chemistry. Discoveries by scientists challenged traditional beliefs about the nature of matter, the operation of the solar system, and the life processes of living organisms. In England, these new scientific ideas and discoveries contributed to a gradual, but profound, shift away from traditional means of agricultural and craft production to mechanical means for producing and transporting goods. The development of the steam engine in the 1700s, for example, provided an unlimited source of energy to power mechanical devices. Inventors soon developed primitive machines to spin yarn, weave textiles, and perform other basic tasks. While these early machines often produced low-quality manufactured products, they could produce much larger quantities of goods than skilled craftspeople in the same amount of time. Engineers soon developed other applications for steam power such as railroad locomotives and steamships. Over the course of the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution swept Great Britain, and the nation became a center for the industrial production of iron, textiles, and other manufactured goods. Factory towns expanded rapidly as peasants left farms for manufacturing jobs in the cities. England's growing industrial might made it the most wealthy and powerful nation on the face of the planet by the early 19th century. In this unit, we will examine the origins of the Scientific Revolution and evaluate its social and political impact on European society. We will also look at the social, political, economic, and technological impact of the Industrial Revolution in England and throughout the world. We will see how England, and later the United States, overtook other nations industrially, economically, and militarily, and we will explore the profound implications of this power shift.

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  • Unit 5: New Imperialism during the Long 19th Century

    The French Revolution embroiled Europe in nearly two decades of military conflict. At the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, war weary European monarchies resolved to settle their political differences and jointly suppress further outbreaks of revolutionary violence. After 1815, Europe entered an era of relative peace and prosperity that lasted until World War I. Many historians refer to this period of time from the French Revolution to World War I as the "Long 19th Century."

    During the Long 19th Century, England, France, Germany and other European states used their military and industrial strength to seize territories in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean and subjugate native peoples living in these territories. European leaders viewed overseas colonies as an important signifier of international power and competed with each other to control larger and larger territories across the globe. Colonies also provided natural resources for, and consumed manufactured goods produced by, imperial nations and served as locations for investment by powerful industrialists in each country. Imperialists viewed native people in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific as primitive and uncivilized and justified racial and ethnic oppression on the grounds that they were engaged in a "civilizing mission." These racist attitudes shaped how Europeans dealt with colonial populations throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

    In this unit, we will examine how European nations staked out claims to colonies throughout the world and imposed new technologies and economic systems on colonial possessions. We will also explore the consequences of colonization for European and colonial populations and evaluate the impact of colonial rebellions and anti-colonial movements during the 19th century.

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  • Unit 6: World War I

    By the early 20th century, competition between European states over colonial resources began to affect the cohesion of the international community. A growing arms race between Great Britain and Germany also raised concerns about European stability. In response to these growing tensions, European nations began making secret military alliances for mutual protection in the event of war. Tensions finally came to a head in the summer of 1914, when Serbian terrorists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Germany and Austria-Hungary threatened to invade Serbia, but Russia elected to protect the small state. As a result, these nations declared war on each other and treaty alliances forced France and Great Britain to join the conflict. By its end in November of 1918, World War I had consumed over eight million lives and had become the most deadly and destructive conflict in world history.

    In this unit, we will examine the origins of the war and study how and why it spread so rapidly throughout the world. We will also evaluate the role that European colonies and colonized peoples played in the conflict. Finally, we will take a look at how European states attempted to maintain their colonial possessions through post-war peace agreements and how colonized peoples began to directly challenge European rule.

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  • Unit 7: The Rise of Totalitarian States in the 20th Century

    World War I devastated Europe economically, politically, and socially. Great Britain and France blamed Germany for the conflict and imposed severe economic penalties and military restrictions on the German state. In Russia, Communist revolutionaries seized control of the government in 1917 and began to consolidate power and impose Communist rule throughout Russia. They attempted to turn Russia from an agricultural state into a powerful industrial nation that could rival the industrial states of western Europe. In Asia, Japanese leaders viewed western colonial powers with envy and began expanding the Japanese military with the goal of eventually establishing colonies throughout Asia and the Pacific. 

    Following the war, liberal democratic governments came into power throughout much of western Europe. Under these regimes, women received the right to vote in many states and workers were permitted to unionize. In states like Germany and Italy, however, democratic governments were weak and ineffective. After the Great Depression destroyed the German and Italian economies in the early 1930s, voters looked for more powerful leaders to guide them through the difficult times. As a result, the Nazi Party gained power in Germany, while the Fascist Party peacefully assumed control in Italy. Nazi and Fascist leaders promised renewed prosperity as they began to rebuild military forces in order to challenge the colonial powers of Great Britain and France. Meanwhile, in Asia, Japanese military forces landed in eastern China and began occupying much of Manchuria.

    In this unit, we will take a look at the rise of Communist, Fascist, and Totalitarian governments in Europe and Asia. We will evaluate how economic, social, and political factors allowed profoundly anti-democratic governments to assume power in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and how these governments fundamentally reshaped life in these nations during the 1920s and 1930s.

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  • Unit 8: The Second World War and the New World Order

    By the late 1930s, anti-democratic governments in Europe and Asia were beginning to threaten the security of surrounding states. Nazi Germany occupied parts of Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938. Great Britain and France declined to challenge German actions, fearing that a firm stance against Germany might provoke a new European war. The following year, Germany invaded Poland and set in motion a chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War II. In the Pacific, Japanese forces continued to expand their hold on China and the military prepared invasion plans for European colonies in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the United States chose to remain isolated from the growing conflict, as it had done during much of World War I.

    America entered the war in December of 1941, following a surprise Japanese attack on American military forces in Hawaii. American troops joined British and French forces and began to prepare for an invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. In the Pacific, American and allied forces eventually checked Japanese military expansion and began to go on the offensive. Like the First World War, World War II was a global war and critical battles were fought across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific. 

    In this unit, we will examine the global impact of the World War II and look at why the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as economic, political, and military superpowers following the conflict. We will also examine how the war reshaped political, economic, and social life in Europe and Asia and led to devastating new military technologies, such as the atomic bomb. Finally, we will discuss how Nazi anti-Semetic ideologies led to the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and other minorities were systematically murdered from 1939-1945.

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  • Unit 9: The Cold War and Decolonization

    Following World War II, many nations throughout the world began to ally themselves with either the democratic United States or the Communist Soviet Union. The resulting Cold War created profound political and economic divisions across the globe and weakened western European colonial powers, such as Great Britain and France. New international political alignments and the waning power of European colonial powers encouraged the growth of independence movements in many European colonies. Decolonization across Africa and Asia led to the emergence of new independent states. These new nations provided a battlefield for the struggle between Capitalist and Communist political ideologies. Due to their military strength, the United States and the USSR could not challenge each other directly, out of fear of mutual annihilation, but they engaged in a series of indirect conflicts in many of the young, developing nations throughout Africa and Asia. 

    In this unit, we will examine how Cold War politics affected life across much of Europe, Africa, and Asia during the second half of the 20th century. We will also take a look at how the United States and the Soviet Union engaged developing nations economically, technologically, and militarily as each superpower tried to gain political and military advantages over the other. Finally, we will study how nations in Europe and Asia responded to the Cold War by creating new economic and political alliances, such as the European Union.

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  • Unit 10: Global Society in a Post-Cold War World

    The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the bipolar military, political, and economic alignments that had structured life across the globe during the Cold War. The United States emerged as the sole remaining economic and military superpower, but the growing political and economic power of the European Union and industrial nations across East Asia gradually challenged this status by the beginning of the 21st century. In the post-Cold War world, developing nations across Africa, Asia, and the Americas struggled under a crushing burden of international debt, lack of economic development, internecine warfare, and the social impact of infectious diseases like AIDS and malaria. Now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the global community faces profound challenges brought about by climate change, religious violence, and economic uncertainty. 

    In this unit, we will examine the political, economic, and social realignments that followed the end of the Cold War and look at the consequences of globalization in the developed and developing world. We will evaluate current economic, political, and social trends from the broader perspective of the past 400 years and address how the world community can meet the challenges ahead.

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  • Optional Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Optional Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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