I often see the thesis that European nations became good at warfare because they never united, and improved their technology and skill at warfare due to competition between one another. Compared to, for example, China, which united early and then stagnated.

But this doesn't really make sense when looking at other nations. The principalities of Rus were divided among competing rulers, and then the Mongols came and conquered them. The various states of the Indian subcontinent were also divided, but the East India Company was able to conquer them and rule them for a hundred years. Ireland was divided, and the English beat them. England itself was divided, and couldn't stand up to the vikings.

Hence the question - was the disunity and war in Europe somehow special, or this entire argument essentially wrong?

  • Small economy leads to weak central powers, smaller states. Before industrial revolution economy meant agriculture, mining and such, and Europe was a pretty poor place to do such things (agriculture is much more productive in south, India, China, Mediterranean.. than in eg UK or Germany). Also, other areas were also prety fragmented, India or China spent much time in civil wars or waring states, too.
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 17:23
  • @Greg Is that meant as an answer? If so, please post it as an answer, not a comment.
    – SPavel
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 17:24
  • Europe seems divided only because modern history looks from within it. It's an optical illusion. Competition for material gains - surely. But not the insane hatred. Name a case when a non-Christian civilization was able to play one European country against each other and then subdue both of them (divide and conquer). Europe was always united against non-European empires.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 21:50
  • @kubanczyk Ottoman and Seldjuk Turks
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 23:21

3 Answers 3


I think the issue here is that you're looking at a single factor to explain something that has multiple interdependent contributing factors.

Some of the factors that contribute to how easy it is to unify/conquer an area - in each case, assume that everything else is more or less equal:

  • Technology - the group/tribe/nation with more advanced technology tends to have an advantage.
  • Unified/Not Unified - the group/tribe/nation that is more unified at the time of battle/war tends to have an advantage
  • Numbers - the group/tribe/nation with more people capable of fighting tends to have an advantage
  • Terrain - areas with more natural defenses tend to be harder to conquer than areas that are more open.

As the answers to this question point out, European geography has a lot of natural defenses compared to many other parts of the world. It also has a climate that's both relatively mild and relatively forgiving - drought is rare, soils have a lot of nutrients, and the early crops were able to be grown there. That allowed many peoples to settle there, as well as allowing relatively easy trade and relatively easy defense.

When the Rus principalities were conquered by the Mongolian Horde, the Horde was able to field a much larger fighting force, was fighting largely in the terrain they were most familiar with (the Russian Steppes don't really end until near Hungary). In addition, the Rus principalities had few natural defenses.

Similarly, Ireland is relatively flat and open compared to the rest of Europe, so once the English/British forces had enough of a presence, they were able to conquer the less unified, less numerous Irish (It's worth noting that England was unable to conquer the much more geographically challenging Scottish terrain - Scotland did not join Britain until the death of Elizabeth I, when the King of Scotland became the King of England through inheritance. )

In India, the British had superior technology to counter the more numerous peoples of the Indian states, and again, relatively few natural defenses once they had a large enough presence on the subcontinent.

By comparison, in most of Europe technology was more or less at the same level, as was population. External invaders were able to penetrate deeply into European heartland: the Mongolian Hordes in Hungary; the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, Hungary and to the gates of Vienna; the Roman Empire setting its effective northern border on the Danube.

My theory is that in mainland Europe, the various tribes were close enough to equal in terms of technology, manpower, and cultural adaptability that European geography provided enough of a barrier to prevent any one group from gaining lasting superiority.

  • I'll need to add more references: most of the data is available on wikipedia, but I'm at work right now
    – Kate Paulk
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 17:32

If the question breaks down to "Was disunion in some circumstances helpful to European culture?", then I'd say probably yes, and the arguments you have heard have some merit.

If the question breaks down to "Was disunion the chief cause of Europe effectively taking over the world during the era?", then I'd say no, and you have in fact pointed to some reasons why that argument falls down.

I think the Infomationalist view has much better explanatory power. The basic idea is that the old truism of "knowledge is power", is in fact a truism. As such, you can actually measure a culture's power by how much information is available to a member of that culture. Some people have done this very thing.

From this point of view, Europe was actually a bit of a backwater (and power vacuum) up until the Printing Press was invented and popularized in Germany. This almost immediately gave Europeans access to orders of magnitude more information than anyone else in the Old World had access to.

Political disunion could very well have been a factor (even a big one) in why Europeans popularized this invention, while Chinese (who invented something similar even earlier) did not. It arguably caused the Protestant Reformation (and subsequent 125 years of religious warfare), and I can't imagine any Chinese authorities of the era feeling like those would be good things for their country. However, Germany at the time had no strong central authority capable of stopping it.


I agree with Kate Paulk that "being divided" or not is not a crucial factor to look at. By the way, China was also divided during most of its history until 13 century. And on the other hand a large part of Europe (and Middle East) were united at the time of their greatest military domination. I mean the Roman empire, of course.

Another example: very much divided Greeks were able to make enormous conquests in Alexandr's times.

  • China makes the OPs case, though, as I believe the way China become unified was by being conquered by the Mongols.
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 20:44

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