I know that this question might get closed, but I will try it, nevertheless. The reason why I am so interested in broad comparisons of historical situations with current ones, is because I believe that this is the single largest contribution the field of history can have to society.

My very broad question goes like this. What historical situation is comparable to what Europe is currently facing? By the current situation, I am particularly interested in the following qualities:

  • Relatively large cultural differences between regions
  • Mature and stable societies, that have not faced a crisis for a significant period of time (half a century in the current case)
  • Being a significant power, but falling behind in the power-race
  • Unsustainable in the long-term (aging societies), unless of course action is taken

If you believe that the question should get closed, please try to think of how I can ask a question to gain knowledge to better understand how Europe got into the current situation, and how it is likely to come out of it.

  • you might also make note of the fact that organized crime here is flourishing across borders. guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/09/italy.nuclearpower
    – magnetar
    Dec 14, 2011 at 18:53
  • 6
    Opinion based; unlikely to be resolved through scholarship; likely to lead to more discussion than education.
    – MCW
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:30
  • We can learn lessons from history, but any attempt to directly identify two different historical situations will ignore crucial differences (technologies, demographics, morals, even political systems) in order of getting the situations to match. The two answers below are very good examples of that.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:39

4 Answers 4


I'm going to do a total long shot here, and provide a comparison that seems to fit all 4 points. However, as a larger picture, it's not necessarily a very good parallel since very little practical advice can be gleaned from it as far as what needs to be done.

USSR in the late 1980s till 1991 fits:

  • Decentralization forces driven by existence of historically-European-oriented Baltic republics, Caucasus republics, and Islamic Central Asian ones (Turcic and not). They were all very culturally different from each other AND from Russia proper.

  • Arguably, didn't face a major crisis since 1945.

  • A significant power (duh) - as evidence, it was basically the only power opposing USA world dominance during Cold War.

  • Unsustainable in the long-term economically, which is what drove Gorbachyov's reforms.

One more parallel that may be controversial is that the underlying cause of the crisis (sovereign debt crisis to be precise, driven by unsustainable social spending) is the same - redistributionist social welfare spending coupled with centralized economic planning (It's not surprising that the countries most on the brink of collapse are those closest to Socialism - Greece and Spain). To quote PM Thatcher, "sooner or later you run out of Other People's Money".

  • 2
    The EU is not "the only power opposing USA world dominance". Russia and China are much more actively anti-USA than the EU. Most of the EU countries follow USA's lead on global scene most of the time (the Iraq war being a major exception, but even then a lot of European countries did participate, openly or behind the scenes). The comparison of the USSR's economy to the current EU is just plain ridiculous. Evne the argument that the most socialist countries in the EU fared the worst doesn't hold water --the first countries to suffer were the UK and Ireland, paragons of neoliberalism in the EU.
    – quant_dev
    Nov 21, 2011 at 18:54
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    @quant_dev - I wasn't clear enough. I wasn't saying EU is opposing USA's world dominance - I was using the fact that USSR was opposing world dominance to prove that it was a significant power. That wasn't meant as a EU parallel.
    – DVK
    Nov 21, 2011 at 19:57
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    Spain had a property bubble as well.
    – quant_dev
    Nov 22, 2011 at 11:00
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    The countries closest to socialism in the EU (France, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands), are the ones bailing out the more economically right wing countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy, Greece). Just look employment law & social liberalism in all those countries. It's a common meme in right wing US politics that socialism in EU caused the problems. Nov 22, 2011 at 11:20
  • 5
    @Rory - "Germany is closer to socialism than a right wing country like Greece"? Care to give your exact definition of so-called "socialism" where that's true? BTW, my views of Germany and Greece are from when I lived in USSR, so your strawman argumens about "right wing US politics" are way off base. BTW, what does social liberalism have to do with socialism? USSR had much worse anti-gay laws than the most conservative of US states, no matter what Marxist wings of gay origanizations want people to believe.
    – DVK
    Nov 22, 2011 at 12:01

Modern Europe's situation today is most similar to the period from roughly 400,000 BCE to yesterday.

Europe was filled with people organized into varying political units, all of whom experienced both (a) internal governance tension, characterized by diverse internal political agendas and (b) potential external conflict. Each of the governance units had to carefully consider the potentials of cooperation with regional partners or a range of competitive responses up to and including warfare.

The economics of the period was characterized by scarcity; none of the political units had sufficient resources to achieve their long term goals. More precisely each of the political units had set goals which exceeded the available resources. The ability to collect sufficient resources to achieve the goals was affected by (1) degree of internal coherence and alignment, (2) changing environmental factors (3) evolving technological changes.

  • Technically this is correct.
    – aaron
    Jan 27, 2017 at 19:44

Ancient Roman Empire once it had reached a period without sustained growth.

It covered a lot of the area and cultures that the EU now does too. It was large, had diverse cultures loosely coupled together without significant crises for long times. It was a waning power (but no large competitor was in place). Once it stopped expanding to new territories it was unsustainable.

You can probably tweak the timescales a bit as modern communications are a bit faster than ancient ones. You would also need to define what a crisis that effects the whole block would be.

The Roman Empire split into two and lost its more far flung territories. That might be something we could see happening again with the EU, where some member states (the ones politically and geographically furthest from the original founding nations) such as UK and Poland (and the potential Turkey) are less pleased with how things are.

We (UK Citizens and possibly other EU ones as well) have also heard in the recent past about the Lutheran vs. Mediterranean divide causing friction in financial conduct (errors must be paid for vs. admitting error meaning you do not need to repay). I think that may also relate back to the behaviours of the religious splits of East West (initially) Roman vs. Orthodox Catholic (related to the Roman Empire in part?) as well as the North South Lutheran (Protestant/Puritan) vs. Catholic split.

I am not a historian, I am a UK & EU citizen by birth and current residency. I base the above on what I have heard in news reports over the years and what little history I know (or think I know).

  • [Ancient Roman Empire] Once it stopped expanding to new territories it was unsustainable. No, it got unsustainable once the importation of slaves divided population between the very rich and the very poor, the Republican system was supplanted by a monarchical one but without clear succession rules, and armies got so disconnected from Rome and its political life that they were willing to follow any general that tried to usurp power. Read a little about the number of revolts, usurpations and civil wars that the Empire had to support.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:35
  • 1
    We (UK Citizens and possibly other EU ones as well) have also heard in the recent past about the Lutheran vs. Mediterranean divide causing friction in financial conduct (errors must be paid for vs. admitting error meaning you do not need to repay). Excuse me? There may be corruption in South Europe (as there is in Northern Europe), but there is no "I am so sorry" strategy defense that gets people out of jail... And yes, I have read Max Weber.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:36
  • @SJuan76 I did not say that I subscribe to the idea, I was reporting that we were told about it. It was presented from a religious point of view that asking for forgiveness while being truly sorry was sufficient in one context whereas the other expected some degree of punishment or activity to repay or repair the damage. I might agree that it is possible to lump countries into various groupings on various basis but I cannot say which are valid or relevant.
    – TafT
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:42
  • @SJuan76 thank you for your suggestions on further areas to explore in the history of the Ancient Roman Empire.
    – TafT
    Sep 26, 2016 at 10:44

The middle ages obviously.

Source page

As you can see, there is population movement from south to north during warm periods and vice versa, with peaking of southern empires during warmings. The peak of the Roman and Mayan empires coincided with a warming, and they then fell as the world cooled and northern populations invaded. A similar pattern occurs with the Vikings, Arabs, colonialism, and pretty much any empire you can think of.

The current migration pattern from south to north, and associated population change, is in accordance with historical climate relationships.

The other parts of the question are vague and meaningless, and can't be answered.

  • 3
    Look to me that your chart is about population increase and decrease, but doesn't say anything about migrations. Also, your source is just an image online. Where is it actually from? Who made it? etc.
    – rougon
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:43
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    a) it just links to the image itself with no sources. b) can you address the difference between migration and population increase in your answer? I don't see anything in the chart that supports the notion of a north/south migration. Maybe there's a chart for that too?
    – rougon
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:48
  • They're basically the same thing.
    – D J Sims
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:50
  • 2
    One is having more babies and one is people moving across continents. I would doubt they are the same thing. And, since your answer doesn't do anything other than show there was warming, can you add some information that has anything to do with population increase?
    – rougon
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:52
  • 2
    I'm not asking for a different answer -- I'm asking for some kind of source to back up your answer. That should be a very basic thing, unless you just want to have opinions, in which case I would think a comment is more appropriate.
    – rougon
    Sep 26, 2016 at 14:55

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