Europe and its neighbours

A Little History of the World chronicles the major historical events from the inventions of cavemen to the consequences of WW1 in its 40 short chapters. It is aimed at children. It has a humanist view of the world; it is clear that the writer intends to be honest and unbiased, challenging as it is from time to time. But we will come to that later.

Art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) wrote the book in 6 short weeks, at the age of 26, when he was still living in Vienna. It was first published in 1936, but was banned under the Nazi regime as they considered the book ‘too pacifistic.’ Indeed, Gombrich criticises many controversial events of the European history and champions peace. For example, the ‘unchristian’ inhumanity of the crusaders who massacred thousands of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, the  slave trade, the treatment of locals under European colonists (e.g. Latin America under the Spanish, India under the Portuguese and the British, Africa under the French, Dutch and British… ),. But these are touched upon only slightly, Gombrich does not settle on them for long. “This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it,” he explains in Chapter 27, after describing the Spanish explorers’ encounter with the Native Mexicans and the bloodshed that followed.

History of the world?

I am not sure if the title of this book is accurate: it is the history of Europe, other nations and civilisations are only on spotlight when they interact with Europeans. The author shares the same point of view: “And so far from 1800 onwards it is even less impossible to see the history of the world as only that of Europe,” states Gombrich in Chapter 37, only 3 chapters to the book’s ending, before mentioning the Opium Wars between China and Britain, during which the latter addicted a whole country of people to a poisonous drug to coerce them to trade with their country. The modernisation of Japan is also described briefly in the chapter.

Gombrich was aware how eurocentric the book really is. So much that he was reluctant to translate it into English: he thought the British would not be interested in reading about the continent’s history. Its translation was only completed by his assistant Caroline Mustill after his death and published in English posthumously.

Religion and tolerance

However, the book describes the beliefs of the major world religions, including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. All these religions are treated with uttermost respect and tolerance, unfortunately except from Islam. Jews “have shaped the course of all history to come”, early Christians showed “unbelievable courage’, Buddha’s teachings “brought inner peace”… So far, Gombrich demonstrates admirable religious tolerance. But when it comes to Islam, that exemplary tolerance is exhausted. Sadly, the depiction Prophet Muhammed is offensive to Muslim readers. Even the description of his physical appearance is incorrect according to existing sources and is intended to have insulting connotations. I will not quote those passages as I find them inappropriate. Furthermore, some verses of the Qur’an which are prone to be misunderstood when quoted out of context are the only ones seen as a necessity to include in the extremely brief chapter, out of all its profound teachings. This becomes a lot more conspicuous when the shortness of the book is considered: it aims to make its readers to think in a certain way about all the historical events it covers, and the impression it aims to leave on its readers about Islam and Muslims is quite stereotypical and narrow-minded. This is very unfortunate because the readers of the book are impressionable young individuals who easily absorb the account of events and people as they are presented to them, shaping their view of the world for the rest of their lives.

Past to present

But not all that is in the book could potentially lead to intolerance. The early chapters of the book are not only simply informative but very entertaining. They give their reader a basic understanding of the events and persons who shaped the European history and leave him/her curious, encouraging to read further on the subjects they introduce. A 284-page-long book cannot do more for its readers. It is fun to read, and has the perfect mode of address to engage its young audience.

Another very good accomplishment of the book is its way of relating the historical events to our modern lives. Gombrich achieves this by connecting some of the phrases we use to their origins. Some of these are: Draconian severity, Pyrrhic victory, Spartan upbringing, oracular answers… Some more common words such as politics, tyrant and the Gospel are also explained. These links to our own day increases the coherency of the book, appeals to the reader and make the events of the past appear maybe happened not so long ago after all.

How the story ends…

The revised edition of the book ends in a rather curious way. Gombrich corrects a few inaccuracies of the original publication. The most important of these small corrections is the criticism of the Treaty of Versailles. Gombrich of 1936 was very much one of his fellow Austrians and Germans: angry for being deceived by the Americans who had initially offered peace in agreeable terms to them, then denied them to even have a seat at the table during the negotiations. But the Gombrich who had lived through the WW2 knew that this unreasonable anger was what helped Hitler to rise into power. He manipulated people’s fury by using incessant propaganda. And Gombrich had witnessed the horrors of the time in its utmost, being born into a Jewish family. Luckily enough, he had managed to migrate into Britain before the Nazis took hold of Austria.

In conclusion, I think the book has many merits and is generally enjoyable to read. However, even though it has stood the test of time and is still widely read, some of its views are old-fashioned for a modern reader. Globalisation has changed the look of the world in just a few decades; we all now know that there is a lot more to it than Europe.

Gombrich, E. H. A Little History of the World. Yale University Press, 2013.

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