A Little History of the World, E.H. Gombrich

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich
Translated by Caroline Mustill

Publisher: Yale University Press
284 plus introduction (Paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History


In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job, the twenty-six-year-old Ernst Gombrich was invited to attempt a history of the world for younger readers. Amazingly, he completed the task in an intense six weeks, and Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser was published in Vienna to immediate success, and is now available in twenty-five languages across the world.

Toward the end of his long life, Gombrich embarked upon a revision and, at last, an English translation. A Little History of the World presents his lively and involving history to English-language readers for the first time.

In forty concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colourful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science. This is a text not dominated by dates and facts, but by the sweep of mankind’s experience across the centuries, a guide to humanity’s achievements and an acute witness to its frailties.

The product of a generous and humane sensibility, this timeless account makes intelligible the full span of human history.

This book has caused me almost no end of confusion since I picked it up. Who was it aimed at? The cover with its ‘THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER’ and author endorsement on the front and no less than seven additional endorsements hogging the normal blurb space on the back all suggested it was being marketed towards adults. Even the blurb on the inside flap, though mentioning the book was originally aimed at ‘younger readers’ is clearly written more for an adult audience itself with its heavy emphasis on biographical details. Being generous I’ll attribute this as an attempt to market towards parents and adult relatives who like to give educational gifts rather than an attempt to deliberately mislead. But then I opened up and started reading and got confused yet again. Definitely aimed at children – but what age group? The first few chapters seemed read aloud to a five-year-old and deeply patronising to anybody older, but as the book progressed it seemed to be writing more for an audience in their early double-digits. I was just very confused. There were times I felt like it didn’t rate any more than a 2 star and then times I genuinely enjoyed myself and thought it should get a 4. The fair thing then, probably, would be to give it a 3, but the last chapter made up for a lot so it gets bumped up a bit based purely on that.

Gombrich’s history is told in a very conversational tone – the narration is not remotely detached but engages the reader in questions, exclamations, and little asides about his own life and experiences. As I mentioned before,I found this incredibly patronising at the start – like an oventhusiastic substitute teacher who won’t believe you when you say that you’ve already been taught this exact lesson only yesterday. Or the  doctor who thought going ‘now, do you know who this is?’ and pointing to my mum was a humorous and friendly way to check my granny could respond after her stroke (full credit to her for managing a ‘what a patronising little idiot’ expression and an eye roll while half her face was paralised).  Seriously; ‘Do you know how long a second is? It’s as long as counting: one, two, three. And how about a thousand million seconds?  That’s thirty-two years! Now, try to imagine a thousand million years!’. To say I was underwhelmed by the start of this book is an understatement. I was also paranoid because a fair bit of my volunteering is all about interacting with young kids to teach them snippets of history or mythology. Museum education is what I want to go into and I was dreading the idea I might somehow end up sounding like this guy.

That said, it does get better, or at least it did for me. Once pre-history was out of the way the author managed to get over his reliance on exclamation and question marks and actually produce quite an interesting and accessible history text. There were still plenty of moments of irritation – but they were much more infrequent. To say it’s a history of the ‘world’ though is a pretty major exaggeration. It’s a pretty thorough history of Europe (with a heavy focus on Germany) but the rest of the world only gets the occasional focus chapter for especially significant events; the Great wall of China, the life of the Buddha, the Spanish conquest of South America etc. etc. It’s still a more international history than many that were around when I was a kid, and it was certainly absolutely fascinating to read European history from a German rather than British point of view (The Battle of Hastings only got a single paragraph – culture shock!) but it’s definitely a ‘white person’s history of the world’ written in the 1930s. And as such there was a fair bit of unintentional (I hope) racism that made me rage and a few ‘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’ excuses whenever mistreatment of other races came up. Fuck no! The bits of history that we don’t ‘like’ to talk about are almost always the ones where it’s most important that we do.  How are we ever meant to understand other cultures if we refuse to learn their history? If it makes us uncomfortable because we’ve mistreated them, well good, it’s stuff that bloody well should make us feel uncomfortable. And I don’t think it harms kids at all to hear it.

Thankfully the last chapter, written well after World War II and the Holocaust addresses this problem a little; ‘although many years have already passed since it was committed, it is of the utmost importance that it should not be forgotten or hushed up’. Better, much better, now if we start applying that thought to other genocides and hate campaigns…a mention of the Romani-Holocaust as well while we were on Nazi Germany would certainly have been appreciated. But on the whole I found this last, retrospective, chapter went a long was towards improving a book I was feeling pretty conflicted about. It’s more intelligently written, none of that talking down, and describes the author’s own experience during World War II which is interesting in itself. He also looks introspectively at how he wrote the rest of this book and acknowledges some of its mistakes (such as well as explaining how public opinion and propaganda had damaged his impartiality in places causing him to get a major detail about the Treaty of Versailles wrong)  and emphasises the need to research properly and the dangers of being subjected to only heavily biased history. This possibly won’t be the most favoured chapter with the target audience (whatever age group that’s meant to be) but it was, for me, the most thought-provoking. In the end I still don’t like the way certain aspects of world history were handled but I can give credit to the older Gombrich for acknowledging and addressing some of the problems in his earlier work.

So yeah…mixed feelings. Some of it I enjoyed, some of it I really didn’t, sometimes I came across small mistakes on subjects that I’ve studied (eg. medieval Jerusalem, the early modern witch-trials, and the Treaty of Versailles) but nothing (apart from the Versailles one) particular major. To get pernikety about them would mostly miss the point of providing children with a general history. Which is important to have, especially given that the way history is taught in schools now, with certain events and themes being taught in depth and the others ignored almost completely (and even History graduates aren’t immune to it – I have never been taught anything on the French or American revolutions for example). I definitely enjoyed reading a simple broad history that put things into a wider context. But I would probably advise opening a few pages at random throughout the book and reading a few samples to see if it’s your thing before making a purchase. It’s a well intentioned history, it actually does preach tolerance and antiviolence pretty strongly, but it’s a product of its time in many ways, a little dated, and the narrative voice won’t work for everyone.


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Filed under Non-Fiction, Reviews

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