Rather than focusing on dry facts and dates, E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World vividly brings the full span of human experience on Earth to life, from the stone age to the atomic age. He paints a colourful picture of wars and conquests; of grand works of art; of the advances and limitations of science; of remarkable people and remarkable events, from Confucius to Catherine the Great to Winston Churchill, and from the invention of art to the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
In this extract, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, E. H. Gombrich reflects on his book and writes about the small part of the history of the world that he actually experienced.
This extract is from Chapter 40 of E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World
It is one thing to learn about history from books, and quite another to experience it oneself. That is what I wanted to remind you of just now when I likened a glimpse into the past of mankind to the view seen from an aeroplane flying at a great height. All we can make out are a few details on the banks of the river of time. But when seen from close up, with the waves coming towards us one by one, the river looks quite different. Some things are much clearer, while others are barely visible. And that’s how I found it. In the last chapter I told you about the terrible World War of 1914–18. Although I lived through it, I was only nine years old when it ended. So when I wrote about it I still had to rely on books.
In my final chapter I would like to tell you a little about what I actually did experience. The more I think about it, the stranger it seems. The world is now so utterly different from what it was in 1918, and yet so many of the changes that occurred happened so imperceptibly that we now take them completely for granted.
When I was a boy there were no televisions, no computers, no space flights and no atomic energy. But it’s easy to forget the most important change, and that is that there are so many more people in the world than there were then. Towards the end of the 1914–18 war there were more than 2,000,000,000 people on our planet. Since then the figure has more than doubled. Of course, numbers as big as that don’t mean much to us because we can’t actually picture them to ourselves. But if we bear in mind that a line drawn round the earth at the level of the equator would measure roughly 40,000,000 metres, and that when people form queues in front of a ticket office there are roughly 2 of them to a metre, it means that 80,000,000 people waiting patiently in a queue would reach all the way round the world. The queue when I was a boy would have gone round 22 times, and today, with our 4,500,000,000 fellow inhabitants, the queue would reach more than 50 times round the earth!
Then you must also realise that, throughout the time that the population was multiplying at such a tremendous rate, the globe we all inhabit was imperceptibly growing smaller and smaller. Of course, I don’t mean literally shrinking, but technology – and, in particular, that of flying – kept on reducing the distance between the various parts of the globe. This was also something I experienced myself. Whenever I find myself at an airport and hear a succession of announcements for flights to Delhi, New York, Hong Kong or Sydney, and see the swarms of people preparing to depart, I can’t help thinking of my youth. In those days people would point at someone and say: ‘He’s been to America’, or ‘She’s been to India!’
Today there are hardly any places in the world that can’t be reached in a matter of hours. Even if we don’t go to far-off countries ourselves, they seem closer to us than they were in my youth. Whenever a major event happens anywhere in the world we read about it in the newspapers the next day, we hear about it on the radio and see it on the television news. The inhabitants of ancient Mexico knew nothing about the destruction of Jerusalem, and it is unlikely that anyone in China ever heard of the effects of the Thirty Years War. But by the First World War things had changed. The very fact that it was known as a ‘World War’ was because so many nations had been drawn into the fighting.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean that all the news which now reaches us from all over the world is true. One of the things I also learned was not to believe everything I read in the newspapers. I’ll give you an example. Because I had lived through the First World War myself, I thought I could believe everything I had heard about it at the time. That is why the last chapter, ‘Dividing up the world’, is not quite as impartial as I had intended. The role played by America’s President Wilson (see p. 269 of A Little History of the World) was not at all what I had imagined. I described a situation in which Wilson made promises to the Germans and Austrians which he failed to keep. I firmly believed that what I remembered had to be right – after all, it was part of my own experience – and when I wrote about it later I just wrote down what everyone believed. But I should have checked my facts, as all historians must be especially careful to do. To cut a long story short, President Wilson did indeed make a peace offer early in 1918, but because Germany and Austria and their allies were still hoping to win the war, they ignored it. Only when the war had dragged on for ten more months, and they had been defeated with very heavy losses, were they prepared to accept the President’s proposal. But by then it was too late.
Quite how serious and regrettable this error of mine was rapidly became apparent. For, although I did not foresee it, the fact that all those who had been defeated were convinced that their suffering was the result of a gross deception was very easily exploited and transformed by ambitious and fanatical agitators into a raging thirst for vengeance. I am reluctant to name them, but everyone will know that the one I have most in mind is Adolf Hitler. Hitler had been a soldier in the First World War, and he too remained convinced that, had it not been for the supposed deception, the German army would never have been defeated. But he didn’t just blame Wilson. In his eyes, the enemy’s propaganda had been crucial in persuading the Germans and Austrians at home to abandon the soldiers at the front to their fate. Hitler was therefore determined to trump the enemy in the art of propaganda. He was a brilliant popular orator and drew huge crowds. He knew there was no better way to incite a mob to action than to give them a scapegoat, someone they could blame for their suffering, and he found one in the Jews.
The fate of this ancient people has been touched on several times in this book. I described their voluntary segregation, and the loss of their homeland with the destruction of Jerusalem (p. 27), and their persecution during the Middle Ages (p. 159). But even though I come from a Jewish family myself, it never entered my head that such horrors might be repeated in my own lifetime.
Here I must confess to another error that slipped into this history – but one for which I might perhaps be excused. In chapter 33 it says that a ‘truly new age’ began in which people started to turn their minds away from the brutality of earlier times, because the ideas and ideals of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century had by then become so widespread that people took them to be self-evident. At the time that I wrote that it seemed to me inconceivable that anyone might ever again stoop to persecuting people of a different religion, use torture to extract confessions, or question the rights of man. But what seemed unthinkable to me happened all the same. Such a painful step backwards seems almost beyond our understanding, and yet it may be no harder for young people to understand than it is for adults. They need only open their eyes at school. Schoolchildren are often intolerant. Look how easily they make fun of their teacher if they see him wearing something unfashionable that the class finds amusing, and once respect is lost all hell breaks loose. And if a fellow student is different in some minor way – in the colour of their skin or hair, or the way they speak or eat – they too can become victims of hateful teasing and tormenting which they just have to put up with. Of course, not all young people are equally cruel or heartless. But no one wants to be a spoil-sport, so in one way or another most of them join in the fun, until they hardly recognise themselves.
Unfortunately grown-ups don’t behave any better. Especially when they have nothing else to do or are having a hard time – or, sometimes, when they just think they are having a hard time. They band together with other real or supposed companions in misfortune and take to the streets, marching in step and parroting mindless slogans, filled with their own importance. I myself saw Hitler’s brown-shirt supporters beating up Jewish students at Vienna University, and when I was writing this book, Hitler had already seized power in Germany. It seemed only a matter of time before the Austrian government would also fall, so I was lucky to be invited to England just in time, before Hitler’s troops marched into Austria in March 1938. After that, as in Germany, anyone who greeted someone with a simple ‘Good morning’ and not a ‘Heil Hitler!’ was taking a very grave risk.
In this type of situation it soon becomes all too clear that in the eyes of the supporters of this sort of movement, there is only one sin, disloyalty to the Führer, or leader, and only one virtue, absolute obedience. To bring victory closer every order had to be obeyed, even if it ran counter to the laws of humanity. Of course, similar things have happened at earlier times in history, and I have described many of them in this book – for example, when I wrote about Muhammad’s first disciples (p. 119). The Jesuits, too, were said to place obedience above all else. I also touched briefly on the victory of the Communists in Russia under Lenin, and there, too, there were convinced Communists who would not tolerate any opponents. Their ruthlessness in the pursuit of their goals knew no bounds, and millions died as a result.
In the years that followed the First World War, tolerance also vanished in Germany, Italy and Japan. The politicians of those countries told their fellow countrymen that they had been cheated when the world was shared out, and that they too had the right to rule over other peoples. The Italians were reminded of their ancient Roman ancestry, the Japanese of their warriors, and the Germans of the old Germanic tribes, of Charlemagne and Frederick the Great. People, they were told, were not of equal value. Just as some breeds of dog were better at hunting than others, they themselves belonged to the best race, the one designed for ruling.
I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he’d love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of ‘I’, he says, ‘we are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth’, his fellow countrymen applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot. For there is nothing patriotic about it. One can be attached to one’s own country without needing to insist that the rest of the world’s inhabitants are worthless. But as more and more people were taken in by this sort of nonsense, the menace to peace grew greater.
Then, when a serious economic crisis in Germany condemned vast numbers of people to unemployment, war seemed the simplest way out. The unemployed would become soldiers or work in the armaments factories, and in this way the hateful treaties of Versailles and St Germain would be wiped off the face of the earth. Not only that, but the Western democratic countries – France, Britain and the United States – had become so softened by years of peace, or so it was thought, that they were hardly likely to defend themselves. Certainly no one there wanted a war, and every effort was made to avoid giving Hitler an excuse to bring calamity down on the world. But, sadly, a pretext can always be found and, if need be, ‘incidents’ can be arranged. So on the first day of September in 1939, the German army marched into Poland. By that time I was already in England and witnessed for myself the profound sadness – but also the determination – of those who had to march off to war again. This time there were no cheerful battle songs, and no dreams of glory. They were just doing their duty, for the madness had to be stopped.
My task was to listen to German broadcasts and translate them into English so as to know what German listeners were being told, and what they were not being told. This meant that from 1939 to 1945 I was in the curious position of living through all six years of that terrible war on both sides, as it were, if in very different ways. At home in England I saw determination, but also hardship, anxiety for the men at the front, the effects of air raids and fear at the turns the war was taking. From German radio broadcasts all I heard were cries of triumph and outpourings of abuse. Hitler believed in the power of propaganda, a faith which seemed justified when the successes of the first two years of the war exceeded even his wildest expectations. Poland, Denmark and Norway, Holland and Belgium, France, large parts of Russia and the Balkans were overrun, and only Britain, that little island on the edge of Europe, still held out. And even that resistance could surely not last long, for, to the sound of trumpet fanfares, the German radio ceaselessly proclaimed how many ships carrying supplies and armaments intended for the British had been sunk by their U-boats.
But when, without any declaration of war, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor and virtually destroyed it, and Hitler took it upon himself to declare war on the United States, and when, in the autumn of 1942, the German troops were beaten back in North Africa and defeated by the Russians in January 1943 outside Stalingrad, and when the German air force – the Luftwaffe – proved powerless to prevent the Allies’ devastating bombardments of German towns, it became clear that it takes more than fine words and fanfares to win a war. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in England, at a time when the outlook was grim, he said: ‘I can promise nothing but blood, sweat and tears.’ And it was precisely because he had said that that we also believed him when he held out a glimmer of hope. How many German listeners paid any attention to the justifications and promises that I heard, day in, day out on the German radio, is anyone’s guess.
What I do know is that neither the German listeners nor we ourselves were aware at the time of the most horrifying of all the crimes committed by the Germans during the war. In connection with this I shall, if you don’t mind, take you back to page 179 where it says (speaking of the Spanish conquistadores of Mexico): ‘there and in other parts of America they set about exterminating the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans’, I wrote ‘that I would rather not say anything more about it . . .’
I am even more reluctant to talk about the monstrous crime that was committed in our own century – after all, this book is intended for young readers who should not have to read about such things. But children grow up too, and they too must learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance. And so it came about that, in the last years of the Second World War, the Jewish inhabitants of every country in Europe under German occupation – millions of men, women and children – were driven from their home countries. Most were put on trains and sent eastwards, where they were murdered.
As I said before, the German radio said nothing about any of this to its listeners, and like many others I couldn’t at first bring myself to believe it when the war ended and the unthinkable became known (in 1945). But sadly there is abundant proof of this monstrous crime, and 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.
With the mingling of peoples on our tiny planet, it becomes more and more necessary for us to respect and tolerate each other, not least because technological advances are bringing us closer and closer together.
The impact of technology was also demonstrated in the Second World War, when the almost inexhaustible reserves of the American arms industry,which benefited both Britain and Russia, made the outcome inevitable. Despite the desperate resistance put up by the German soldiers, the British and Americans were able to land on the French coast of Normandy in the summer of 1944 and drive the Germans back. At the same time the Russians were pursuing a by now unresisting German army and, in April, they finally reached Berlin, where Hitler took his own life. There was no talk of a peace treaty this time. The victors remained in Germany as occupying forces, and for decades a heavily guarded frontier ran right through Germany separating the sphere of influence of Communist Russia from that of the Western democracies.
However, with the defeat of Germany the World War was still not over, for the Japanese, who had meanwhile conquered large parts of Asia, were far from defeated. And because no end was in sight, the Americans brought out an entirely new weapon: the atomic bomb.
It so happened that, shortly before war broke out, I had met a young physicist who told me about an article published by the great Danish scientist, Niels Bohr. Its subject was the theoretical possibility of constructing a ‘uranium bomb’ whose destructive power would far exceed that of any known explosive. At the time we were both united in hoping that such a weapon might only be dropped on some desert island, to show friend and foe alike that all other ideas of weaponry and warfare had had their day. Although many of the scientists who were working frantically throughout the war to realise this weapon certainly felt as we did, our hope was in vain. In August 1945, the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the first victims of an unimaginable catastrophe, and Japan was finally defeated.
It was clear to all of us that with this invention an entirely new chapter in the history of the world had begun, for the discovery of atomic energy might be likened to the discovery of fire. Fire, too, can warm, and it can destroy, but its destructive power is nothing next to that of today’s even greater atomic weapons. One can only hope that this development has made it impossible for such weapons to be used ever again against human beings. It must be clear to everyone that if they were to be used, neither side would be likely to survive and vast areas of the globe would be turned into uninhabitable deserts. Of course, the world has changed enormously since the last war. The inhabitants of whole continents that belonged to the British empire have since then become largely independent – although, unfortunately not yet any more peaceable for it. Yet despite the brutal conflicts and worrying crises that have broken out since 1945 in various parts of the globe, we have been spared a third world war because we all know only too well that it could mean the end of the history of the world. It isn’t a great comfort, but it’s better than none at all.
Not surprisingly, this entirely new situation in human history led many to condemn out of hand all the achievements of a science that had brought us to the edge of the abyss. And yet those people should not forget that, without science and technology, it would not have been possible for the countries concerned to make good, at least in part, the damage and destruction caused by the World War, so that life could return to normal much earlier than anyone had dared to hope.
Finally, I should like to make one more small correction to my book, to make good an omission that lies close to my heart. My chapter ‘Men and machines’ is not exactly incorrect, but it is a little one-sided. While it is indeed true that the switch from artisans and craftsmen to factories and machines entailed a great deal of suffering, I should nevertheless have mentioned that without the new techniques of mass production it would have been quite impossible to feed, clothe and house the steadily increasing population. The very fact that more and more children were being born, and fewer and fewer of them were dying soon after, was largely due to the scientific advance of medicine which insisted on such things as piped running water and proper sewerage. True, the growing industrialisation of Europe, America and of Japan has meant the loss of much that is beautiful, but we must not forget how many blessings – and I mean blessings – it has brought us.
I well remember what people meant in my youth when they talked about ‘the poor’. It was not only the destitute, the beggars and the homeless who looked different from the middle-class inhabitants of large towns, but factory workers too – both men and women – could be recognised at a distance by their dress. The women usually wore shawls on their heads against the cold, and no factory worker would ever have dreamed of wearing a white shirt, for it would have instantly shown the dirt.And when I think about it, I remember people used to talk about ‘the smell of the poor’, because the majority of a town’s inhabitants lived in poorly ventilated tenements with, at most, a single tap at the foot of the stairs.
A middle-class household (and not just the wealthy ones) usually included a cook, a parlour-maid and often a nursery-maid to take care of the children as well. Such women often had a better life than they would have had if they had stayed at home, but it can’t have been very pleasant, for example, to have had only one day a week when you were allowed out, and to be generally looked upon as a servant. It was during my childhood that people were just beginning to think about such things, and after the First World War, servants became officially known as ‘home helps’. Even so, when I visited Berlin as a student, houses often had a sign at the entrance which read ‘Entrance for Gentlemen and Ladies only’. Even in those days this made me feel uncomfortable. Servants and tradesmen had to use the back stairs and weren’t allowed to use the lift, even if they had a heavy load to carry.
Thankfully, all that is over now, like a bad dream. To be sure, life is still hard for many people, and there are wretched and joyless neighbourhoods in the towns of Europe and America. But most people who work in factories and even most of the unemployed live better today than many medieval knights must have done in their castles. They eat better, and above all they are healthier and as a rule live longer,which was not the case only a short while ago. Since time began people have dreamed of a ‘Golden Age’, and now that something close to one is true for so many, no one is willing to admit it. But the same could not be said of those countries in Eastern Europe which were forced by Russia’s armies to adopt the Communist system. It was especially hard for the inhabitants of East Germany, who, as the years went by, saw how much better the lives of their Western neighbours were, until the day came when they were no longer prepared to make the heavy sacrifices that the Communist system of economics demanded. And so, in 1989, quite unexpectedly, the unthinkable happened. The East Germans succeeded in forcing open their border and both parts of Germany were once more united. The mood took hold of Soviet Russia, where the political system collapsed, as it did in all the remaining countries of Eastern Europe.
I ended my account of the First World War with the words: ‘We all hope for a better future, it must be better.’ Has such a future come? For many of the people who live on our earth, it is still remote. Among the constantly growing populations of Asia, Africa and South America the same misery reigns that, until not so long ago, was accepted as normal in our countries as well. We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand. And yet improvements in sending information have made the consciences of richer nations a little more attentive. Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.
About the author:
E. H. Gombrich (1909–2001) was the author of many works, including the international bestsellers The Story of Art and Art and Illusion. He was director of the Warburg Institute of the University of London from 1959 to 1976.
About the book:
A Little History of the World
E. H. Gombrich
“All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time.’ And that’s just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time.” So begins A Little History of the World, an engaging and lively book written for readers both young and old. Rather than focusing on dry facts and dates, E. H. Gombrich vividly brings the full span of human experience on Earth to life, from the stone age to the atomic age. He paints a colourful picture of wars and conquests; of grand works of art; of the advances and limitations of science; of remarkable people and remarkable events, from Confucius to Catherine the Great to Winston Churchill, and from the invention of art to the destruction of the Berlin Wall.