Gombrich’s A Little History of the World

By Daniel Sharp

Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) was best known as an influential art historian, but in 1936 his first book published was an overview of world history for children and adolescents from prehistoric times to the First World War. Gombrich was Viennese by origin but lived in Britain for most of his life having fled the Nazis, and his book was first published in German (though it was banned by the Nazis for being ‘too pacifist’). Throughout his life, it was translated into many different languages and he updated it many times; finally, in the 1990s, he decided to translate the book into English himself, and revised and updated it. Unfortunately, Gombrich died before completing this task, but the translation was finished by his assistant, Caroline Mustill, and the book was finally published for the first time in English in 2005.

So much for the book’s complex publishing history- what of the work itself? As I read it over the Christmas holiday period I was taken with the sheer audacity of the book. Explaining thousands of years of world history and dealing with complex subjects such as the birth of Islam and the writing techniques of ancient Sumerians to adults- never mind children- is a difficult undertaking. Astonishingly, Gombrich pulled it off with aplomb, and the book can be read by people of all ages who will undoubtedly find it entertaining and instructive.

Gombrich writes in a casual, conversational style, effortlessly educating the reader, whether young or old, on a diversity of topics and issues. The geographical and temporal range of the book is astounding – ancient China and India are covered as is the reign of Charlemagne and the conquests of Napoleon! The book is suffused with the spirit of European liberal humanism, and it is a work which laments the horrors inflicted upon people by each other down the ages, whilst also celebrating the achievements and wisdom of historical figures.

A Little History of the World is therefore not only a fascinating and pleasurable read, it is also a morally instructive piece of writing, and it would make a fine present for any adult or child. There are criticisms to be made- undoubtedly academic historians would take issue with many of the arguments put forward, and, despite its range, it is still broadly Eurocentric. Nonetheless, it is well worth digging out and appreciating as an incredible achievement by one of the twentieth century’s most notable thinkers.

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