Does the world have a history? The question may seem rhetorical—after all, we study the history of the universe (cosmology) and the history of the earth (geology), so why not the common history of those who live there? Throughout the recorded past, people have interacted within and across communities: exchanging, trading, fighting, conquering, migrating, mingling, and intermixing. The history of any one community or country is inexplicable without reference to the existence and behavior of other communities and countries. So rather than subdividing it into the contingent and ephemeral nations, states, and continents that form the subject matter of conventional history, why not make a virtue of necessity and treat the history of the world as a whole?

It is a seductive notion, sometimes accompanied by an implicit utopian postulate: we are all “citizens of the world,” or should be, so why not cast our story as a shared experience? A lot of schools and colleges in the US now offer courses in “World History.” In many places these substitute for histories of states or regions (Europe) whose previous salience in the curriculum is shunned as the legacy of discredited cultural and political bias. We live in a “global” (or “globalizing”) environment, the argument runs, so the time has come to teach our past in accordance with our present condition.

There are two problems here. The first is obvious: when you try to explain everything, you run the risk of conveying nothing very much at all. As John Roberts puts it in his history of the world in the twentieth century, “general explanations are generally unhelpful.” In the old days we studied English history, for example, as though it unfolded in splendid autonomy. The lives and opinions of the rest of humankind served only as a backdrop to the national story. Today we risk being so preoccupied in shading in the broader human experience that we lack the time or inclination to delineate any national story at all. The gain in breadth is offset by an undifferentiated blandness.

The second difficulty lies in a problem of perspective. History is a story, a story needs a narrator, and a narrator needs to be standing somewhere. The view from nowhere doesn’t work. The fulcrum of the narrative need not be a place; it can just as well be a philosophy of history or a political ideology. That is why the great liberal histories of the past worked so well, telling a confident tale of human progress centered on the civilization of Europe. It is also why the best Marxist historians have written such successful general histories. And it is the reason most history textbooks are so unspeakably boring, hamstrung by their authors’ efforts to tell everyone’s story from all possible angles and to offend no constituency or point of view. The history of the world can be rendered interesting and convincing from various perspectives (which is not to say that they are all equally true), but no one history can embrace them all.

Perspective, however, is not just a matter of where you stand—it also depends on what you are looking at. The history of the world since 1945, for example, makes little sense without sustained attention to the actions and goals of the United States. For the same reasons, a resolute refusal to acknowledge the centrality of Europe in international affairs during the preceding centuries would be simply perverse. Efforts to invert these priorities and see how the global past looks from, say, Senegal or Sri Lanka serve a useful purpose in reminding the reader that for every influential imperial who there is usually a colonized subject whom without which the story is incomplete. And if your purpose is to tell the story of subject peoples then this inverted perspective is crucial. But it is a paradox of world history that its very ambitions usually require a focus upon the great powers—because they were great and they had the power. In undertaking world history to escape from national narratives, we are in the end forced to privilege some national stories and achievements over others in order to make sense of the overall picture.

Both books reviewed here engage these difficulties head on, albeit in rather different ways. It is perhaps not irrelevant that they are both by British historians. The British have long excelled at large-scale narrative history, for reasons that remain a trifle obscure—perhaps it is because, as the Frenchman Jean Monnet mischievously asserted in another context, the British can’t understand an idea but are excellent at appreciating hard facts. The British (or at least the English) also have the advantage that comes with being a somewhat reduced, middle-sized nation: neither a former colony nor (today) a colonial power, shorn of global ambition but not quite European, and at peace with their past—at least when compared to their continental neighbors. This slightly decentered, offshore condition gives to the best history writing from Britain a dispassionate tone lacking in much American writing about the recent past, which cannot altogether escape from the ghosts of cold war conflicts at home and abroad.


There is also a refreshingly opinionated quality to many British general histories, a willingness to recognize that history writing is an art, not a science, and is most convincing when it is the undisguised expression of one man’s views. John Roberts, especially, is a master of the deflating observation, the skeptical dissent from right-thinking historiographical practice. Of the peasants of pre-Revolutionary Russia he writes, “The overwhelming majority of the tsar’s subjects were ignorant and superstitious peasants, for the most part illiterate.” Of the youth culture of the Sixties he observes that “though attention-catching, [it] was largely froth, the least profound manifestation of a great change.” His approach is nicely illustrated in the introductory remarks on the difference between our own world and that of a century ago: “People accepted in 1901 more readily than we always do that a shared humanity should not be trusted very far as a guide to behaviour, and said so more frequently than we are brave enough to do.”

One World Divisible and Twentieth Century have much in common. They are long books (both about nine hundred pages), unusually well written and remarkably inclusive, when we consider the ground they cover. Although I prefer Roberts’s book I can only admire David Reynolds’s achievement. A historian at Cambridge, he seems to know a lot about almost everything. As the notes suggest, he has read across an astonishing range of material: the source for one paragraph on international seaborne trade in the 1960s is an entire book on the use of containers in transport. Reynolds can cite with equal ease from a monograph on the Moroccan political elite, an epidemiological history of England (for data on the social costs of cigarette smoking), Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, and Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously (for a discussion of the political uses of “rights talk” in the 1990s). The book is suffused with statistical data and examples from across the globe.

All this material is put to a sustained purpose, the presentation of a thesis about the history of the world since 1945 as a “dialectical process of greater integration and greater fragmentation.” On the one hand the world has been drawn together—by improved and cheaper communications, by the growth of speculative and highly mobile private capital movements, by the steady falling of technical and political barriers to the movement of goods and people. On the other hand these same processes have fueled an equal and opposite reaction—the emergence of new regionalisms in defense against the “gales of globalization,” the invention and reinvention of states and nations since 1945, the rise of national heritage industries as a “reaffirmation of national culture in the face of globalization.” Moreover, the world is not converging on a single, “American” norm; even the developed capitalist societies exhibit a protean range of social forms with varying proportions of public and private ownership and very different attitudes toward both the market and the state.

Within this overall frame, Reynolds incorporates a multitude of lesser themes. He often reminds the reader that, for much of the world, the post-1945 era was neither “nuclear” nor was it shaped by the concerns of the cold war: “It was equally the age of water and wiring.” The prosperity and technical progress of the postwar West were by no means confined to Europe and the US; rural depopulation, increased output, and growing consumption have become a universal pattern. But the form change took in other continents was so different that it is not very helpful to speak of world-wide “technological revolutions” or even “global society.” Some people are entering the Internet age; for others the goal remains basic electrification; for others, relief of hunger.

Reynolds is impressive in his command of the history of the non-Western world, particularly the Indian subcontinent and Latin America—a noteworthy achievement for a historian hitherto best known for his writings on Anglo-American diplomatic relations. By deemphasizing the universal impact of the cold war and paying close attention to trends working against globalization at the national and regional level, he has written a truly general history. At the same time he has allowed himself plenty of space for “set pieces”: his descriptions of the Great Leap Forward in China and the Cuban missile crisis, among many others, are masterpieces of compact narration—as is his brief history of the computer, another matter in which he has read unusually widely.

He is also very interesting on armies, a subject about which non-specialist historians are usually woefully underinformed. From Indonesia to Ghana, from Argentina to Greece, from Pakistan to Poland, the military has played a central role in twentieth-century history—and as the Turkish case suggests, by no means always a reactionary one. The place of the military in politics is not well caught by the old division of the world into Western or Communist political models—indeed, the army was often the vehicle by which countries avoided or postponed both liberal democracy and revolutionary authoritarianism. Bonapartism and its variants have been among Europe’s most successful export commodities.


Both David Reynolds and John Roberts have quite a lot to say about Africa, the most troubled continent, none of it very reassuring. Reynolds rightly observes that much of Africa was not really part of the international community for most of his period. This was not without its advantages. To be sure, international aid to Africa has been negligible.1 But until very recently much of the continent was not really exposed to the world economy and its upheavals. In 1965 the state of Illinois had a Gross Domestic Product greater than that of the whole African continent, and as late as 1983 the combined debt for all of black Africa was less than that of Brazil.

Just why Africa should be so economically marginal and politically unstable remains obscure. Colonial mistreatment explains much. When the Belgians walked away from the Congo in 1960 they left behind just thirty Congolese university graduates to fill four thousand senior administrative positions. The British did better, but they too can hardly be said to have prepared their former subject populations for a sustainable independent existence, whether by providing adequate schooling or by encouraging future leaders to take over responsibilities. It is salutary to be reminded that as recently as 1951 the British foreign secretary, the Labour politician Herbert Morrison, regarded independence for African colonies as comparable to “giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun”—a sentiment echoed by the Portuguese dictator Salazar, stating his determination to hang on to Portuguese colonies in Africa and the Atlantic:

We will not surrender, we will not share…the smallest part of our sovereignty…. There are…backward races whom we feel we have a duty to lead to civilization.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the newly independent states of most of Africa have fulfilled the worst expectations of their former masters. Between kleptocratic shell-states and murderous warlords, they remain an insoluble dilemma for local reformers and international agencies alike, as recent events in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda tragically demonstrate.

Finally, while he twice reminds us that his angle of vision is that of a middle-aged white male English academic (once would have sufficed), Reynolds is commendably ecumenical. He never forgets that during the “long peace” between the West and the Soviet bloc half a million died in Indonesia in 1965 and many more in China, Cambodia, and Bangladesh—not to mention the 700,000 war dead in Angola and Mozambique, to whom should be added two million departing refugees and six million internally displaced and dispossessed; or the many hundreds of thousands killed and the 17 million made refugees at the coming of Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947. It was not a particularly good half-century for much of what used to be called the “third world,” though things started to improve a little after the mid-Eighties.

All this and much more makes One World Divisible a mine of useful information on everything from economics to embryos. If anything, the book seems too well informed. Each page is stuffed with facts, figures, people, dates, and events and in the end, despite Reynolds’s best efforts, the result is a bit indigestible, resembling an encyclopedia in narrative form. The effort to capture large processes in a phrase sometimes misfires—thus we are told that “organizations such as Solidarity in Poland or Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were the price to be paid for détente and Western loans,” something that is only true in an indirect and trivial sense. The heroic effort to summarize and connect great mounds of data occasionally leads to overambitious conclusions—was rock music really “part of a larger challenge to traditional concepts of classical art and Eurocentric culture that was spawned by the consumer society”? Tell that to Bill Haley.

Perhaps most frustrating of all is the difficulty one has in distinguishing the forest from the trees. In a global history on this scale it seems important to keep the reader firmly apprised of what truly matters, something Reynolds recognizes in his introduction but sometimes neglects thereafter. Thus the events of 1989, from South Africa to the Baltic, are fully and carefully described in this book. But they are not connected, and indeed the structure of the work keeps them well apart, so that someone who didn’t already have a sense of just how dramatic that year was might not acquire it from reading this book. This, together with a rather limp ending,2 undermines Reynolds’s efforts. In the end you learn a bit less from this book than you had hoped.

That is not a criticism one could make of Twentieth Century. The book is not J.M. Roberts’s first attempt at the subject, of course, and readers of his previous books may recognize much of the material. 3 But the result is an elegant and reassuringly magisterial book, just a trifle old-fashioned: the Rolls Royce of modern world histories. Roberts doesn’t have a thesis, though he does have themes, and he never uses five examples where one will serve. By starting in 1901 rather than 1945 he can take advantage of a greater span of time over which to illustrate the scale of change wrought in our era. Indeed, the case against anachronism is clearly stated: “Any history of the twentieth century must begin in a world deeply unlike our own.”

Fully one quarter of Roberts’s book is devoted to mapping out the world as it was and appeared before 1914, an investment in thick historical description that pays off handsomely. We never forget thereafter what sort of a world it was we have lost, and even when we are deep into the events of our own age the long view is ever present. As Roberts notes, “It is something of an irony that, as the twentieth century drew to its end, [the] powers should have been so interested in a matter already familiar to those same statesmen of 1901—the always intractable legacy of the Ottoman Succession.” This is not in itself an original observation—we have been reminded ad nauseam that our century began and ended in Sarajevo. But Roberts has in mind not just Yugoslavia but the Black Sea region, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East, an altogether more suggestive perspective on recent international crises.

Although the author is himself unobtrusive, his book is very clearly positioned. It is quite optimistic: Roberts is not afraid to remind us that there has been in our time (i.e., since 1950) “an unprecedented and revolutionary growth in the world’s wealth” and that this is a good thing; though he also concedes that much of that growth, in Europe at least, did little more than get the European economies back to where they were in 1913, before the no less unprecedented disasters of the ensuing three decades. And despite—or perhaps because of—his well-informed sensitivity to the history of other places, Roberts writes from an unambiguously European point of view.

His grounds for doing so are not in the least autobiographical, and they are quite convincing:

Willingly and unwittingly, Europeans had forced the rest of humanity out of self-absorption and towards participation for the first time in a world history. The history of the twentieth century has therefore to be approached with (what is sometimes deplored) a “Eurocentric” stance. In many ways the world actually was centered on Europe when the twentieth century began. Much of that century’s story is of how and why that ceased to be true before it ended.

In recent years Europe has been an importer of labor and rather introverted in its concerns, but that wasn’t always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Europe exported ideas and people alike: in 1913 alone one and a half million men, women, and children emigrated from Europe, most of them Italian, Spanish, and British. Before that many millions of Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Greeks, Poles, Jews, and others fanned out across the world. In their wake traveled concepts and categories of all kinds, some of which would come back to haunt the European powers in later decades.4

As the rest of the world was thereby Europeanized, often against its will, so Europe lost its confidence. And the story of European expansion and the struggles against it thus gave way to an apparently random sequence of events. The cold war provided an interim organizing principle—the history of the world seemingly reduced to a struggle between competing and incompatible political systems. But that, too, is now behind us. This is one reason why the recent history of the world is often hard to grasp; if you don’t happen to believe in revolutionary theorems or conspiracy theories, then the significance of contemporary history can prove elusive. “Modernization,” “Americanization,” or “globalization” are at best descriptions (and as David Reynolds suggests, not very good ones); they don’t explain anything.

John Roberts’s solution to the challenge of telling the history of the world during and after the displacement of Europe is in some ways the opposite of that adopted by Reynolds. He avoids ambitious generalizations and offers a restrained, reasonable man’s view of the main strands of international history, compensating in wit and common sense for what he lacks in detail and narrative density. The result is a book which is all the more convincing for its restraint—you may not learn as much as you do from reading A Global History, but at the end you perhaps understand it better.5

The tone of Roberts’s work is well captured in his tart observations on the nature of nations and nationalism, about which it is always possible to say too much. Like Reynolds he writes against the grain of contemporary “post-national” history writing, which as practiced in the US consists in a projection of domestic “multiculturalism” onto the rest of humanity and a consequent denial of the reality of other people’s national histories. But Roberts’s account of what nations actually are and why they come into being is sensibly minimalist:

As self-recognition was the essence of the matter, such argument was (though often lengthy) almost always finally irrelevant: the fact was usually established by circumstance…. Broadly speaking, nations were rediscovered and celebrated by intellectuals, poets, linguistic scholars and historians, and even occasionally invented by them, before being brought to birth and exploited by bandits, agitators and politicians.

But then they exist, and you have to take them seriously.

Roberts’s generally optimistic view of the twentieth century will not be to everyone’s taste. Thus he is very clear on what was at stake in World War II, but in the end is more disposed to celebrate the fact that the war was fought and won than to dwell on what took place during it.6 There is also a hint of past tales of progress and improvement in his concluding thoughts: “There are no grounds for believing that solutions to new problems will not in due course appear. At present the evidence remains overwhelming that human manipulative power has so far brought more good than harm to most human beings.” This sanguine perspective doesn’t stop him from noting the yawning gulf separating the rich and the poor today: life expectancy at birth in Ethiopia is not much more than half that of someone born in the US or northwest Europe, and AIDS has reduced life expectancy in Botswana from sixty-one years to just forty-seven years in the course of the past decade. But on the whole eco-pessimism and fin de siècle doubts get short shrift in Roberts’s book.

On the cold war, Roberts differs significantly from Reynolds. They share a sense that the global rivalry of the two great powers should not be allowed to distort or foreshorten our grasp of the larger picture (over time and space alike); but for Roberts the “long peace” cannot be so readily dismissed as illusory. Many of those who have died violently since 1945 (Reynolds puts the figure at 18 million) have been victims of their own governments, in East Asia above all. When the great powers go to war, as in 1914 and 1939, the scale of suffering and destruction is much greater still. There have been no general wars for half a century, and whatever progress has been achieved in that time—in economic prosperity, in international cooperation, and in collective well-being—is largely owing to this sustained era of peace.

If Roberts is able to make this point so convincingly, it is precisely because of his emphasis upon states and powers. His book is not in the least a “diplomatic” history of the world, but it does pay attention to the concerns and influence of men in government and the resources they control. His grounds for taking high politics seriously are as valid for us today as they were in 1901: “What diplomats do is not always important but the complex interests they are meant to defend and represent always are.” For what are probably related reasons he is gently skeptical of the capacities and achievements of international agencies and transnational networks advocating such causes as ecology and human rights in what is still a world of states. Of the latter he writes, “In forty years of activity such causes have only been successful when they have been able to influence and shape state policy itself.”

This sustained interest in the role and capacities of states is common to both books reviewed here, and for advocates of “global history” it should give pause. We live in a world of states. This is generally a good thing, from the point of view of their citizens; and not just citizens—even subjects gain something from living in a regulated public sphere where violence is a monopoly of the ruler. The collapse of the state—in war, under occupation, in civil war—is a terrible thing, because with it go the fragile civilities, rules, and conventions that govern and restrain collective human behavior. To be “stateless” is to be helpless, vulnerable. But the state is not disappearing; and where people fear that it might do so, they quickly resort to forming sub-state communities—defined by territory, language, or history—in order to limit their exposure to the unknown. The illusion that we live in a post-national or post-state world comes from paying altogether too much attention to economic processes (or, more precisely, capital flows) and inferring analogously transnational processes at work in every other sphere of human life.

On the other hand, there truly is today an international community in a way that is perhaps unprecedented. International law is taking shape, even if our capacity to enforce it remains negligible (thanks in large measure to countervailing laws and habits that protect the sovereignty of states). A few people in most countries of the world live in a truly transnational environment, by virtue of their education, their skills, and their access to information. There is very little that even the most retrograde states can do about this, just as the most advanced states can no longer control their economic policies in ways that seemed natural and necessary just twenty years ago. The result is that the condition of the social world has come to resemble that of its physical counterpart: look at it through the lens of “globalism” and all you see is transnational waves; think in terms of power and its application and you will observe little but state-particles.

The difficulty of seeing both at once is a reminder that contemporary “world history” has a frustratingly uncertain quality to it. This is not just because we don’t know where it is going, but because the “it” in question is inherently unstable. Of what is “world history” in our time a story? Prosperity? Freedom? Revolution? Oppression? Evil? The rise of nation-states? The fall of nation-states? Globalization? Its discontents? All of the above, presumably, and much else besides. But it just isn’t possible to tell the story of everything. David Reynolds and John Roberts are master historians, and they come as close as one could reasonably hope to encompassing recent human experience in a single narrative: Reynolds tells you more of what happened, Roberts gives a better sense of what changed.

But as they would be the first to concede, they miss much, whether by design or neglect; in Roberts’s words, a history of the contemporary world is “ultimately unattainable.” World history, like world government, is a self-undermining project, shackled by the burden of expectations that it raises. Historians are neither cosmologists nor geologists, and a single, satisfying account of the world continues to elude us and probably always will. We shall have to settle for less.

This Issue

September 21, 2000