The World: A Family History
“Montefiore synthesizes human history by ‘using the stories of families across time’ and ‘connecting great events with individual human drama.’”
People make history. And people exist in families. “The family,” writes Simon Sebag Montefiore in his new majestic history The World, “remains the essential unit of human existence.” In this book, Montefiore synthesizes human history by “using the stories of families across time” and “connecting great events with individual human drama.”
Montefiore tells the human story in one volume, which is necessarily selective history—the Durants’ The Story of Civilization was 11 volumes; Toynbee’s A Study of History reviewed the rise and fall of civilizations in 12 volumes. Montefiore’s work, though concise, sheds light on the personal, the political, and the geopolitical aspects of world history, while adhering to chronology and global scope. World history, he writes, “is made by the interplay of ideas, institutions, and geopolitics. . . . But . . . it is personalities who roll the dice.” And those personalities act through nations that “are formed by families in movement.”
Some of the personalities of his book will be familiar: Tutenkhamun, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Muhammed, Budda, Montezuma, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Shakespeare, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Frederick the Great; George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, William Pitt, Ulysses Grant, Bismarck, Disraeli, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Hitler, Mao, Hirohito, Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping. So, too, will some of the families be familiar: Medici, Borgia, Bourbon, Tudor, Stuart, Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Manchu, Rothschild, Krupp, Romanov, Adams, Roosevelt, Nehru, Gandhi, Kennedy, Bush, Assad, Saudi, Kim, Obama, Trump.
But there are so many others, less familiar to Western audiences but who played significant roles in world history: the Akkadian emperor Sargon; King Alara of Kush, the first African emperor; the Qin emperors in China; China’s empress Wu; the Selucid king Antiochos the Great; the African Ashoka; the Turk Seljuk; the Islamic ruler Abd al-Malik; Shaka Zulu; Ismail the Magnificent of Egypt; Emperor Jacques I of Haiti; Egyptian ruler Mehmed Ali; the Mughal emperor Babur; Ottoman sultan Selim I. The list could go on and on.
In the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, science, technology and ideas spread throughout much of the world (we call it “globalization”) and enabled people to live longer, healthier, and better lives. Montefiore mentions the explorers, scientists, and inventors who changed the world. But anyone who thinks human nature has improved by linear progression will be disappointed by Montefiore’s history, which is a global tale of misery, tragedy, wars of conquest, unbounded violence, savagery, cruelty, rape, sexual depravity, ubiquitous slavery, regicide, matricide, fratricide, assassinations, massacres, civil wars, persecutions (especially of Jews everywhere), unspeakable tortures, corruption. There are very few saints and very many sinners in this book.
Virtually every atrocity and barbarity committed in ancient times or in the so-called Dark Ages has its equivalent or worse atrocity and barbarity in recent times. The Armenian genocide; the suicidal offensives on the Western Front during World War I; Stalin’s famine, Great Terror, and Gulag; the rape of Nanjing; the Bataan Death March; the Holocaust; the bombings of cities; ethnic massacres in India-Pakistan; Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution; Syrian leader Assad’s massacre in Hama; Pol Pot’s genocide; the brutal repression of the Uyghurs in China all happened within the last hundred years or so.
But history is also impacted by weather, diseases, and natural disasters. Plagues, like the very recent COVID-19 pandemic, occur periodically throughout world history. Plagues affected the Peloponnesian War, decimated Europe in the 14th century, and killed millions after the First World War. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped killing yet. And Montefiore notes that “pandemics always return.”
Ideas, too, shaped the individuals who make history. Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Confucius, Muhammed, Martin Luther, the French philosophes, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, Lenin, Mao, Wahhab—all inspired political actions, sometimes revolutions. And some ideas were translated into inventions and mass produced by people like Thomas Edison, John Rockefeller, Nikola Tesla, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Henry Ford. Ideas like the rule of law backed by constitutions and filtered through institutions provided individual liberties to a growing number of people. The “collision of ideas,” Montefiore explains, “became the engine of innovation.”
Throughout his world history, Montefiore provides insights and gems of wisdom: “in times of extreme opportunity, extreme characters thrive”; in holy wars “religion was just one element; greed, ambition and family were just as important”; “It is a rule of imperial power and human nature that every state will expand its ambitions beyond its resources”; “pride and empire have no end”; “The predicament of prodigious power is that it exceeds a single human’s ability to wield it”; “a small but determined clique of self-righteous, self-selected extremists can dominate a society, rewarding their supporters with spoils and destroying those deemed unvirtuous--a template for authoritarian ideologies”; “success is never final” and “brilliance is never far from madness”; “self-righteous narcissism . . . is the fate of those eternally in power”; “power is corrosive”; and “power is always the lodestar of faith.”
Montefiore’s assessments of historical figures are mostly unflattering and often surprising. Alexander the Great was “a born killer.” Julius Caesar is described as “cold,” “vindictive,” and a “perpetual dictator.” Genghis Khan’s conquests (and those of his sons) made him “literally the father of Asia.” Tamerlane was “both connoisseur and butcher.” Christopher Columbus was “visionary, loquacious, insecure, mendacious, and shamelessly pushy, but also a tough and enterprising sailor.” Cesare Borgia is characterized as “flashy, indefatigable, murderous, priapic [whose] ambition was boundless.” Catherine de Medici was “the outstanding female politician of her time.” George Washington was “much more canny and ambitious than he ever let on.” Thomas Jefferson the slave master, Montefiore writes, talked enlightenment but did not practice it. France’s Robespierre created a “whirlpool of virtue [that] would be the template for all similar self-righteous, secular witch hunts.”
Closer to our own time, Montefiore describes Mao Zedong as possessing “an unyielding will to dominate.” Winston Churchill had a “martial temperament, visionary creativity, exuberant energy, unrivaled ministerial experience, knowledge of war and history, and mastery of language.” Ho Chi Minh’s “paternal charm belied his Stalinist ferocity.” John F. Kennedy was ill prepared to be president because “he had never run anything, his sex life was recklessly priapic, his health dubious, and his career had been funded by his rich father.” Jimmy Carter is described as an “inexperienced, sanctimonious and toothsome Democrat” who “weakened American power.” Iran’s Khomeini and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “sought to use murder to cleanse their nations.”
Montefiore’s historical insights are worth pondering. War drives technology and innovation, and warfare is ubiquitous throughout human history. “Power is always personal” and proximity to power means influence--which is why families have built political dynasties. Asia shaped Europe and Europe shaped the rest of the world--and indigenous peoples suffered as a result. Great conquerors brought the world together, and technology made the world “smaller.”
The world’s greatest tragedy—World War II—began on July 28, 1937, when Japan launched a full invasion of China, not September 1, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Soviet General Georgi Zhukov, not Patton, Montgomery, or MacArthur, was the “greatest general of the Second World War.” The communist victory in China’s civil war was not inevitable and resulted from Stalin’s aid and America’s mistakes. Modern democracies “are more complex and less rational than we like to pretend.” The recent NATO expansion to Russia’s borders “lacked foresight.” And China’s President Xi Jinping’s world mission is “the conquest of Taiwan.”
Montefiore concludes this massive work of historical synthesis by noting that history is “kinetic, mutating and dynamic, a deathless arsenal of stories and facts.” Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the storm clouds gathering in the western Pacific are a return of history after the 70-year “peace” of the Cold War and America’s brief unipolar moment. History, he writes, is “a stuttering spasm of contingencies” and a “struggle . . . between contradictory facets of human nature.” And history has demonstrated that humans have a “limitless ability to destroy” and an “ingenious ability to recover.” So there may be hope, after all.