Andrew Marr’s History of the World

‘What drives history is the human ambition to alter one’s condition to match one’s hopes’

‘Science strides ahead; politics stumbles around like a drunk’

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In his own words: ‘train set’ or ‘turgid porridge’?

“Bonkers, and therefore irresistible: you’re being given such an enormous train set to play with” – that’s how Andrew Marr describes his reaction to the BBC’s suggestion to write an 8-hour History of the World. He spent three years and read two thousand books to write it, and it had over 10 million viewers when broadcast on BBC1 in 2012.

Marr is not a professional historian, but an English graduate, former newspaper editor with The Economist & The Independent and BBC political editor. Journalism, though, is supposed to be the first draft of history.

He admits: ‘there’s a great danger with a book like this: it can just become a kind of turgid porridge of facts you try and throw everything in and you don’t engage the reader. What is going to make people think afresh?’

Rulers, ideas and revolutions: this kind of political history is ‘unapologetically unfashionable, concentrating on the biggest change-makers, for the better we understand how rulers lose touch with reality, or why revolutions produce dictators more often than they produce happiness, or why some parts of the world are richer than others, the easier it is to understand our own times.’ It is ‘the nit and grit of little facts that switch on the lights’. 

You can tell a lot about a historian by their contents, the sorts of questions they ask, and their choice of anecdotes. Here are the contents:

1. Survival: Out of The Heat, Towards the Ice 68,000 BC – 2000 BC

2. The Case For War 1000 BC – 2000 BC

3. The Word and The Sword 300 BC – 600 AD

4. Into The Light: Beyond the Muddy Melting Pot 700 -1480

5. The World Blows Open 1490 – 1640

6. Age of Revolution: Dreams of Freedom 1609 – 1796

7. Age of Industry: Capitalism & Its Enemies 1800 – 1918

8. Age of Extremes: Our Times 1918-2012

All this makes for an expansive overview, though quite a lot gets left out. There is not a single mention of Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King is given a single sentence. Both arguably changed the course of history in Africa and in America, so by Marr’s own criterion of change-makers they seem surprising omissions. Similarly, to leave out the Suffragettes, whose historic struggle enabled half the population to have a say in politics, seems strange.

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What, no Mandela?

The questions asked – and the answers – are revealing. Chapter by chapter, these are the ones I found most intriguing.

1. Survival: Out of The Heat, Towards the Ice 68,000 BC – 2000 BC

What caused Homo sapiens push out of Africa? Who were they? What happened to them?

We are pawns of climate… We are both extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily violent; indeed, the two seem worryingly inseparable.’

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2. The Case For War 1000 BC – 2000 BC

Conflict drives new inventions. Adversity makes the survivors stronger. 

War drove advances in metalworking, wheels, horsemanship, sailing, mathematics and counting, architecture, coins, democracy, the alphabet, writing, ideas and democracy. Nothing has advanced technical progress faster than war. Would a peaceful Mediterranean have produced a Sophocles? No Trojan War, no Homer. No Homer, no (or at least less) Greek culture.’

Monotheism changed the world far more than any mere emperor.’

Socrates’ life raises the question: ‘How long can you hang on to your principles of free speech and free thought, before giving way to fear?’

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3. The Word and The Sword 300 BC – 600 AD

Why was there a single united China but a fragmented Europe [Rome and Byzantium]? Geography, some say. 

‘What other forces are relevant? Monotheism: Christianity & Islam had a more dramatic effect than Buddhism. Many movements have been strengthened in their early stages by repression – Jews, Christians, Protestants, Islamists. The conundrum was how earthly power and mass religion could coexist…’

4. Into The Light: Beyond the Muddy Melting Pot 700 -1480

Europe was a backwater pre-1480; Baghdad was discovering science, maps, mathematics, law, astrology, medicine, geography, engineering, water management and algebra.’

‘What was really happening in Africa south of the sahara at this time? Desiccation … camel domestication…’

Genghis Khan changed the world, unintentionally helped Christian Europe rise over Muslim empire, and brought an end to Chinese division.’

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‘The sack of Constantinople in 1202 by the fourth crusade was the biggest such loss in history: western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sacking of Rome by barbarians in 5th century, or the burning of the library at Alexandria by soldiers of the prophet in the seventh. Venetians accidentally aided the rise of Islam in Europe.’ (238)

5. Age of Plunder: The World Blows Open 1490 – 1640

This is a key period when we ask why certain parts of the world are so much richer than others… Why is Russia so big? Why is it the shape it is? It’s an odd story, ranging from Europe’s terror of slaving pirates; Vlad’s nationalism; the importance of staying cosy to Russians; and anti-smoking campaigners England & Japan.’

6. Age of Revolution: Dreams of Freedom 1609 – 1796

In 1600 there was no obvious reason why others might not catch up with Europe. What tipped the balance?’

What is the right balance between state authority and individual liberty? It is a conundrum – how is it possible to combine authority and liberty? Can one really legislate for human happiness?’

‘One day the population of British America would be larger and wealthier than the home islands. What would happen then? … What was the alternative to American independence?’

7. Age of Industry: Capitalism & Its Enemies 1800 – 1918

On the Industrial Revolution: ‘Why Britain? And why then? By 1700 its agriculture was the most productive in Europe, twice as productive as its rivals.’

Lincoln’s war was the most important of the nineteenth century war. It changed America irrevocably, and therefore changed the modern world. It created the superpower of the following century. Without it, there would have been no Atlantic aid in 1917 or 1941.’

Lincoln

What was the war about? … Why was slavery such a powerful force across the United States? What kind of society would this be? Why did they fight, that majority of southerners who were neither slave-owners nor wealthy, but a quarter of whom perished?’

On the Opium Wars: ‘addiction … exploitation … national humiliation … one of the severest cultural wounds inflicted on China by any outsider.’

8. Age of Extremes: Our Times 1918-2012

What sort of person best defined the first part of the twentieth century? Not a soldier or scientist, but the bureaucrat.’

Is human history the history of violence or of freedom? Do we learn? Do we become better? Does violence stop or does it get greater, the more of us there are? We have learned some of the lessons, but not all of them.’

The force of ordinary people, well organised and peaceful, confronting power and using the international spotlight, has been one of the few potent and cheering political ideas of the twentieth century.’

‘The key underlying theme of this history has been the mismatch between growth in mankind’s technical ability to shape the world and the lack of development in mankind’s political ability to govern itself. It’s ‘the failure of success’: extraordinary technical intelligence; a long lag in advancing political and social intelligence… What can we expect next?’

Mindset Shifts

I am an avid reader of history, but this book threw up so much I did not know. Here are just some of the most mind-changing:

‘The Musa of Mali were far stronger, far better organised even more literate than any Christian power of Europe.’ (208)

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‘Luther’s impact on German can be compared to Shakespeare’s on English’ (278)

Over one million Christians were enslaved between 1530-1640, and this continued until the 1780s’ (281)

‘James Joyce compared Germany helping Lenin’s Russian return to a German Trojan horse’

‘Hitler’s hunger plan for lebensraum was for 40 million non-Jews to die of starvation.’

‘More Russian soldiers were killed by their own officers for cowardice or desertion 300,000 – than all British troops killed in World War Two’.

‘Gandhi suggested Jews should simply challenge Nazis to shoot them.’

Trademarks

Panoramic sweeps of people, places, events, ideas, symbols and stories, are combined with vistas of intriguing sub-headings (like ‘Zozo & Fred’ or ‘Cyrus, Cross Dresser’), analogies, connections and turning points, ranging from a chess match to The Matrix. Here are some of my favourites.

Analogies

Alexander the Great was like a giant bloody cultural whisk’

‘Byzantium was the hinge between the classical & Christian medieval world. But it was a creaky, slow-moving hinge.’ (235)

‘The burning of Emperor’s Beijing Summer Palace by British was the equivalent of destroying all London’s churches, cathedrals, palaces & museums.’ (454)

‘Gandhi’s trick was like a marshall arts move using seeming weakness to defeat a mightier foe’ (512)

Connections

‘Both Imperial Rome & China saw themselves as practical, disciplined, civilised and worldly: great walls, with roads or canals’ (111)

Both Ptolemaic Alexandria as Enlightenment Scotland were a hive of inventiveness (147)

‘Russian emancipation of the serfs 1864 and America’s Declaration of Emancipation of the Slaves in 1863 and Thirteenth Amendment – but how real was their freedom?’ (427)

Saigo Takamori’s 1877 Last Charge of the Samurai can be compared to the ‘Scottish Gaelic clans charge at Culloden in 1746, the last battle fought on British soil’ (429)

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‘In Europe & India from 1200 – 1600, conflict between rival religions prevented either subcontinental peninsulas achieving political unity’

‘Both regime critics Voltaire & Solzeniskhyn were popular with the public but playing cat-and-mouse with the regime’ (340)

‘Revolutionary upheaval often begets military dictatorship – think Cromwell, Napoleon, Stalin.’

Turning points

What if…

‘Carthage not Rome had won Punic wars?’ (134)

‘Persians not Spartans had won at Thermopylae?’

Islam not Christianity had won at Constantinople?’ (175)

‘The Rosetta stone had not been found?’ (143)

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Republican Novgorod not autocratic Moscow emerged as dominant power?(286)

‘Germany not Britain or Russia won in 1940?’

Thinkers

It’s interesting to see which thinkers alive today Marr puts in the book. He includes Karen Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Jonathan Fenby, Orlando Figes, Tom Holland, Adam Hochschild, Ian Kershaw, Steven Pinker, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This would make a great reading list on its own. It’s also interesting to note who is not included, too. No Simon Schama? Richard Overy? Richard Evans? Niall Ferguson? Neil MacGregor?

All history is selective. But omissions are as revealing as selections. As this excellent review points out, ‘the spectre of MacGregor’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ looms large over this work’. Large, I think, but not overshadowing.

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In the making

So how did Andrew Marr go about writing the book? There are three little clips here which tell us:

‘I don’t have teams of researchers, I like to do my own primary research and look at lots of timelines, research in libraries to find stories, my own connections… to give the reader clear view of important areas, periods, moments and arguments throughout human history: including Chinese, Indian, Mongolan, South American, African history, with some provocative ideas and judgements.’

‘I keep narrowing down until I find a story that seemed to me something that would work. Then I’m out on the road a lot, talking to archaeologists, curators of museums, full-time historians.’

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‘The stories I enjoyed most were where I had a eureka moment sitting in an obscure part of the library where I see a connection, or think of a way of telling a story I hadn’t seen before.’

‘And so for instance, Ashoka, a Buddhist rulers edicts and moral commandments set out in a stony broadcasting system, only cracked in Victorian time – a fantastic story, deserves to be wider recognised… the first-hand account of an early Christian saint in a roman prison days before she is killed in the arena on the Emperor’s birthday, and a shiver goes down my spine… nothing’s more exciting than that.’

Stories to bring history to life: is that the English graduate in Marr, or the journalist? On my wishlist, I would have liked there to be an index by theme, a visual timeline, and a more detailed contents, just as E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World has. So I have created a little contents list myself:

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Anyway, I haven’t even seen the BBC version yet, which just arrived on DVD by post, so I’m off to watch the rest of the series.

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
This entry was posted in System. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Andrew Marr’s History of the World

  1. dodiscimus says:

    And how does his view of WWI compare with Michael Gove’s?

  2. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

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