E. H. Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909. As a boy he had seen the Emperor Franz Joseph walking in his garden. As a young man, himself a Jew, he had watched Jewish students being beaten up in the streets by Nazi thugs. In January 1936, two years before Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna in triumph, he arrived as an exile in London, to work as a research fellow at the Warburg Institute of which he became director in 1959. When he died, loaded with honours in 2001, the huge sales of his book The Story of Art, published in 1950, had made him the best known and most acclaimed art historian in the world.
But he had done more than write a bestselling blockbuster. Art history in Austria and Germany had developed on different lines from the professional connoisseurship of Berenson. Gombrich’s immense and wide-ranging scholarly output brought to Britain the wider cultural concerns of Abe Warburg, founder of the Institute which bears his name. Warburg’s interests ranged from the Navajo Indians to the iconography of the Renaissance. Gombrich was his disciple and biographer. In his Art and Illusion, published in 1960, Gombrich radically changed our interpretation of visual images. In doing this he was one of the many Jewish exiles who so enriched the intellectual and artistic life of post-war Britain.
When a book entitled A Little History of the World landed on my desk for review I thought it was a new book, the reflections of a great scholar on world history. I was sadly misled by a title no doubt thought up to acquire the widest possible readership. The Little History is an English translation of a book that the 27-year-old Gombrich had written in 1935 at a time when a young Jewish art historian could not hope for gainful employment. It was entitled, in German, A Short History of the World for Young Readers. In order to meet his publisher’s deadline it had been written in six weeks of intensive labour, cobbled together from his father’s library, at the rate of a chapter a day. It was an immediate success and was to be translated into 18 languages.
It was a success because Gombrich was fond of children and knew what would catch the imagination of a ten-year-old child as he surveys the achievements and failures of humanity since the Stone Age, the rise of the great civilisations from Egypt and China to the Aztecs. European history is, in this book, conventional narrative history, but centred on human beings it has all the attractions of a good story.
It is a considerable achievement that Gombrich makes the rise of a money economy in the cities of the late Middle Ages and the industrial revolution of modern times comprehensible and exciting for a child. An old hack like myself may be carried away by the sheer verve of his narrative. Alas, it is difficult to make the great powers’ diplomacy of the 19th and 20th centuries as glamorous and simple as the wars between the Greeks and Persians. Out of 272 pages only 18 are devoted to history after 1815; Egypt gets 16 pages; the wars of the Greeks and Alexander some 30 pages; the Bolshevik Revolution a mere 11 lines. If the TV history channel is any guide to current tastes, while the old civilisations still fascinate, viewers are obsessed by Hitler and the second world war. The epilogue is a general survey of modern times; the narrative thread, so skilfully woven for the period before 1815, all but disappears.
If the Little History is an imperfect guide to world history and would be read by no one had Gombrich not been its author, its central message is still valid. Gombrich was racially but not religiously Jewish. His family had been converted to Protestantism; he was an atheist with a strong streak of anticlericalism where the great monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, were concerned. It is not surprising that the most illuminating chapter is devoted to Buddhism.
One of the oddest passages in this book is his account of Akhenaton’s attempts to replace the traditional gods by a single god. He failed. The Egyptians ‘went on worshipping cats as sacred animals. And if you ask me, I think that in this at least the ancient Egyptians were right.’ Muhammad tells a mass audience that it is their duty to slay infidels; Christians persecute Jews and heretics and fight each other in the religious wars of the 17th century: ‘If I wished I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won’t. It was a dreadful era.’ Out of the darkness comes ‘a truly new age’, that of the 18th-century Enlightenment with its message of ‘tolerance, reason and humanity’. To his dying day Voltaire was his hero. When today bashing the Enlightenment is a popular sport, his humanism is a lesson for us all.