Fernand Braudel first published this excellent, one-volume "history of the world" over 50 years ago. As Howard Zinn would later attempt in the United States, Braudel wanted to change how history was taught in France. He wanted to move away from what is now called the "Big Man" theory of history; that is, that all historical events are the results of the decisions of a very few men, who mainly lived in the West. He wanted to include numerous other factors, the lives of ordinary people, and their economic base, (and was admirably aided by Theodore Zeldin in this effort), and he strove for a greater emphasis on non-Western civilizations. In undertaking such an effort in the early `60's, he was ahead of his time, and to a very large measure, succeeded. Braudel is a synthesizer; striving for the "big picture" of historical actions, so it is only natural that early in his work he referenced the Hindu philosopher Chatterji, and his famous parable about the blind men and the various parts of the elephant that they can feel, yet cannot see or deduce the whole.
Others have criticized the amount of material covered on "other" civilizations (too much or too little); I felt it got it just about right. He starts, suitably enough, with the now very topical Islamic world. It was rather astonishing to have Braudel quoting from an Afghan intellectual, Najm oud-Din Bammat, on the requirements for Islam to undertake internal revolutions like the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and even that "...the Muslim countries are still waiting and searching for their Garibaldis." Braudel has been criticized for his thin section on Africa, less than 50 pages, before he moves on to the civilizations of the Far East, China, India, Japan and the "Maritime" countries, which he covers with 150 pages. Europe receives 120 pages; all of the Americas, 120 pages; a "nod" of 20 pages to the British Commonwealth countries, and he concludes with 50 pages on what was once called the Second World,--the Soviet Union, and associated "bloc" countries. The proportions in the coverage seem about right to me.
The book contains much that is prescient and insightful. Consider, on China: "In 1945, she was unable to make a motor-scooter; by 1963 she was on the brink of producing an atomic bomb." And what would he say now? On the concentration of power in the elites, consider his quote from Lenin: "If Tsarism could last for centuries thanks to 130,000 aristocratic feudal landowners with police powers in their regions, why should I not be able to hold out for a few decades with a party of 130,000 devoted militants?" (And indeed Lenin did!, before joining that proverbial dustbin). Braudel also covers why the world speaks English and not French, largely due to the fact that the English were sending out in the mid-18th Century a million colonists compared to 70,000 for the French, , since the latter had fears of becoming depopulated. And he gave a wonderful nod to one of my favorite cities, Avignon. The author's arguments on historical trends are cogent; his brush is broad, and the read enjoyable. He anticipated the "butterfly theory," without the name (the flapping of the wings of a proverbial butterfly in China might contribute to a tornado in Kansas). He did so by also referencing China, and spoke of the spread of the Chinese fashions of the T'ang period eventually reaching France, and the court of Charles VI; "... the heritage of a long vanished world-much as light still reaches us from stars already extinct."
Of course there are some flaws, and his political bias is sometimes extremely apparent. Concerning the Korean War, 1950-53, he uses the "party-line" term for the Chinese soldiers who intervened, calling them "volunteers" (p 272). And lawdy, did he ever get it wrong about America eventually adopting a European social model: "Despite special pleading by certain newspapers, Federal taxes are no longer seen as an unfair punishment imposed on the strong and able producers of wealth to benefit the lazy and incapable. Ever since the New Deal, the Federal Administration has been regarded `as essentially beneficent'..." No, it was the other way around, the so-called Reagan revolution, and assorted talk show hosts managed to paint government as "the problem," and helped spread the "revolution" to Europe, and weaken their social contract.
A wonderful view of the world from the perspective of historical research of the `60's. As Braudel says: "To see them (other civilizations) clearly one has to withdraw, mentally at least, from the civilization of which one is a part." The book also contains some excellent maps and charts. A wonderful, solid 5-star view of why things are the way they are.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on May 24, 2010)
on 30 March 2016
If you like your history on a broad scale, leaping centuries and cultures, then this is the book for you.
Although it was first published in the early 1960s, many of the chapter headings have a contemporary ring, e.g. “The Revival of Islam Today”, “An English-Speaking Universe” and “Unity in Europe”.
Braudel anticipated modern political correctness and deliberately took a non-European approach by beginning his narrative with “Civilizations Outside Europe”, i.e. the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Indeed his famous description of Europe as being an “Asian peninsula – a little cape” puts Europe in its place in the eyes of the ancient world.
As I live in Brazil, I was particularly interested in Braudel's comments on Latin America. Unlike many European intellectuals, he had hands-on experience of this part of the world. There is even a research institute in São Paulo named after him.
At times he is very insightful in his description of the elements that make up Brazilian society. At others, I found his comments too general for such a vast area. For example, his claim that any South American on his way back to his own country would feel a “sudden thrill” in a stopover in Panama or his quote from the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre that “we all have a pint of black blood in our veins” sound like wishful thinking.
The maps are a letdown. One splits the whole of Central and South America and the Caribbean into Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, omitting the fact that English, French and Dutch are spoken in a number of territories and islands. Another captioned “The English-speaking universe” actually omits the United States!