III. From 1945: World History in a New Era of War and Peace

The remaining volumes of A Study of History were published in 1954 (volume six to ten), 1959 (volume eleven), and 1961 (volume twelve). After the Second World War, Toynbee gained worldwide renown and travelled the planet to lecture. Simultaneously, academic opposition against his work increased. A very fierce critic of Toynbee was the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (1887-1966), who challenged the claim that A Study of History was grounded in empirical research,[1] and denounced Toynbee as being “a prophet” rather than a historian.[2] Toynbee’s historical ideas did little to transform academic historical research. Some of his legacy lives on in the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations. Toynbee was closely involved in the establishment of this interdisciplinary research society in 1961.[3]

Like the First World War, the second great global conflict of the twentieth century again incited peace campaigns through history writing. From the late 1940s onwards, UNESCO unfolded several initiatives for the composition of world histories that had to express the equality and unity of humankind.[4] Yet, a bigger influence on academic world historical study in the United States came from the country’s new global involvement. American military and political operations in different parts of the world required knowledge about non-Western cultures and history. As a result, area studies were vastly expanded at American universities during the Cold War. This knowledge about other continents provided the building blocks for new world history writing. Illustrating the influence of the US army on American world history teaching and research: the conference in 1982 from which resulted the foundation of the World History Association took place at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.[5]

The pioneer of academic world history in the twentieth century was William H. McNeill (1917-). His The Rise of the West (1963) introduced the main theme of the new world historical scholarship: connections between different societies. Whereas Toynbee had regarded cultural borrowings the first sign of a civilization’s decay, McNeill believed intercultural contacts to be the motor behind historical change. The latter would set the agenda for the decades to come. Connections, borrowings, exchanges, networks and migrations were the main interests in late twentieth-century world history, such as in the works of Leften Stavrianos (1913-2004), Philip Curtin (1922-2009) and Jerry Bentley (1949-2012).

Prior to the academic institutionalization of world history, increasing globalization in the domains of economy, politics, communication, and popular culture already gave rise to a new global awareness. On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of the Apollo 8 photographed the Earth as it rose over the Moon.[6] This and subsequent photographs taken of Earth from space had a massive impact on the perception of humanity’s home planet, and provided much support for the environmentalist cause. Also scientific developments inspired thinking on a global scale. The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, and its gradual mapping in subsequent years, enabled a new global perspective on the history of human migration, which would find expression in the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza (1922-) in the 1990s. Another impetus for global thinking came in the 1960s, when James Lovelock (1919-) presented his Gaia hypothesis in which the Earth itself was presented as one single living entity.

The second half of the twentieth century also was the time of decolonization. Non-Western intellectuals increasingly made their voices heard in the Western academic world. They challenged the Western conception that world history was the progressive development with as its climax the rationalist secular society as found in the modern West. One of the most prominent of these challenges came from the Subaltern Studies collective, established in India in the early 1980s. The (mostly) Indian authors associated with the group, pointed out the Eurocentric foundations of historical scholarship, and at some occasions even went so far as suggesting that the academic discipline of history was essentially unsuitable to represent any non-Western society.[7]

Critique on Eurocentric perspectives came from other directions as well. In his famous Orientalism (1978), Edward Said (1935-2003) stressed the politics of power behind the notions of the “West” and “East”, and Eric Wolf (1923-1999) in Europe and the People Without History (1982) redefined these terms in a historical context. Marxist historiography explained Western political and economic dominance by the creation of a global division of labour, which perpetuated Western exploitation of other continents. In such accounts, Western development got a negative connotation, contrasting the self-flattering universal histories from earlier dates that had placed rational Western society at the top of human evolution. The most renowned work in this field is the multi-volume The Modern World System (1974-89) by Immanuel Wallerstein. Under all these influences, the writing of history lost most of its Eurocentric tendencies.

It may be wondered why – despite strong trends towards globalization and decentralization since the mid-twentieth century – it took until the 1980s for world history to be fully introduced in academics. At the World History Teaching Conference in Colorado Springs in 1982, McNeill suggested an explanation for the belated rise of world history in American universities.[8] Although the intellectual reasons for world historical scholarship had been there for some time, these were not enough to actually introduce the subject into the curriculum. McNeill contributed this to the Sputnik crisis in the United States, which followed the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. During this period, all financial restrictions on American higher education and research were lifted in order to solve the country’s perceived lagging development to the Soviet Union. With boundless academic freedom, historians dug their own gopher holes and narrowed their focus to their specific topics of interests. Without any incentive for synthesis, historical research and instruction remained scattered. McNeill suggested that the economic crisis of the early 1980s had been a blessing in disguise for world history. When funds were cut and the number of courses had to be reduced, the introduction of an integrative world history course was, in the eyes of McNeill, the only sensible option.

Whether or not it was the economic crisis of the 1980s that drove the foundation of academic world history, it was around that time, in 1982, that the World History Association (WHA) was established. It marked the beginning of a new era of world historical research and instruction in the United States. In 1990, the field got its own platform for presenting new research with the establishment of the Journal of World History, which serves as the official journal of the WHA. Further exchange of ideas about world history was catered by the World History Conference, which the WHA organized annually from 1992. The event was initially only hosted by American universities, but since more recent years the conference frequently takes place elsewhere in the world.

Regardless of this and other attempts by the WHA to involve historians from other continents into debates about world history, American historians remain dominant among the participants of WHA events. The vast majority of authors publishing in the Journal of World History is affiliated to an American university, regardless of the fact that the journal evidently welcoming contributions from scholars worldwide. The full introduction of world history in European academics followed a little later. In 2002, the Karl-Lamprecht-Gesselschaft in Leipzig reformed itself to the European Network of in Universal and Global History (ENIUGH). Since 2005, it organizes a congress, taking place every three years, about themes in global- and world history. The first two venues were in Germany, in Leipzig (2005) and Dresden (2008), but since then it has moved abroad, with London (2011) and Paris (2014) as its venue, and will continue to travel through Europe in the years to come. In 2006, Cambridge University Press began to publish the Journal of Global History, in which European (particularly British) historians are better represented than in the Journal of World History.

In the opening issue of the Journal of Global History, Patrick O’Brien (1932-), a pioneer of academic world history in Britain,[9] presented “connections” and “comparisons” as the two themes of the new journal.[10] The addition of comparisons to the theme of connections indicated the introduction of a new point of attention in world historical scholarship in the late twentieth century. Against the background of the economic rise of East Asia, multiple authors got involved in intercontinental comparative research to rethink the “great divergence” between Europe and Asia. Kenneth Pomeranz (1958-) and Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005) revised the old perception of a stagnated Asia in contrast to a dynamical Europe, and pointed out Asia’s early level of high development.

Besides widening the geographical scope of research, historians have also become quicker to cross disciplinary boundaries. In contrast to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, interdisciplinary research no longer has a negative connotation, regarded as a thread to the academic independence of the professional historian, but is widely encouraged. The cooperation of historians with academics from other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, economy, and even the natural sciences, has broadened the perception of the past once more. In a particularly grand interdisciplinary union, history has joined up with multiple human and natural sciences to produce the field of ‘Big History’. In this new perspective of the past, introduced as an academic subject by David Christian (1946-), the astronomical history of the universe, the geological history of Earth, the biological history of life, the paleo-anthropological history of early humanity, and the history of modern times, are integrated into one grand account of time. In a way, we are back at the universal history from which we departed.

Resistance against world historical perspectives has not disappeared. In the late 1990s, conservative American politicians opposed the introduction of a world history course as an alternative for Western Civilization, which was a course taught in American high schools since the 1930s that traced the roots of American society back to ancient Athens (rationality) and Jerusalem (Christianity).

In the years since the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 and the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, in different societies worldwide there can be seen a retreat to particular cultural, national, and religious identities. To some extent this has distanced academic scholarship, which keeps globalizing its scope of research, from broader society.[11] However, at the same time processes of globalization make themselves felt in all aspects of life, and appear to be irreversible. Historical research will be demanded to follow this trend. What can be expected in the years to come is that scholars from continents that are still mostly secluded from international debates will also make their way onto the scene of world historiography. In the expanding global network of world historical scholarship, perspectives of the history of the planet are certain to keep on changing.

[1] Pieter Geyl, Can we know the pattern of the past? Discussions between P. Geyl and Arnold J. Toynbee concerning Toynbee’s ‘A Study of History’ (Bussum: Uitgeverij F.G. Kroonder, 1968).

[2] McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 256.

[3] ISCSC http://wmich.edu/iscsc/about.html (consulted 17 January 2015).

[4] Allardyce, ‘Toward World History,’ 26-40; Poul Duedahl, ‘Selling Manking: UNESCO and the Invention of the Global History, 1945-1976,’ Journal of World History vol. 22, no. 1 (2011): 101-133.

[5] Jerry Bentley described this conference as a key-event in the development of academic world history in the United States. Based on conversation with author at ENIUGH congress in London in 2011.

[6] Robert Poole, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).

[7] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?’ Representations 37 (1992): 1-26.

[8] William McNeill, ‘The World History Survey Course,’ in: combined papers from the 1982 World History Teaching Conference, 1-5. Edited by Joe C. Dixon and Neil D. Martin.

[9] Manning, Navigating World History, 330.

[10] Patrick O’Brien, ‘Historiographical Traditions and Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History,’ Journal of Global History vol. 1, no. 1 (2006): 3-39.

[11] Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives of Global History, 107.