History of the World in 1500 Words

The universe probably began about fifteen billion years ago. About five billion years ago the earth was formed. About 660 million years ago the first life appeared in the sea. After 658 million years of evolution humans emerged at the top of the food chain and spread all over the world. Farming and metallurgy led to the emergence of urban civilizations in China, India, Iraq and China. A ferment of ideas was generated about technological and philosophical issues. The powerful usually expressed themselves by killing, enslaving and destroying. Alexander (c.330BC) and Asoka (c.220BC) were exceptional in that their conquests contributed to useful cultural diffusion.

The Romans were a well-organised iron age tribe. They built up a large empire round the Mediterranean Sea and their direct rule lasted more than 2000 years. In 330AD the Romans adopted the ‘Love thy Neighbour’ monotheistic religion called Christianity, which survived when ‘barbarians’ conquered the western Roman empire, adopting Christianity and the associated religious supremacy of the Pope in the process. The last ‘barbarians’ were Scandinavian ‘Norsemen’. Their propensity for violence, co-existing in a creative tension with Christian pacifism, contributed to the European ethos.

This tension was evident in the oxymoronic ‘Crusades’. Mohammed had rejected the Christian idea of the Trinity and inspired his followers, called Muslims, to burst out of Arabia and conquer territories from the Ganges to the Loire and the Niger. They studied and developed Greek learning. Their conquests included Jerusalem, holy to Jews and Christians. Crusades were promoted by the Pope and sought to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. Although these failed in the end, they set a precedent for subsequent European imperialistic ventures. This was the time of ‘Medieval’ Europe characterised by knights in armour, battles, bows and arrows, castles and sieges. Critics of the Pope were fiercely repressed. Money for crusades and other, inter Christian, wars was supplied by bankers in the new self-governing towns.

Genghiz Khan created an Asian ‘Pax Mongolica’ in which European traders were able to witness and report on the glories of Chinese civilisation. In 1346 they brought back the Black Death, which killed about 30% of the people of Europe. Jewish people, aliens in Christian Europe, and bankers to boot, were incorrectly blamed for this plague. A new power, the Muslim Ottoman Turks appeared in the Middle East. They became the greatest power in late medieval Europe, putting an end to the ‘Byzantine Empire’ in 1453 and conquering the Balkans to the gates of Vienna. They charged heavy taxes on the import of spices to Europe. Europeans wondered if the Turks could be by-passed by obtaining spices directly by sea. Da Gama proved that one could via the Cape of Good Hope, and Western European explorers followed him on to the seas of the world in search of profit. They met varying receptions in different parts of the world. In Russia western ideas were wholeheartedly welcomed by Peter the Great who failed in a valiant bid to westernise Russia. In India the Mongol emperor Akbar welcomed European education but rejected its religious intolerance. In Japan the Tokugawa shoguns were totally hostile, quarantining Japan in a medieval world until 1858. But whatever the reaction, by 1900 all regional powers had succumbed to the Europeans. How was this?

By good fortune the Ottoman Turks had been kept out of Italy, leaving space for the Italian ‘Renaissance’. Via Muslim scholars, and Greek ones fleeing from the fall of Constantinople, previously unknown Greek and Hebrew texts arrived in the west, provoking thought. Medieval knights sent their sons to grammar schools to arm themselves with the power of the new knowledge. In some respects the new ideas undermined the authority of the Pope. Between 1517 and 1660 there was a struggle between rival Christian theocratic systems as a result of which Northern Europe became Protestant, out of the Pope’s control. After questioning the Pope’s view that the earth was the centre of the universe, Galileo was frightened into silence; but in northern Europe, now beyond the Pope’s reach, thoughtful men began to judge truth by reference to fair ‘scientific’ tests rather than to authority. Between about 1680 and 1780 people in Europe stopped burning witches, a practice recommended by Christian leaders. In this quiet ‘Enlightenment’ Christian ‘theocracy’ died, and science progressed. An English civil war led eventually to the establishment of parliamentary democracy there after 1714. The resulting political stability favoured the progress of science, technology and empire.

Under King Louis XIV (1660-1715) France was the greatest European power, but wasted her strength on pointless wars. Britain and France began to follow Spain, Portugal and Holland in seeking ‘empires’ outside Europe, and in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) Britain took Canada and India from France, enlarging the British ‘Empire’. During that war the British protected their American possessions from French attacks, but taxation to pay for the war was resisted by the Americans. With French help they defeated the British and set up the United States of America. The war bankrupted France but not Britain, because to parliamentary democracy (and taxation) Britain had added economic strength through industrialisation. Steam-powered machinery made British goods sought after all over the world. Attempts to introduce a parliamentary democracy to France went wrong and the King was one of thousands guillotined. Excited by the novel idea that people had ‘equal, natural rights’, including the right to govern themselves, the French launched attacks on their neighbours in which Napoleon was prominent. By 1815 Napoleon had been defeated, but the idea that people had equal rights survived to inspire ‘nationalists’ everywhere. Nationalists freed Latin America from its Spanish and Portuguese masters in the 1820s. ‘Rights’ were claimed for women and animals.

Science progressed. Darwin said that fossils proved that animals had evolved over a long period, with weaker species becoming extinct. This upset ‘Creationists’ who believed that the world was created as the Bible says. Europeans invented radio and aeroplanes; Freud revealed the importance of the unconscious processes in the mind, and Einstein damaged Newtonian certainties in physics by showing that space and time were relative, arguing that space is curved, and that the faster you go the slower time goes.

With theocracy muzzled, a significant degree of political stability, capitalist economies bursting with energy and scientific creativity, and literate and well-armed forces vastly superior to non-European rivals, western Europeans were able to conquer and control most of the rest of the world by 1900. The task was made easier by the coincidental decline of the Chinese, Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. European supremacy convinced many that white people must be genetically superior to others.

Under the surface, though, European ‘imperialism’ was being discredited. Empires were inconsistent with ‘equal rights’, and it was difficult to believe in white supremacy when one considered events in the First World War. This was a total, mechanised war between White Christian Europeans and caused appalling casualties. Non-Europeans were encouraged by this to claim a ‘natural right’ to rule themselves instead. Industrialisation, including the empire building which it had encouraged, was controlled by rich ‘Capitalists’. They paid for everything, took all the risks and any profit resulting. The people who worked the machines were generally paid little and housed in unhealthy, cheap accommodation. Karl Marx blamed the capitalists for the workers’ suffering, recommending the workers to kill the rich capitalists, take their possessions (including, of course, their empires) and share them out fairly. People who admire Marx’s ideas are called Marxists or Communists.

Russia had been disrupted by the First World War, and a Marxist called Lenin brought about a communist revolution (1917), removing the aristocracy and sharing out the land and the factories. The ‘paradise’ which Marx had predicted would follow this did not materialise. After the War the Europeans resumed their quarrels and Hitler provoked a Second World War to reverse the verdict of the First. Stalin, succeeding Lenin, brutally industrialised Russia just in time to hold off Germany, winning a great battle at Stalingrad (1942). What had begun as a European Civil War broadened when Japan attacked the USA. The US won after using nuclear weapons. Western science and technology continued to advance: after World War II semi conductors were invented, leading to the development of modern computing, and DNA was discovered; but the European countries, ruined by the war, lost their empires. India, Britain’s most valuable colony, gained independence in 1947.

The USA and the USSR ruled the post-war world, but when in 1990 Gorbachev admitted that communism in Russia had failed, Russia plunged into kleptocracy. China also abandoned Communism but, choosing industrialisation without democracy, and a ‘one-child policy’, began to undermine Europe’s trade with her cheap products. Israel was founded in 1947 as a home for Jews after Hitler’s ‘Holocaust’. Islamists and Arab nationalists protested, denying the Holocaust and using terrorism, but no-one listened. To gain leverage Arab countries agreed to stop supplying the ‘West’ with oil. This highlighted the problem of scarce resources, and the rising cost of oil threatened Western living standards further.

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