II. World Histories of the Interwar Period

In the early decades of the twentieth century, macro-scale history was largely expelled from the domain of academic history at both sides of the Atlantic. Yet around the early 1920s, new calls for world history writing were heard outside of the academic world. In Europe, the First World War had demonstrated the destructive potential of nationalism, and an increasing number of people began to long for an integrative understanding of the history of humankind. At the same time, the unprecedented slaughters of the war implanted a pessimistic perception of European culture and human nature in general, which required historical explanations that transcended national boundaries.

For the United States, the First World War was the prelude of the country’s new international involvement. Although isolationism remained a popular position in American politics for the decades to come, there emerged claims for a new “world history” course (the old term “general history” was deliberately avoided) in secondary education.[1] Such a course was to prepare American students for the new international status of their country in the time after President Wilson’s wartime plea to Congress “to make the world save for democracy” and his post-war struggles for the foundation of a League of Nations. However, most academic historians remained adamant in their rejection of macro-history. As a result, the first post-war world histories were written outside of the academic history departments.

The popular countermovement against the specialization of knowledge in academia was not limited to the field of history. The 1920s saw the rise of a trend that has been labelled the “outline craze”.[2] The general public desired to stay in touch with the increasing level of technological and scientific development that was rapidly changing the world around them. A college education was not yet as widely available as in the latter decades of the twentieth century, so popular authors stepped up to answer the demand for the ‘democratization of knowledge’. Their ‘outline books’ integrated all essential knowledge in a particular field or subject, formulated so that a reader of “average intelligence” would be able to comprehend it. The outline craze was mostly an American phenomenon, but also the European book market saw a rise in the number of popular science books.[3]

Although the world histories and historical syntheses written in this era were mostly produced outside of academic circles, the most prominent of these works would later be integrated into the canon of the new academic field of world history that emerged near the end of the twentieth century. When the macro-perspective in history finally made a return in academic scholarship, around the early 1980s in the United States and somewhat later in Europe, the academic pioneers in this field recognized predecessors in Spengler, Wells, and Toynbee; who will all be discussed in the sections below.[4]

A fourth author discussed here is Van Loon. In contrast to the other names mentioned above, contemporary historiography has largely forgotten about this Dutch-American author. Nonetheless, his significant influence on perceptions of world history in his own time more than warrants him being included here. But first, focus remains on academic scholarship in a discussion of the case of France.

1. Paving the way for world history in France

2. Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

3. H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History”

4. Hendrik Willem van Loon’s “The Story of Mankind”

5. Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History”


[1] Allardyce, ‘Toward World History’, 48.

[2] Cornelis A. van Minnen, Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) 80-81, 263-264; Van Minnen cites from: Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

[3] For example, the English author H.G. Wells wrote, next to his Outline of History, outlines about biology, The Science of Life (1929), and political economy, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931), which he said formed a trilogy with The Outline of History.

[4] See for examples of 21st century reflections on world and global history that identify Wells, Toynbee, and Spengler as early predecessors: Pamela Kyle Crossley, What is Global History? (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008), 1-10; Sebastian Conrad and Andreas Eckert, ‘Globalgeschichte, Globalisierung, multiple Modernen: Zur Geschichtsschreibung der modernen Welt,’ in: Sebastian Conrad, Andreas Eckert, and Ulrike Heitag (eds.), Globalgeschichte: Theorien, Ansätze, Themen (Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 2007), 7-49; Régis Meyran, ‘Points de repère. Les sources de l’histoire globale,’ in: Laurent Testot (ed.), Histoiore globale. Un nouveau regard sur le monde (Auxerre: Sciences Humaines Éditions, 2008), 14.