If you have read any of British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s previous books, say, The Romanovs: 1613–1918 or Jerusalem: The Biography, you know how well he captures both the epic sweep of his subject and the telling anecdote. But none of those quite prepare you for both the panorama and detail of his new book, The World, which traces human history from the earliest families to present times. It is a brilliant way of organizing material that otherwise could fill a score of books, and Montefiore tells the story with psychological insight and stylish verve. You will not finish it in one go, so rich and concise is the detail, but that only means you will have many pleasurable sittings with the most captivating book of the season.
JIM KELLY: I think the best way to describe your new book is to use a highly technical word, and that word is “Wow.” There have been world histories before, but what makes yours different is that you begin with families, the first evidence of which are the footprints of a family found in eastern England that date back to 850,000 to 950,000 years before today. Older footprints have been found in Africa, but this is the first evidence of a family, probably, as you write, a male and four children. Why was it so important for you to focus on families in telling your story?
SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE: I wanted to write a new sort of world history. Most global histories are a little distant from the actual lives of people and are concerned with commodities, technologies, pandemics. I want to put human life back into world history. I love biographies because of the intimacy. Many biographies are now thousands of pages. My aim was to find a way to combine the span of world history with the intimacy, the grit, the juice of individuals.
I decided that family was the best way to do so. “Family” means many things—of course, we are all part of a family, a biological, a nuclear one. But “family” can also be a political idea, a state, a dynasty. It is a great way to cover the world diversely. This is a very diverse history—there is more balanced coverage of Asia and Africa than in any other world history. Family is also a great way to cover women in power and in families. This is really a female history of the world, too.
This is something that has never been done before: a history of humanity in one single narrative covering all the diversity of human nations, all continents, from the Stone Age to the drone age. It ends on the day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
J.K.: There are so many eye-opening facts and anecdotes that I could read only 20 pages or so at a time before I had to take a break to absorb what I had just learned. The passages on the Black Death of the 14th century, for example, are astounding, and the death rates alone shock: out of 75 million Europeans, 25 million died. You wrote this book during the coronavirus pandemic, so I wonder if those figures due to the Great Mortality, as you put it, gave you a rather unique perspective on our own global panic.
S.S.M.: Yes, I wrote this in COVID and I was particularly aware of pandemics as I wrote. The Great Mortality is a very important part of how the modern world was formed. One reason there is so much violence and disease in the book is that those crises—as we saw in COVID and with the Ukraine war—are what I call “superpropellants” that accelerate developments but also test and break existing systems.
“‘Family’ means many things—of course, we are all part of a family, a biological, a nuclear one. But ‘family’ can also be a political idea, a state, a dynasty.”
But also, my father was a doctor, and my grandfather, and I am fascinated with medicine. In this book there are dynasties not just of rulers but also of doctors. And, for that matter, there are also dynasties of executioners.
J.K.: One of my startling discoveries in reading your book is not just how much my sense of history is shaped by what happened in the West over the centuries but how much my sense of the rest of what has happened in the world is shaped by the West’s response to those events. For example, I had never heard of Taizong, who ruled China for nearly 25 years in the seventh century and whose backstory is remarkable. Is my ignorance my fault, or can I blame the way history is usually taught in the West?
S.S.M.: I believe that we should study less of our own histories and more of those that have created the world in which we live. It is impossible to understand today’s world without knowing more about Russia but also India and China. So my book is suffused with Indian and Chinese history. I think people often say, “We weren’t taught this or that in school and that’s a crime,” but actually we are taught very little in school, and we need to be taught more about other worlds and their narratives, too.
J.K.: You have primarily written about Russian history, and brilliantly so; I lent both your Romanovs and Stalin books to friends and then bought new copies when they asked if they could keep them. Your insights into Vladimir Putin are unsparing yet remarkable in some aspects: I had no idea he had warned George W. Bush about the extremists funded by Saudi Arabia months before 9/11, and that he suggested his aides watch House of Cards to understand American politics. How would you compare Putin to Stalin, and what does he get right and wrong about the West?
S.S.M.: Good question. Putin is not Stalin, and history does not quite repeat itself in either its contingencies or its personalities. On the other hand, Putin is of course literally sitting in Stalin’s office in the Yellow Palace in the Kremlin, and of course he compares himself to the most successful—and also the bloodiest—Russian ruler of the 20th century.
It is worth recalling that Stalin lost over four million soldiers in a year in 1941–42; Putin has lost 200,000. Stalin learned to be a better commander and won the war. Also, as the war goes on, Putin is going to have to intensify his repression and may get closer to the 1930s Great Terror of Stalin.
He also channels the more successful Romanov rulers that I wrote about in my Romanovs book. He is particularly obsessed with Peter the Great and with the partnership of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin because they conquered much of southern Ukraine and Crimea. When I wrote my first book, Catherine the Great & Potemkin, Putin was very interested in those characters and how they seized Crimea and Ukraine—and that was back in 2000.
“It is impossible to understand today’s world without knowing more about Russia but also India and China.”
J.K.: History has always been distorted by partisans to suit their own ends, but what you call the “hellscapes” of Twitter and Facebook have made it worse. I assume countering this phenomenon partly motivated you to write The World, and you end on an optimistic note. I, on the other hand, came away pessimistic about our future. Can you in just a few encouraging sentences tell me why I should cheer up?
S.S.M.: Yes, the hellscapes and cesspits of the Internet, with their marauding, vicious trolls; malicious conspiracists; illiberal ideologues of left and right; and know-all bar boors, are a challenge to history.
One has to write history without ideology and just try to get as close as we can to the truth. The mission of this book is to tell important stories with a fresh take that is independent of fashionable ideologies and put everything in perspective. It is an ambitious task, as you can imagine.
Every age in history was pervaded by a belief that the end days were near. We are closer than we have ever been. It is a perilous time. This history is filled with slaughters and catastrophes and cruelties but also suffused with great literature and art and love and kindness. I believe that human ingenuity and creativity and flexibility will find a way through.
J.K.: Your book is 1,300 pages long, but there is never a dull passage. That is quite a feat. How many drafts did you do, and how did you organize your writing days?
S.S.M.: The writing of this book almost killed me. I had to master so many subjects that I could scarcely sleep for three years. To write, I “went to the mattresses,” as they say in The Godfather (by the way, the Mafia are in the book too!). I lived like a monk, and the cenobitic life that was possible during the lockdowns allowed me to write a book like no other.
I started each day at dawn and worked all day until I was tired, then stopped, ate lunch, went on a run and trained, then same again! I am a huge fan of strong Peruvian coffee! The World is the great satisfaction of my life but also the greatest strain and challenge.
J.K.: You tell the story about how at age 11 your father gave you a copy of Toynbee’s A Study of History and said that maybe someday you would write something like that. When I was 11, I was eagerly looking forward to the next volume of the Hardy Boys mysteries. What drove you to history at such an early age?
S.S.M.: I adore history, and I was very lucky to grow up in a bibliophile family that worshiped books and talked about them a lot. Of course I hated sports and was probably a very weird child. I knew by heart every Syrian president, every Israeli chief of staff, every Soviet Politburo member from an early age. Yes, a real geek!
I think coming from a Jewish family like mine was part of it. The Montefiores are from Spain, Portugal, and Italy, immigrants to 19th-century Britain; the Sebags are from Morocco; my mother’s family, the Jaffes, are from Lithuania, Poland, and Odessa. What better training for a world historian?
J.K.: Finally, and forgive me if this is a naïve question, but is history happening faster these days? And assuming you do have spare time, how do you spend it? You must do something to relax.
S.S.M.: Yes, history now takes place in what I call the instant-high-tech arena, where it is faster but also instantly recorded. It is faster, which is more dangerous. Apart from other problems, leaders have much less time to think ahead and mull over problems. They have no time or space to do that. This book is at least partly a study of leadership.
Now I am relaxing. I think writing books, especially this one, is a painful process. Many of my books are being developed as drama series and I am working on the scripts and also going back to writing novels. Now I am taking a year off to launch it on a world tour. I’ve already been to Spain, South Africa, Holland. Now I am doing 10 cities in the U.S., then, later in the year, Serbia, Brazil, Columbia, Germany, Norway, and more. It sure beats working.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian and the author of several books, including Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair and The Romanovs: 1613–1918. His latest book, The World: A Family History of Humanity, will be published on May 16 by Knopf
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor at AIR MAIL