A Little History


(N.O. April 2011)


So when the mob had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him…“Barabbas,”

they shouted. (Matthew 27.15f.) 


While the Church and the Mosque deserve full marks for perfecting prejudice and instituting successive reigns of terror that afflict some parts of the world even today, it was a short article in the New York Times that made me think about the role of mobs in history.

CBS reporter Lara Logan is speaking publicly for the first time about how between 200 and 300 men sexually assaulted her in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in February.

Logan, who was covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government, told The New York Times a mob separated her from her producer and bodyguard, then tore off her clothes, groped and beat her over the course of about 25 minutes.

“For an extended period of time, they raped me with their hands,” Logan told the newspaper.

“My clothes were torn to pieces,” she recalled.

“What really struck me was how merciless they were. They really enjoyed my pain and suffering. It incited them to more violence.”

February seems long ago in the swift stream of world politics and non-stories about birth certificates and Lindsay Lohan’s jail time.  But recall that the story being broadcast while all of this was happening was the dawning of the “Arab Spring.” How can tens of thousands of people calling for the overthrow of a strong-man dictator be wrong?

Human-rightists for the most part were overjoyed at the scenes out of Egypt.  Obama issued mild, and then as the temperature rose, more direct threats: Mubarak must go. Now. Egyptian dissidents in London and New York talked about a hunger for “real” democracy.

A couple of (highly skeptical) university friends of mine at the Ain Shams said, How can the west be so gullible?  Another: Don’t you notice how few women’s faces are in the crowd?  We were assured that this was not just a public display of testosterone or a prelude to a religiously fanatical regime that despises women making a power grab.  Meanwhile, in a huddle in Tahrir square, Laura Logan was being handraped by 150 Muslim men.


From Diocletian to Hitler, Franco to Milošević , the fickleness of crowds is something politicans can rely on.

Diocletian used the religion card–Roman religion–to incite crowds in Corinth to riot by accusing Christian women of being prostitutes,  just as his predecessors had used the charge of venality and corruption against the Bacchic cults. In fourth century Alexandria, the unpopular but formidable bishop Athanasius incited crowds to riot and to lynch an opposing bishop named Georgius.  Inciting crowds to riot, by different factions supporting different causes, was a well-developed art in the ancient world.

For every auto da fe performed by the Inquisition, there were hungry gaggles of women and men waiting for the faggots to be lit and the flames to rise–or the noose to be fixed.  And of more recent vintage, Slobodan Milošević fanned the fire of “Greater Serbian” nationalism by manipulating crowds and  promoting xenophobia toward the other ethnicities in Yugoslavia. Ethnic Albanians were commonly characterised in the media as anti-Yugoslav counter-revolutionaries, rapists, and a threat to the Serb nation.

The modern American tendency is to respect crowds as an outpouring of public opinion–the will of the people–even though crowds have been uniquely implausible sources of real government from the beginning of recorded history.  Hobbes, Tocqueville, Montesquieu, each slightly differently, saw crowds and “mobs” as being linked to fear, something that extends, as Corey Robin says in his study of the subject, from within the recesses of the mass psyche to the uppermost reaches of government, but which can be motivated and manipulated at both ends, the popular and the “sovereign.” Crowds make history.  If an angry crowd is a mob–an emotionally bonded entity demanding change or rights–then a peaceful crowd is democracy in action, but often, with equally uncertain effect.

In America, the ambivalent admiration for numbers has to do with a view of national origins that still infects our understanding of history.  The schoolhouse legend of the American revolution gives us the righteous colonials and the wicked, simpering British.  Paine’s nostrum (“It is absurd for an island to rule a continent”) speaks to the same mentality, but at a time when the population of the United States was about 1,500,000, and of Britain about 7,000,000.  In its cartoon version, it gives us leather-clad warriors hiding behind oak trees picking off ranks of disciplined British baddies with their squirrel guns.

Until a generation ago, textbook versions of How the West Was Won weren’t much better, though the evidence of the ghastliness of the Europeans over two hundred years of encounters with native North and South American civilisations was harder to bury or gloss over.

When I want sanity in such matters, I usually turn to the eminently sane Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book first written on a dare in 1936 just after Gombrich had finished his PhD in art history at the University of Vienna. Of the religious hubris and human greed that motivated the “discoverers” like Cortez and their legal successors, the inheritors of colonial rule in North America, incuding the United States armies of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Gombrich says;

In all parts of America the Europeans proceeded to exterminate the ancient, cultivated peoples in the most horrendous ways. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it. (LHW, 2005 ed.: p 195)

Gombrich wrote A Little History for a series called in German Wissenschaft für Kinder(Knowledge for Children), and it was meant to be a basic introduction to world history, written in a way that would appeal to the natural curiosity of kids between ten and thirteen–a spur to find out more about their world and their past.  The dare was laid down by Walter Neurath, who also founded the publishing house Thames and Hudson in London: it is one thing to write history for adults.  It is another to boil it down to entertaining essences for children.  Gombrich thought he could do it.

Like many “assimilated” Austrian Jews of his era, Gombrich could write more sensitively about Christianity than many of his Christian contemporaries.  He was a writer with enormous historical intuition for what really mattered.  It was Gombrich (who had been hired by the BBC to monitor German radio broadcasts in 1945) who announced to Churchill that the playing of a Bruckner symphony written for Wagner’s death (Symphony No. 7) meant that Hitler was dead.  A significant part of being a good historian, he believed is having good instincts, a good eye, and an excess of curiosity about how things got to be the way they are.

Because history, for Gombrich, entailed a personal encounter with the events and ideas of the past, it was probably impossible for him to write the kind of “scientific” history that was then the trend in German education and was making inroads in both the United States and Britain. Besides, if he had written that kind of history what child would have read it?  There are hardly any books as good for the purpose even today–which explains whyA Little History has remained in print in both English and German for 75 years.

If there is a “theme” in the book, it’s that the past is an ambiguous teacher and the source of unlikely outcomes.  Above all it is “our story,” and as such a tale of remarkable highs and despicable, regrettable lows–ups and downs rather than “progress.”

E.H. Gombrich

Gombrich is not a Hegelian; he is well beyond the view (that feeds finally into Marx) that history is material progression of ideas and events in constant dynamic relation and flow.  He is no positivist: history relies as much on uncontrollable variables as on the verification of data. With Karl Popper, one of Gombrich’s closest friends, he effectively sunk the Enlightenment belief that history behaves like science: science itself is not free of ideological presuppositions.

In the Comtean system that had influenced historiography (the philosophy of historical narrative) throughout the nineteenth century, history can be chopped into discrete periods, from the superstitious to the scientific corresponding to modes of experience and interpretation. In such a system, the “scientific” period marks the end of a process: the period in which knowledge  is associated with (virtually synonymous to) experience, evidence and positive verification. A similar movement in philosophy gave us naturalism.  To the extent imagination, emotion, and morality play a role in historical development, it is largely incidental–flavour not substance: science itself is thought to constitute an adequate critique of metaphysics.

Reign of Terror

Gombrich’s most famous assault on positivist thinking is also his most subtle. It comes in his chapter on the French Revolution, which in the nineteenth century both French patriots and American philosphers saw in terms of the victory of reason over the pomp of aristocracy and the blindness of a capitulating first estate, the Catholic Church.  In fact, the Revolution was watched closely, by legislators in America, by poets in England and by Turkish-Ottomans on the fringes of Vienna. Burke’s famousRemarks (1790) capsulized the concern of many British conservatives that revolution fervor would spread like wildfire ‘and by emulation”:

Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

But the young Wordworth, enflamed with enthusiasm for the revolutionary idea, and who participated in Jacobin mob protests at the age of 19,  carrying the British flag:

[…] ‘Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated; and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion, filled the walls
Of peaceful houses with unique sounds.
The soil of common life, was, at that time,
Too hot to tread upon.  (Prelude, 9.163-9)…

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!” (The Prelude, x. 690-4.)

But neither Burke nor Wordsworth nor a hundred similar scraps of “evidence” tell us much about the meaning of the Revolution.  Is it coextensive with its social, religious, economic and political outcomes?  Or is there more to the story than that? To answer that question, you have to ask whether history is a set of conclusions based on the accumulation of evidence, a task that permits us to develop a picture of “what really happened,” or whether the story of what really happened far exceeds the bits that make the picture possible. The role of emotion, enthusiasm, mobs, and revolutionary fervor, combined with the disjunct between the expectation of the revolutionaries and the outcome–the French Republic of 1792–were strong disconfirmation that history could be reduced to its interpreted effects.  In any event, as Eric Osborne has said of the end of the Comtean mindset, history was not like stamp-collecting.


Gombrich was one of the first historians to challenge the positivist idea that the Middle Ages had been “dark” (a term that came from the poet Petrarch’s complaint about the quality of Latin literature in the fourteenth century). It was instead the end of a long period of political and economic collapse brought on by constant migrations into the ruins of the Empire by northern opportunists who gradually (centuries, not years) became shapers of a new world order.

According to Gombrich, what the middle ages produced was a “starry sky,” where people could again find their way by using points of reference that had been obscured by centuries of collapse, such that people who lived in constant fear of death and violence “no longer lost their way entirely.” The philosophers of the Enlightenment, proud of their location in history, had forgotten that one part of this process was the rediscovery of learning, the resurgence of debate, and the creation of universities like Paris in 1170 and Oxford in 1249.  It was also a period, especially between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, when the Church lost more power to secular authority than in any period prior to the Reformation.

Investiture Controversy woodcut

But Gombrich goes one step further.  The Enlightenment itself, the fountainhead of both good ideas and hopelessly naive ones, is problematical. While most people associate intellectuals like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau with the period on its French side, Gombrich remarks that France was surprisingly immune from effects that were being felt in England, Russia (with Katherine the Great) and even Poland. Later historians have corroborated the view that the French Revolution and the subsequent reign of terror stands in stark contrast to the relatively calm transition from the Declaration of American Independence in 1776 to the ratification of the Constitution of 1789, a scant thirteen-year period where many of the people who were there at the beginning were also there at the end.  Yet salons and cafe culture in America were decidedly minuscule compared to the culture of Paris and the European capitals in the eighteenth century. Why were the two revolutions so different when their slogans, and ends, were remarkably the same?

The Boston “Massacre”

Mobs played a relatively minor role in the American revolt; a major one in France.  Was America more protestant, more controlled, France more susceptible to gallic passion? Does geography and scant settlement mean that crowds were harder to muster, or the degree of illiteracy mean that written broadsides slower to affect passions? How does positivist historiography settle the question for us?

Gombrich’s focus is on the role of the people–their susceptibility to demagoguery, the idols of the tribe, the promise of quick justice for enemies of an emotional cause and a knack for misreading the consequences of their actions. For the Comteans (Comte himself was born in 1798, just after the worst of the troubles had abated), the Revolution cleared away abuses, the “elegant, prinked, powdered and perfumed” aristocratic privilege, and a whimsical, ostentatious monarchy that had lost touch with the people.  When the dust settled and the revolutionary zeal subsided, the reign of reason was secure and adaptable for use in Comte’s theory of history from religious darkness to scientific light.

July 14, 1789

But this was pure metaphysics. This is not what “really” happened. Gombrich reminds his youthful readers that the reign of terror was  meant to be the reign of reason. Following the execution of Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre in dry lawyerly fashion

had Christianity declared an ancient superstition and abolished God by decree…. A printer’s young bride wearing a white dress and and a blue cloak representing the goddess of Reason was led through the streets and people were invited to worship her.

When the moderate Jacobin, Georges Danton,  asked for an end to the introduction of the new cult of reason, compassion for opponents of the regime, and that the beheading of people opposed to exceses of the Revolution be terminated and mercy be shown, Robespierre declared that only enemies of Reason ask for mercy on behalf of criminals.

So Danton too was beheaded, and Robespierre had his final victory. But soon [he declared] that the executions had hardly begun, that freedom’s enemies are all around and that vice was triumphant, and that the country was in peril.

Written in 1936, it’s not hard to cipher what new cult of personality Gombrich has in purview in writing this lesson plan for young readers. It is hard to imagine any book specifically for children written today would address the irrational aspects of the human story in such a direct way.

It seems so long ago, the events Gombrich describes.  But only in February 2011, amidst similar excesses and cries of freedom and justice and the dawn of democracy, a woman reporter is raped by mobs. Crowds riot in Syria, and bands of faceless rebels are the beneficiaries of Western military assistance because, we can only assume, they care about liberty.  But who knows? In the photographs, they look a lot like mobs throughout history.

Gombrich stood at the beginning of a new generation of historians who knew that all history is the history of working things out.  “Religion” has been a constant source of distress.  But on the occasions when it has been outlawed–as in the Reign of Terror or the communist revolutions of the twentieth century–the secular options have not been inspiring. The will of God and the rejection of God have led to the same results.

It tells us on the one hand that God — or a God who could be anything like a loving and merciful father — is either nonexistent or completely immoral.  And it tells us on the other that whichever is the case, we are still stuck with the “passional tendencies” that keep history from moving in a straight line, divisible by periods, or equal in moral intelligence to its technological successes.

FOOTNOTE:  I am not sure that genius runs in families, but look at the root of the word genius.

Ernst Gombrich and his distinguished pianist-wife Ilse, had only one child, Richard Gombrich.  One of the nicest as well as finest scholars Oxford has ever had the good sense to keep, Richard Gombrich retired from full-time teaching in 2004 on mandatory retirement.  The most prominent Indologist since Max Müller , Gombrich is also a strong critic of contemporary trends in British higher education.

One thought on “A Little History

  1. I take it then, that your essay and Gombrich contain the most devastating attack on the “religion” of Marxism to date. There is no single, coherent evolutionary process to history; in fact, it appears to be a jumbled mess until the more patient can have a look at it.

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