World history


World history (recently also global history ) is a branch of historical science that deals with historical issues in a perspective that spans the world regions. The subject areas are influences and interactions that cross cultures and national borders as well as comparative studies against the background of global contexts. Approaches in this research direction also include, for example, world history , transnational history , history of globalization and big history .


Historical presentations spanning large regions in the horizon of experience and imagination of the respective time already existed in ancient historiography and at various locations worldwide. Since the end of the 20th century, there has been a growing interest in world history in history, starting primarily from the United States , but this is also evident in Europe and Asia

Beginnings of world-historical historiography

Herodotus already understood his “ Historien ”, the first work of European historiography, as world history, insofar as he traced the development of the whole world known to him at that time, the Oikumene . Historians like Diodorus continued this tradition. The medieval world chronicles – such as the Chronica sive Historia de duabus civitatibus by Otto von Freising – also claimed to encompass the entire history of mankind. They started with the creation of the world , grazed the Persian , Greek and Roman History of the Mediterranean and ended in their respective present.

Spatial dimensions

Theoretically, world history is unlimited in space and time. Judging by the question of space, a world history but has become practically possible only been able since a part of humanity, almost taking the entire planet into view, since the meaning explorations of Europeans and the beginning of European expansion from the turn from the 15th to the 16th century.

As a result, the depiction of world history has remained strongly Eurocentric until recently. This focus is trying to overcome modern approaches, for example south-south connections and non-western actors should be considered equally in the analysis of worldwide interdependencies.

All works that at least dealt with and related the history of Europe , America , the Near East and North Africa were generally regarded as universal historical representations – that is, all regions of the world with which Europe was in direct contact. Since the 18th century, East Asia with the empire of China , Japan and India has also received increasing attention, while Black Africa , Southeast Asia , Australia and Oceania have only played a minor role in depictions of world history.

Time horizons

While traditional world history began depending on the possible consideration of archaeological and epigraphic source material, partly with prehistory and early history, partly with the high cultures of Egypt and the ancient Near East or also with European antiquity , a more recent research direction known as Big History goes into the cosmic Origin story back.

World history from the 18th to the 20th century

What does it mean and at what end do you study universal history? That was the programmatic title of Friedrich Schiller’s inaugural lecture at the University of Jena , which he gave on May 26, 1789. Herder’s criticism of the idea of ​​the Enlightenment that all of humanity is progressing for the better has laid the foundation for hermeneutic historicism , that is, historiography that tries to understand each culture from within and to measure it against its own ideals. For the first time, Herder broadened his view beyond Western culture and tried to include other cultures in his considerations.


This historiography does not ask about the individual events, but about the great lines of development of human history and possible interpretative schemes. The historian Jacob Burckhardt laid further foundations with his studies of individual historical epochs and developments in art history.

From Max Weber the concept of native Universal History , in which he his work on ancient social history, to the development of the city, to the sociology of world religions and finally to the ideal type of construction logic of his main work economy and society integrates.

Oswald Spengler does not interpret world history as a linear progression from ancient to modern, but divides it into epochs according to the individual cultures. Spengler, like the early Herder, sees cultures as organisms that go through youth, manhood and old age. His aim is not to pile up as many individual facts as possible, but to put them into a picture of the story and understand it from a distance.


Arnold J. Toynbee is the last great historian to take on this project of world history. Toynbee takes up the historical-philosophical concept of Spengler, but rejects his assumption of a necessary cultural development over the three age groups.


Newer approaches to capture the World History

World History

The classic work of William Hardy McNeill The Rise of the West(The Rise of the West, 1963) gave impetus to the development of the “World History” current within US history, which has taken on firmer forms as an independent sub-discipline at universities since the 1980s and is increasingly being incorporated into US school lessons. World History focuses on humanity across the planet and places the history of individual societies in the context of world history. This flow can be assigned more or less clearly z. B. William Hardy McNeill, John R. McNeill, Immanuel Wallerstein, André Gunder Frank, Janet Abu Lughod, Jerry Bentley, Patrick Manning, Alfred Crosby or Jared Diamond. The World History Association is the main crystallization nucleus of the current that has spread beyond the United States and various trade magazines.


World History ties in with various forerunners such as The French Annales School, for example , sees itself as a reaction to or as part of globalization . The main concern of this current is to exceed the spatial and temporal limits of historiography , because real causal chains do not adhere to ethnocentric worldviews. The move away from Eurocentric is requiredor western-centered perspectives in the description and explanation of the history of mankind. Societies and civilizations are not viewed in isolation, neither spatially nor temporally: the perspective of the nation state is consistently exceeded in order to pursue wide-ranging interdependencies and the observation of narrow periods (such as the past 500 years) is supplemented by the analysis of long-term developments. In spatial terms, the interrelationships (“cross-cultural interactions”) are the center of attention over long distances, in terms of time the patterns of development. Topics include B. the widespread diffusion of technical and cultural innovations, Animals, plants and pathogens, the regular ups and downs of the empires and the associated relapses and setbacks in the integration of societies, the continuous conflict between centers and peripheries or the rules of the relocation of the centers.


Big history

Big History places world history in the context of the history of the universe. Following Norbert Elias (and partly Karl Popper ), a distinction is made between the levels of physico-chemical, biological and socio-cultural evolution, the common patterns and essential differences of which are to be worked out. The concept of increasing complexity is central here . Important impulses for big history come from the Netherlands (Fred Spier) and from the Anglo-American historian David Christian . These approaches are now being discussed intensively within the World History community .


World or global history in Germany and Europe

The development in American history is also one of the reasons for the relevant European and German debate, which is also referred to here as “global history”. A focal point of this approach is the European Network in Universal and Global History, founded in 2002, with members from various Western and Eastern European countries.


The German-speaking representatives of global history want to take greater account of the process of globalization and break up the previously predominantly European-centered view of world history, which was often determined by nation-state considerations. This new direction is comparable to previous concepts such as u. a. transnational history or histoire croisée . The previous interpretative patterns, for example from historical social science or sociology , are not sufficient for the representatives of this approach. In contrast to those approaches of traditional universal history, which are a history or religion-philosophical or anthropological With connotation , today’s global history provides important impulses for new cultural history and cultural studies . The rejection of traditional universal history, the decline of which began in the 1960s, also resulted from the partly polarized perception of the world, which was based on east-west and north-south constellations. The eastward expansion of the European Union after the end of the Cold War raises new questions about the position of Europe in the world from a global historical perspective.



Margrit Pernau describes the danger that global history can become a “pioneer for a new form of academic colonialism ”. She sees this danger in particular when world or global historians lack knowledge of the language and peculiarities of non-European societies and these relate – or can relate only to secondary literature (in ‘European languages’) and sources in European archives.


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