|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
A NEW WORLD
THE GREAT WAR WHICH WAS REALLY THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEW AND BETTER WORLD
 THE Marquis de Condorcet was one of the noblest characters
among the small group of honest enthusiasts who were
responsible for the outbreak of the great French Revolution.
He had devoted his life to the cause of the poor and the unfortunate.
He had been one of the assistants of d'Alembert and
Diderot when they wrote their famous Encyclopédie. During
the first years of the Revolution he had been the leader of the
Moderate wing of the Convention.
His tolerance, his kindliness, his stout common sense, had
made him an object of suspicion when the treason of the king
and the court clique had given the extreme radicals their chance
to get hold of the government and kill their opponents.
Condorcet was declared "hors de loi," or outlawed, an outcast
who was henceforth at the mercy of every true patriot. His
friends offered to hide him at their own peril. Condorcet
refused to accept their sacrifice. He escaped and tried to reach
his home, where he might be safe. After three nights in the
open, torn and bleeding, he entered an inn and asked for some
food. The suspicious yokels searched him and in his pockets
they found a copy of Horace, the Latin poet. This showed
that their prisoner was a man of gentle breeding and had no
business upon the highroads at a time when every educated
 person was regarded as an enemy of the Revolutionary state.
They took Condorcet and they bound him and they gagged
him and they threw him into the village lock-up, but in the
morning when the soldiers came to drag him back to Paris and
cut his head off, behold! he was dead.
This man who had given all and had received nothing had
good reason to despair of the human race. But he has written
a few sentences which ring as true to-day as they did one
hundred and thirty years ago. I repeat them here for your
"Nature has set no limits to our hopes," he wrote, "and
the picture of the human race, now freed from its chains and
marching with a firm tread on the road of truth and virtue
and happiness, offers to the philosopher a spectacle which
consoles him for the errors, for the crimes and the injustices
which still pollute and afflict this earth."
The world has just passed through an agony of pain compared
to which the French Revolution was a mere incident.
The shock has been so great that it has killed the last spark of
hope in the breasts of millions of men. They were chanting a
hymn of progress, and four years of slaughter followed their
prayers for peace. "Is it worth while," so they ask, "to work
and slave for the benefit of creatures who have not yet passed
beyond the stage of the earliest cave men?"
There is but one answer.
That answer is "Yes!"
 The World War was a terrible calamity. But it did not
mean the end of things. On the contrary it brought about the
coming of a new day.
It is easy to write a history of Greece and Rome or the
Middle Ages. The actors who played their parts upon that
long-forgotten stage are all dead. We can criticize them with
a cool head. The audience that applauded their efforts has
dispersed. Our remarks cannot possibly hurt their feelings.
But it is very difficult to give a true account of contemporary
events. The problems that fill the minds of the people
with whom we pass through life, are our own problems, and
they hurt us too much or they please us too well to be described
with that fairness which is necessary when we are writing
history and not blowing the trumpet of propaganda. All
the same I shall endeavour to tell you why I agree with poor
Condorcet when he expressed his firm faith in a better future.
Often before have I warned you against the false impression
which is created by the use of our so-called historical
epochs which divide the story of man into four parts, the ancient
world, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation,
and Modern Time. The last of these terms is the most
dangerous. The word "modern" implies that we, the people
of the twentieth century, are at the top of human achievement.
Fifty years ago the liberals of England who followed the leadership
of Gladstone felt that the problem of a truly representative
and democratic form of government had been solved forever
by the second great Reform Bill, which gave workmen
an equal share in the government with their employers. When
Disraeli and his conservative friends talked of a dangerous
"leap in the dark" they answered "No." They felt certain of
their cause and trusted that henceforth all classes of society
would co-operate to make the government of their common
country a success. Since then many things have happened,
and the few liberals who are still alive begin to understand
that they were mistaken.
There is no definite answer to any historical problem.
Every generation must fight the good fight anew or perish
 as those sluggish animals of the prehistoric world have
If you once get hold of this great truth you will get a new
and much broader view of life. Then, go one step further
and try to imagine yourself in the position of your own
great-great-grandchildren who will take your place in the year
10,000. They too will learn history. But what will they
think of those short four thousand years during which we have
kept a written record of our actions and of our thoughts?
They will think of Napoleon as a contemporary of Tiglath
Pileser, the Assyrian conqueror. Perhaps they will confuse
him with Jenghiz Khan or Alexander the Macedonian. The
great war which has just come to an end will appear in the light
of that long commercial conflict which settled the supremacy
of the Mediterranean when Rome and Carthage fought during
one hundred and twenty-eight years for the mastery of the sea.
The Balkan troubles of the 19th century (the struggle for
freedom of Serbia and Greece and Bulgaria and Montenegro)
to them will seem a continuation of the disordered conditions
caused by the Great Migrations. They will look at pictures
of the Rheims cathedral which only yesterday was destroyed
by German guns as we look upon a photograph of the Acropolis
ruined two hundred and fifty years ago during a war
between the Turks and the Venetians. They will regard the
fear of death, which is still common among many people, as a
childish superstition which was perhaps natural in a race of
men who had burned witches as late as the year 1692. Even
our hospitals and our laboratories and our operating rooms
of which we are so proud will look like slightly improved
workshops of alchemists and mediaeval surgeons.
And the reason for all this is simple. We modern men and
women are not "modern" at all. On the contrary we still
belong to the last generations of the cave-dwellers. The foundation
for a new era was laid but yesterday. The human race
was given its first chance to become truly civilised when it took
courage to question all things and made "knowledge and
understanding" the foundation upon which to create a more
 reasonable and sensible society of human beings. The Great
War was the "growing-pain" of this new world.
For a long time to come people will write mighty books to
prove that this or that or the other person brought about the
war. The Socialists will publish volumes in which they will
ac-  cuse the "capitalists" of having brought about the war for "commercial
gain." The capitalists will answer that they lost infinitely
more through the war than they made—that their children
were among the first to go and fight and be killed—and
they will show how in every country the bankers tried their
very best to avert the outbreak of hostilities. French historians
will go through the register of German sins from the
days of Charlemagne until the days of William of Hohenzollern
and German historians will return the compliment and
will go through the list of French horrors from the days of
Charlemagne until the days of President Poincaré. And
then they will establish to their own satisfaction that the other
fellow was guilty of "causing the war." Statesmen, dead and
not yet dead, in all countries will take to their typewriters and
they will explain how they tried to avert hostilities and how
their wicked opponents forced them into it.
THE SPREAD OF THE IMPERIAL IDEA
The historian, a hundred years hence, will not bother about
these apologies and vindications. He will understand the real
nature of the underlying causes and he will know that personal
ambitions and personal wickedness and personal greed had very
little to do with the final outburst. The original mistake, which
was responsible for all this misery, was committed when our
scientists began to create a new world of steel and iron and
chemistry and electricity and forgot that the human mind is
slower than the proverbial turtle, is lazier than the well-known
sloth, and marches from one hundred to three hundred years
behind the small group of courageous leaders.
A Zulu in a frock coat is still a Zulu. A dog trained to ride
a bicycle and smoke a pipe is still a dog. And a human being
with the mind of a sixteenth century tradesman driving a 1921
Rolls-Royce is still a human being with the mind of a sixteenth
If you do not understand this at first, read it again. It
will become clearer to you in a moment and it will explain
many things that have happened these last six years.
Perhaps I may give you another, more familiar, example,
to show you what I mean. In the movie theatres, jokes and
 funny remarks are often thrown upon the screen. Watch the
audience the next time you have a chance. A few people seem
almost to inhale the words. It takes them but a second to read
the lines. Others are a bit slower. Still others take from
twenty to thirty seconds. Finally those men and women who
do not read any more than they can help, get the point when
the brighter ones among the audience have already begun to
decipher the next cut-in. It is not different in human life,
as I shall now show you.
In a former chapter I have told you how the idea of the
Roman Empire continued to live for a thousand years after
the death of the last Roman Emperor. It caused the establishment
of a large number of "imitation empires." It gave the
Bishops of Rome a chance to make themselves the head of the
entire church, because they represented the idea of Roman
world-supremacy. It drove a number of perfectly harmless
barbarian chieftains into a career of crime and endless warfare
because they were for ever under the spell of this magic
word "Rome." All these people, Popes, Emperors and plain
fighting men were not very different from you or me. But
they lived in a world where the Roman tradition was a vital
issue—something living—something which was remembered
clearly both by the father and the son and the grandson. And
so they struggled and sacrificed themselves for a cause which
to-day would not find a dozen recruits.
In still another chapter I have told you how the great religious
wars took place more than a century after the first open
act of the Reformation and if you will compare the chapter
on the Thirty Years War with that on Inventions, you will see
that this ghastly butchery took place at a time when the first
clumsy steam engines were already puffing in the laboratories
of a number of French and German and English scientists.
But the world at large took no interest in these strange
contraptions, and went on with a grand theological discussion
which to-day causes yawns, but no anger.
And so it goes. A thousand years from now, the historian
will use the same words about Europe of the out-going
nine-  teenth century, and he will see how men were engaged upon
terrific nationalistic struggles while the laboratories all around
them were filled with serious folk who cared not one whit for
politics as long as they could force nature to surrender a few
more of her million secrets.
You will gradually begin to understand what I am driving
at. The engineer and the scientist and the chemist, within a
single generation, filled Europe and America and Asia with
their vast machines, with their telegraphs, their flying machines,
their coal-tar products. They created a new world in which
time and space were reduced to complete insignificance. They
invented new products and they made these so cheap that almost
every one could buy them. I have told you all this before
but it certainly will bear repeating.
To keep the ever increasing number of factories going, the
owners, who had also become the rulers of the land, needed raw
materials and coal. Especially coal. Meanwhile the mass of
the people were still thinking in terms of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries and clinging to the old notions of the
state as a dynastic or political organisation. This clumsy mediaeval
institution was then suddenly called upon to handle the
highly modern problems of a mechanical and industrial world.
It did its best, according to the rules of the game which had
been laid down centuries before. The different states created
enormous armies and gigantic navies which were used for the
purpose of acquiring new possessions in distant lands. Wherever
there was a tiny bit of land left, there arose an English or
a French or a German or a Russian colony. If the natives
objected, they were killed. In most cases they did not object,
and were allowed to live peacefully, provided they did not
interfere with the diamond mines or the coal mines or the oil
mines or the gold mines or the rubber plantations, and they
derived many benefits from the foreign occupation.
Sometimes it happened that two states in search of raw
materials wanted the same piece of land at the same time.
Then there was a war. This occurred fifteen years ago when
Russia and Japan fought for the possession of certain
terri-  tories which belonged to the Chinese people. Such conflicts,
however, were the exception. No one really desired to fight.
Indeed, the idea of fighting with armies and battleships and
submarines began to seem absurd to the men of the early 20th
century. They associated the idea of violence with the
long-ago age of unlimited monarchies and intriguing dynasties.
Every day they read in their papers of still further inventions,
of groups of English and American and German scientists who
were working together in perfect friendship for the purpose
of an advance in medicine or in astronomy. They lived in a
busy world of trade and of commerce and factories. But only
a few noticed that the development of the state, (of the gigantic
community of people who recognise certain common ideals,)
was lagging several hundred years behind. They tried to warn
the others. But the others were occupied with their own
I have used so many similes that I must apologise for bringing
in one more. The Ship of State (that old and trusted
expression which is ever new and always picturesque,) of the
Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans and the Venetians
and the merchant adventurers of the seventeenth century had
been a sturdy craft, constructed of well-seasoned wood, and
commanded by officers who knew both their crew and their
vessel and who understood the limitations of the art of navigating
which had been handed down to them by their ancestors.
Then came the new age of iron and steel and machinery.
First one part, then another of the old ship of state was
changed. Her dimensions were increased. The sails were discarded
for steam. Better living quarters were established, but
more people were forced to go down into the stoke-hole, and
while the work was safe and fairly remunerative, they did not
like it as well as their old and more dangerous job in the
rigging. Finally, and almost imperceptibly, the old wooden
square-rigger had been transformed into a modern ocean liner.
But the captain and the mates remained the same. They were
appointed or elected in the same way as a hundred years before.
They were taught the same system of navigation which
 had served the mariners of the fifteenth century. In their
cabins hung the same charts and signal flags which had done
service in the days of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great.
In short, they were (through no fault of their own) completely
The sea of international politics is not very broad. When
those Imperial and Colonial liners began to try and outrun
each other, accidents were bound to happen. They did happen.
You can still see the wreckage if you venture to pass
through that part of the ocean.
And the moral of the story is a simple one. The world is
in dreadful need of men who will assume the new
leadership—who will have the courage of their own visions and who will
recognise clearly that we are only at the beginning of the
voyage, and have to learn an entirely new system of seamanship.
They will have to serve for years as mere apprentices.
They will have to fight their way to the top against every possible
form of opposition. When they reach the bridge, mutiny
of an envious crew may cause their death. But some day, a
man will arise who will bring the vessel safely to port, and he
shall be the hero of the ages.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics