The Best Books On Empires In World History

Christopher Goscha Author Of The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam
By Christopher Goscha

The Books I Picked & Why

Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference

By Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper

Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference

Why this book?

Empires or nation-states? Which do you prefer? Most of us have assumed that the endpoint in world history is the nation-state. Empires are somehow relics of the past, you know, ‘bad’ things associated with the Europeans in the 19th century or only something the Americans would dare to do today. In this tour de force, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper demolish this idea by showing us that empires have always been and are still a part of our world. Burbank and Cooper don’t start their story in ‘1492’ with the usual European suspects; they open with the Romans and the Chinese in the 3nd century BC and then move forward to the present. It’s an eye-opening read as the authors invite us to think of what makes empires tick, whether then or now, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East or the Americas. One can disagree with their argument that empires were better at dealing with “difference” than nations; but one thing is sure: when you put this book down, you will never think about empires in the same way.


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After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000

By John Darwin

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000

Why this book?

You might not know who Tamerlane is, but you should. He was one of the last of the ‘World-conquerors’ in the tradition of Genghis Khan, the man who marched the Mongols from one end of Eurasia to the other in the 13th century. Tamerlane died in 1405 and with him the last nomadic empire of the Eurasian steppes. The Europeans then took up the quest ‘to conquer the word’. But John Darwin tells this story like no one else before him: Rather than starting the story of the European “Age of Discovery” on the bows of Iberian ships crossing the Atlantic ocean, Darwin keeps his readers grounded in Eurasia. He redirects our gaze to this massive continent as we follow emerging European empires as they had to compete with pre-existing ones. Anyone interested in understanding the global dynamics of the early 21st century should read this book with Eurasia at its center. The leaders of China today clearly have Eurasia in mind as much as they do the oceans surrounding it.


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The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

By Kenneth Pomeranz

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

Why this book?

We all know from our grade school history books that, from the late 15th century, the Europeans took to the sea in droves because they wanted to reach the ‘Chinese market’ via their own routes. Kenneth Pomeranz does not contest this; but he makes two powerful arguments that should require us to revise our history books for this period. First, the West did not so simply best the rest from 1492 – certainly not the Chinese empire. In this brilliant comparative economic history, Pomeranz shows that the Chinese economy remained as vibrant as the Western European ones until the mid-18th century. There was no “divergence” before then. In fact, Pomeranz shows us, China could have industrialized like Britain had it not been for two missing inputs: coalfields and its own overseas empire. The British had both and it gave them a competitive advantage in world history. Yes, The Great Divergence, is an economic history; but when you finish this book you might just understand the “great convergence” that is currently underway between China and the West.


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Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

By Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Why this book?

If you fancy ‘nations’ to ‘empires’ in world history, then Imagined Communities is the book for you. Beware though, for once you begin reading this wonderfully written little book on nationalism, you may have to rethink what you thought you knew about ‘your nation’. To put it bluntly, empires have been around since antiquity, but nations have not. We might try to convince ourselves that our nations – the United States, France, or India – are eternal entities with their roots located in the distant past; but they are not. What makes Anderson so fun to read is that he is not out to bash the nation (in fact, he quite likes it.). But what he wants us to understand is how we made them and why so many are willing to die for them. Whatever your politics, you will not be disappointed. In fact, you will want to read it again. It’s that good.


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What Is Global History?

By Sebastian Conrad

What Is Global History?

Why this book?

So, what, exactly is this ‘world’ or ‘global history’? Authors slap the two words on their books, universities offer new courses in it, and government officials across the planet now speak of ‘global this’ and ‘global that’. One could be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands in exasperation for failing to understand what exactly these two words mean. That is until Sebastian Conrad published this gem of a book aptly entitled: What is Global History? Yes, it’s a bit academic, but it’s also clearly written, logically organized, and succeeds brilliantly in explaining what global history is and is not without losing the reader in theoretical jargon. If you want to try something beyond the ‘nation’ and ‘empire’, Conrad’s global history is a great place to start.


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