Suzanne Klingenstein in the Weekly Standard:
In 1935, Ernst Gombrich, scion of a bourgeois Viennese Jewish family, and newly minted Ph.D. in art history, found himself out of work. Walter Neurath, a friend and publisher, asked him to look over an English history book for children and, if it was any good, to translate it into German. Neurath wanted to publish it in his new series “Knowledge for Children.”
A few days later, the 26-year-old Gombrich returned the book with the remark, “I think I could write a better one myself.” Neurath asked him to deliver. Reading in his parents’ library in the morning, studying period documents in the afternoon, and writing at night, Gombrich produced, under great time pressure, what was to be his only book in German: Eine Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart (1936). The book was an instant success, and has remained in print. With its brevity and intended audience, it mocked the then-ubiquitous, multi-tomed, solid leatherUniversalgeschichten (global histories) designed to give heft to the achievements of the urban bourgeoisie.
Gombrich’s tone was light, his approach literary, his attitude toward his young readers engaging and conversational. What would a 10-year-old in 1935 really have to know about knights and courtly love, or the rebirth of humanism, in order to begin her privileged life in one of Europe’s most cultured cities?
Quite a bit, Gombrich thought: Even children were then expected to know things and to think about them. Gombrich squeezed all of European history, from the cavemen to the end of World War I, into 39 chapters, an appealing number to children because it’s three times the creepy 13. He added chapter 40 only in 1985 when he revised the book for its 50th anniversary. The new chapter covered World War II, and Gombrich ingeniously called it “The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself.”