Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford is on the one-hand a post-revisionist biography of the world’s most successful conqueror, and on the other a social, political and economic history of the impact of the Mongol Empire on the world. Spanning nearly eight centuries of time and thousands of miles of area, Weatherford has his work cut out for him. All things considered, he does an excellent job
I greatly appreciated two aspects of the book. First was the historiographical analysis of how Genghis Khan has been perceived through time by historians, many of whom are descendants of the people conquered by Genghis Khan and his offspring. It is this that has lead to a wholly negative view of the Mongols. Weatherford argues that we in the West have the French philosopher Montesquieu to thank for our cultural recollection of the Mongols as “barbarians at the gate”. When examining history as far back as Genghis, it is important to amend the Churchillian maxim that “history is written by the victors”. History is written by the survivors.
The second aspect of the book I appreciated was Jack Weatherford’s hands-on approach to history. Although he mostly relied on The Secret History of the Mongols for details of the Great Khan’s life, he took it upon himself to go to the locales in Mongolia and along the Silk Road that were important to the development of Genghis and his ancestors. In the introduction Weatherford states: “Books can lie, but places never do.” Anyone who has ever been on a battlefield tour, I am sure would confirm that.
Overall I recommend this book. At least in the English-speaking world, I think it will extract Genghis Khan out of a grudge-ridden history, and hopefully spark a new round of examination. Genghis Khan was obviously an important historical figure, influencing much of his contemporary world and the world that came after it. What needs to be cleared up is how he was an influence. The Mongols were not merely a bloodthirsty horde, an early Yellow Peril. There are many subtle ways in which Genghis Khan and his ancestors influenced us. Read the book to find out more.