As its name suggests, this is a book that attempts to answer one of the greatest historical puzzles of all times: Why did a couple of Western European states conquer the world? It is indeed a stunning fact that Western Europe, which was an unenviable backwater of the world in the early Middle Ages, ended up gaining “control of 84 percent of the globe” (p. 2). Judging by Figure 1.1 in this book, Turkey, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, China and Thailand may be the only countries in the world that were never under direct European control, if we take into account the British-French takeover of the remaining Arab regions after World War 1 and the American occupation of Japan and Korea after World War 2 (p. 2). Hoffman provides a comprehensive and critical overview of the most popular alternative answers given to this fascinating puzzle, while offering his own explanation as to why Western Europeans ultimately conquered the world.
Hoffman argues that popular alternative explanations based on industrialization, diseases, and geography cannot explain the Western European conquests. For example, Western Europeans began to conquer the world in the late 15th and early 16th century, in any case long before the 19th century when industrialization took off, first in Britain and later in the rest of Western Europe, so industrialization cannot be the cause of the outcome that had begun in earnest two centuries before. Moreover, as repeated several times throughout the book, “wages in much of western Europe even in 1800 were no higher than in wealthy parts of Asia” (p. 103). Thus, income levels or sheer wealth cannot possibly explain the military prowess of Western European polities even in the early 19th century, let alone in the 16th century, when the conquest began. Likewise, Western Europe is not more mountainous than China, as some argued (pp. 109-110), nor did the peninsulas in Europe determine the pattern of state-building and political consolid