World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Eric D. Weitz, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. Princeton: Princeton University, 2019. Pp. xx + 550. $35.00 (cloth).


     As editor of the "Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity" series from Princeton University Press, Eric Weitz has assisted in the publication of several works addressing a wide range of regional and historical contexts. With this title that spans the globe and several centuries in a single volume, he makes a contribution as an author that may serve as something of a summary report to the series. Its nine illuminating studies analyze the evolution of human rights amid the sweeping processes that shaped the structures and sensibilities of the modern world while also evoking the truly human dramas behind those developments through the experiences of individuals engaged in and affected by the complex events that accompanied the emergence of a global system of nation-states and citizenship based on rights.

     Weitz organizes the book around three themes. First and foremost, he links modern human rights to the nation-state. Indeed, Weitz asserts that "[t]he history of nation-states is the history of human rights" in that these rights arise from the very constitutions, laws, and other political documents that define nation-states, their citizens, and their governments; at the same time, he acknowledges the paradox that "nation-states create rights for some at the same time that they exclude others…. The state is our protector; it is also our greatest threat" (3–5). This situates the origins of human rights in the West, although Weitz further observes that over the past two and half centuries the highly mobile pathways of commerce, travel, exploration, and conquest have set the framework of the nation-state and visions of human rights into relentless motion, so that "other, non-Western ideas contributed to the broadening and deepening of rights" (8). A second theme thus takes into account the dynamic nature of human rights, claimed at first by some but invariably demanded by those excluded for various reasons, expanding in this process to encompass social, economic, and cultural rights in addition to political and civil rights. The third theme considers how such varied agents and influences as "[p]opular struggles, state interests, and the workings of the international system came together in a highly fragile and fleeting consensus to found nation-states with their treaties, constitutions, and laws that enshrined—at least rhetorically—the principles of human rights" (6). In noting the tenuous and contingent nature of rights-based political systems, Weitz not only challenges the fallacy of historical inevitability but also issues a warning against complacency, as the fragility of human rights has once again become evident while the time to secure and defend them feels fleeting.

     The first chapter escorts readers around the eighteenth-century world, pointing out the structures of hierarchy and patterns of encounter that characterized the era just before radical changes initiated the transformations still affecting us. The concluding chapter takes another wide-angle view, assessing trends in human rights since 1945, tracing the consolidation through the individual leadership of figures like Nelson Mandela, Ralph Bunche, and Bertha Lutz; the continual ratification and updating of international human rights agreements and the formal institutions, such as the United Nations, that uphold them; and such organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch dedicated to promoting their observance.

     The chapters in between each focus on a particular region where "the global struggle" unfolded in diverse ways over the past two and a half centuries. Weitz begins in Greece, not in the "Golden Age" of the fifth century BCE, where earlier triumphalist narratives set the first stirrings of citizenship and democracy associated with human rights. Instead, he sees the Greek movement for national independence of the 1820s, inspired by the discourse of rights ensuing from the Enlightenment and French Revolution and the nationalist aspirations stoked by the Napoleonic era, as a model of the themes of "accomplishments, limitations, and disasters" (48) evoked in various configurations in the narratives that follow. The Greek movement features a struggle against empire, a topic revisited in several chapters, including one on the Herero and Nama peoples under German domination in Southwest Africa (Namibia) (Chapter Six). The Greek struggle also attracted international attention, particularly from Great Britain and Russia, stimulated as much among the British by the Romantic sentiments expressed in Lord Byron's writings and among Russians by the cultural affinity of Orthodoxy and the colder calculations of geopolitical interest; subsequent chapters, including one about the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and the communist states of its European sphere of influence (Chapter Eight) and another on the continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis (Chapter Nine), also address the international dimension of struggles for rights within nations and by movements of aspiring nationhood. In Greece and elsewhere, human rights advances were at first partial, as issues of identity linking citizenship with rights were sorted out in ways that invariably extended only so far but not (yet) any farther—to European settlers in Minnesota but not to its indigenous inhabitants (Chapter Three). Here, the consequences led in the 1860s to an uprising by the Dakota against the U.S. military and local militias. This kind of resistance accompanied systems elsewhere that recognized rights for only some, as in Brazil, site of the Bahian slave revolt of the 1830s (Chapter Four). Other episodes of extreme violence erupted where vulnerable minorities experienced brutal campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Jews of tsarist Russia did (Chapter Five) and the Hutus and the Tutsis of Rwanda and Burundi have at each other's hands in recurring episodes since the 1960s (Chapter Ten). All of the cases that Weitz analyzes are like each other in multiple ways, with the salient events, agents, and influences featured in one chapter echoing and overlapping across other chapters. Yet, all unfold in specific, distinct, and unique ways, so that Weitz's description of the Greek example as a "model" should be understood as an impressionistic one, an aid to interpretation, rather than the kind of blueprint that, say, modernization theorists used to advance.

     A World Divided  presents rich possibilities for use  in a classroom setting. Although not as long as its physical bulk suggests, most students will find the tome intimidating, especially those enrolled in world history survey courses taken to satisfy general education curriculum requirements. One strategy that the book's organization makes possible, then, is to require the entire class to read Chapter One (and perhaps the Introduction) as an anchor for contextual understanding, while assigning each one of the remaining chapters to different teams of students responsible for summarizing their chapter to their classmates. This should hopefully invite comparisons and contrasts during follow-up discussions after each group's class presentation. An accompanying writing project might involve students reading two other chapters that interested them based on their fellow students' classroom summaries and analyzing points of similarities and difference with the chapter they were originally assigned.

     All readers, students as well as specialists, will find the personal stories that Weitz relates captivating. Individual lives often recede from view as the geographic and chronological scale of world history narratives lengthen. The risk of letting the human perspective slip into that distance increases even further when approaching a topic that covers nearly every continent over hundreds of years, as this volume does. Nevertheless, Weitz adeptly adjusts scales so that humans collectively and individually play central roles as agents of historical change, driving the narrative through their aspirations and actions. Moreover, while some of the historical figures included are familiar from conventional accounts of human rights, such as Theodor Herzl, Andrei Sakharov, and Nelson Mandela, others are likely less familiar to many readers. Weitz's account featuring the confrontation between the Dakota leader Little Crow and U.S. Army Colonel (later Minnesota governor) Henry Hastings Sibley, for instance, makes for a more meaningful and complex story of Euroamerican westward expansion during the mid-nineteenth century than the conflict between George Armstrong Custer and Crazy Horse, and the mass hanging at Mankato in December 1862 of thirty-eight Indians convicted of participating in the killing of white settlers becomes a more salient moment than the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. Samuel Mahaherero, chief of the Herero of Southwest Africa, who, along with the Nama, were victims of the genocide perpetrated by German colonial and military authorities during the 1904–1907 rebellion, also emerges from the exile of historical oblivion as a pivotal figure in the geographic and cultural expansion of human rights. The chapter on Korea understandably focuses on Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Kim Il-sung as leading actors but also presents the recollections of Hong Ŭlsu, whose experiences "traversed all the possibilities and disappointments, all the political streams, all the influences—American, Japanese, Chinese, Russia—of Korea's twentieth century" (248).

     Weitz demonstrates this sensitivity to the actions, experiences, and voices of those who have been relentlessly forgotten and marginalized, deemed unworthy of recognition, on the book's very first page, which relates the story of two refugees from Guatemala, a daughter and father, Astrid and Arturo, K'iche' Indians who fled to the United States in 2015, resettling in Pennsylvania under the country's asylum laws, only to find themselves threatened with deportation in 2018, as the dramatic turn in the American political atmosphere led to a backsliding on refugee rights. This opening vignette foreshadows complexities and dimensions evident in all of the specific cases that Weitz presents throughout the book. For one, it shows how the nation-state can be protector and persecutor. Meanwhile, a nongovernmental human rights organization, Amnesty International, mobilized a campaign to push back against the U.S. government's targeting of Astrid and Arturo and succeeded in attenuating their plight, if not resolving it. Although members of their local community signed petitions and rallied to their defense in other ways, Weitz shows in other cases throughout the book that the situation has sometimes been reversed, with the state intervening to protect victims of local communities that mobilized to violate rather than uphold human rights. Finally, by beginning this history in the immediate present, Weitz gives the past a resonance that challenges readers' confidence in a future where human rights become irrevocably stronger and broader. Such a future comes only through vigilance and action informed by a critical understanding of the past. Weitz's book is as much a call to that kind of vigilance and action, then, as it is a compelling interpretation bolstered by an engaging narrative.

Michael Clinton is Professor of History at Gwynedd Mercy University in Gwynedd Valley, PA, where he directs the university general education program. He also serves as president of the Peace History Society. You may reach him by email at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use