History: Global tales of deals and steals from Columbus to the credit crunch

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Globalisation is a word so used and abused that many people, for good reasons, retreat with a shudder from its very mention. Lots of the worst abuses arise from the proud lack of a sense of history among the more evangelical globalisation theorists. Nonetheless, it has a history, a very deep one, and ever more historians are exploring it. Many of 2008's best history books are, in one way or another, global histories or histories of globalisation – or both.

Covering the broadest sweep of time, as well as being maybe the most ambitious and beautifully illustrated and presented, is Barry Cunliffe's Europe Between the Oceans 9000BC-AD1000 (Yale, £30). The key to European history across millennia, he thinks, lies not within the (sub) continent itself but – as his title suggests – on its multiple coastlines and the oceans they face.

Much of the most exciting new work centres on the 16th and 17th centuries – though Tom Holland, in Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (Little Brown, £25) sees "the birth of the modern West" around the year 1000. Alison Games's The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Expansion (Oxford, £18.99) offers a rather benign view of how global empire was built, with a dazzling array of explorers, travellers, merchants, clerics and even soldiers often more concerned to learn from exotic peoples than to impose on them.

Lisa Jardine's Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory (Harper Press, £25) gives a rather less flattering view. English "cosmopolitanism" was that of the magpie, stealing glittering bits and pieces of other people's ideas, especially the Dutch. That's a bit of a caricature –indeed, the detail of Jardine's account gives a more nuanced picture, with borrowing considerably more multidirectional than her title would imply. David Abulafia's The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus (Yale, £25) strikes a fine balance between the sense of wonder at first contacts with previously unknown peoples, and the almost incomprehensible cruelty that soon ensued. Andrew Wheatcroft's The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe (Bodley Head, £20) brilliantly reconstructs the climactic conflict between Muslim "East" and Christian "West", at Vienna in 1683.

Timothy Brook's Vermeer's Hat (Profile, £18.99) traces global trade networks via a single painting – the titular hat is made of North American beaver fur. Also in the picture are South American silver, a Chinese bowl – one of Brook's most intriguing themes is the connection between Vermeer's Delft and Shanghai – and more. A Dutch domestic interior displays a whole world.

One basic lesson of a broad-sweep global history is that China, not the West, was for centuries the most advanced, creative and dynamic society on earth. The man who did most to instigate awareness of this was the great Cambridge historian of science, Joseph Needham. Simon Winchester's Bomb, Book and Compass (Viking, £20), a vivid biography of Needham, is also a story of how civilisations can, after divorce and mutual ignorance, reconnect.

Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money: A financial history of the world (Allen Lane, £25) is characteristically expansive and provocative, and based on more expertise than his recent books about British and American empires. There's debate over whether Ferguson could claim to have predicted the current crisis, or whether his gung-ho tone points in the opposite direction. His final pages try to have it both ways.

Richard Price's Making Empire (Cambridge, £18.99) is a fine critical account of one key part of the global process of empire-building, in 19th-century Africa. Although stressing how this was driven both by events in Europe and on the African frontier, Price also shows how communication between London and South Africa was distorted. Much of the sordid reality of colonial expansion, especially its endemic violence, was hidden from metropolitan view.

As we move through the past century, European global empires collapsed, new superpowers arose – and Nazi Germany made a brief, devastating bid for world power. Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: Nazi rule in occupied Europe (Allen Lane, £30) promises to put Germany's endeavour in wider perspective. Actually, the weakest part of this fine book is that so little really reflects the title. Mazower's thoughts on what was specifically "imperial" about Hitler's shortlived "empire", how much it drew on lessons from Germany's overseas colonial empire or sought to copy British or other systems, are sketchy. Richard J Evans's The Third Reich at War (Allen Lane, £30) is the final volume of his monumental history of Nazi Germany. Perhaps there are no startling revelations or interpretations, but few will dispute that in this overcrowded field, Evans is the market leader.

Even apparently insular British or English history has global dimensions. Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: (Harper Press, £25) is mostly an English story, centred on the scientific friends of the Romantic poets who had been Holmes's previous subjects. But it's also a worldwide one, as discoveries in domestic laboratories interacted with those on far-flung voyages.

Ian Mortimer's The Time-Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (Bodley Head, £20) is perhaps the most enjoyable history book I've read all year. The chapter on food and drink is especially revealing, not least in terms of 14th-century England's combination of intense localism and proto-globalism. David Marquand's Britain since 1918: the strange career of British democracy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), seemingly another "island story", is far more. The depth of Marquand's international and theoretical knowledge informs his interpretation of what made Britain different from other democracies.

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