Martin Gilbert is now marketed as a narrative historian. What is implied by that curious designation is not altogether clear, but there is the hint of a concession being made. A narrative history has a whiff of the functional about it; a no-nonsense, back-to-basics sort of history, replete with names and dates; 1939 and all that. Are there things that narrative histories do not offer? Are there, in contradistinction, argumentative, discursive or even reflexive histories? Perhaps there are. Gilbert is of the Oxford school. Looking no further afield, a history of the 20th century by, say, A.J.P. Taylor or Richard Cobb or Theodore Zeldin would surely have turned out very differently.
What, then, characterises the narrative historian? Some old-fashioned virtues, presumably, above all the telling of a good story - coherent, compelling, convincing. Does Gilbert tell a story of that sort? Unfortunately, he does not.
He proceeds a chapter a year - in crowded times, with lots of battles, a half-year - but within this remorseless chronology his account is less a narrative than a skein of suffering and (occasionally) redemption, Hans Frank to Anne Frank, Foggia to Foochow. Disparate passages, dizzy with data, are strung together in a manner that is at best banal and at worst bathetic. "The turmoil created in Europe by Hitler's successes, and the grim news of the continuing purges in Russia, could not overshadow the turmoil elsewhere." "Five years after the end of the second world war, the painful burdens of the past were in contrast to the bright opportunities of the present." "Even as American troops were fighting in the mud and ice of the Korean peninsula, popular entertainment in the United States reached several milestones, including the first performance of Irving Berlin's musical Call Me Madam in New York on October 12, and the premiere, also in New York, of the Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows musical Guys and Dolls , on November 24. That year (1950) at La Scala, Milan, Maria Callas, a Greek soprano, made her operatic debut."
In truth, the work is misnamed. It is not so much a history as an almanac of the 20th century. Gilbert is not so much the author as the compiler and - it seems for him an increasingly important function - the commemorator. His books are monuments to the dead. His prose resembles the roll call. By his own account, he is burdened by something very close to survivor guilt. "For those born in my particular year - 1936 - and murdered, or killed in air raids, before they reached the age of ten, I feel a special affinity to their stories, and wish to make some reference to them in my pages."
More generally, he is enslaved by events. Yet, on the transformative events of this 1,000-page volume, he has almost nothing to say.
On the origins of the second world war: "When yet another war began on 1 September 1939 it was between two states only, Germany and Poland. It was this German-Polish war, spreading slowly, and only becoming truly global more than two years later, that is known as the second world war. The Soviet Union, which was not invaded by Germany until the summer of 1941, has designated its period of hostilities as the Great Patriotic War. Yet the Soviet invasion of Finland at the end of 1939 can be seen as an integral part of the second world war. One thing seemed certain, however - as certain inside Germany as beyond it - that without Hitler there would not have been war."
On the dropping of the atomic bomb: "No single man-made blast had ever killed so many people. Within two weeks of the atomic bomb explosion the death toll at Hiroshima reached 92,233. Many more followed from the effects of radiation. By 1986 the cenotaph in Hiroshima listed 138,890 victims. Of the city's 90,000 buildings, 62,000 were completely destroyed. Of the 200 doctors in the city when the bomb was dropped, 180 were killed or too badly injured to attend to the other sufferers. Seven American airmen who had been shot down over the city eight days earlier, and were being held as prisoners of war - fearful for their lives at the hands of their captors - were also killed."
On the character of the cold war: "From the western perspective, the cold war was essentially a defensive exercise. It would require considerable expenditure on arms, a build-up of military resources, the development of the latest technology, and constant vigilance through open and secret intelligence work. But it was not an interventionist creed. The Berlin blockade showed clearly that there were no plans to take aggressive action. Those who advocated bombing Moscow - and there were people both in Washington and London who did so vocally - were in a tiny minority, ignored by the political and military establishments."
On the creation of Nato: "Within three months of Truman's inauguration (in 1949) the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Twelve nations subscribed to the treaty: the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. The basis of their coming together was to provide for mutual military assistance in the event of aggression. The potential aggressor was no longer Germany, but the Soviet Union."
Herewith the sum total of comment on those events. It is hard to know which is more remarkable: the banality or the paucity of analysis. For the attentive reader, however, the author's historical peregrinations are the subject of occasional footnotes. In 1940 he is evacuated to Canada. In 1962 he is treated to prejudice against Roosevelt in New Jersey. In 1972 he is snubbed by a French landowner. Regrettably, A History of the 20th Century is not worth a detour.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
A History of the 20th Century Volume Two: 1933-1951
Author - Martin Gilbert
ISBN - 000 215869 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £29.99
Pages - 1,050