An urbane view of barbarism

The Oxford History of the 20th Century
November 27, 1998

The 20th century has been filled with more history than any other. For one thing, it has been inhabited by more people than have lived through all previous time; for another, the globe is now composed of close to 200 separate states, each with its own story to tell. Above all, the sheer number of scientists, engineers, artists, writers, musicians and assorted scholars has pushed back the thresholds of knowledge and culture in exponential leaps. History, in the sense of the things that will get into chronologies, has been manufactured breathlessly throughout the century. Describing this history is a task daunting enough: making sense of it is an exceptional challenge.

Michael Howard and Wm Roger Louis have set out with that lofty ambition. With a team of 22 other scholars (and two compilers of chronology) they offer chapters of a dozen or so pages each on what are deemed to be the major themes and narratives of the century. There then follows a 70-page chronology divided into three categories: politics and international relations; science, technology and medicine; and culture. Its function is not clear: it does not contain all the information referred to in the text and it is incomplete (no German inflation in 1923, no Operation Bagration in 1944 etc, few social, economic or industrial entries); and it houses the odd error (German "invasion of Czechoslovakia on March 23, 1939" - instead of March 15). These 70 pages would be better devoted to the text.

The format is by no means helpful to the enterprise in other ways. Summarising vast topics in 12 or 15 pages produces essays that are breathless and factually dense. Issues that are central to the understanding of the recent past are given a paragraph or two at most. The sections on regions or states have so much work to do that in many cases they are little more than an encyclopedia entries.

The attempt to cover as much as possible in so short a space raises awkward questions of balance and significance. This is reflected in the editors' claim in the foreword that the second world war was "the pivotal event of the century". There is nothing objectionable about that claim, but it is hardly redeemed in the text, except to permit the regional narratives to be broken at 1945. The war itself gets brief treatment in Howard's own entry, and flickers here and there in other chapters.

The authors do well enough within those constraints. Hugh Brogan's account of America's first half of the century is a masterpiece of compression (and, regrettably, one of the few lively reads in the book). Lawrence Freedman points out that the nuclear confrontation probably accelerated stabilisation in the world order, one of the century's most frightening paradoxes. William McNeill gives a more optimistic prognosis than usual about demographic growth in the next century. In a pair of concluding essays summing up the world at the millennium, editor Louis and Ralf Dahrendorf give a balanced summary of trends and issues. Though they are aware of the tendency to view the end of our century as the eve of an apocalypse driven by ecological disaster, religious extremism and the decline of civilisation, they both end in upbeat mood, hoping that in the next century enlightened human action will master the forces of historical darkness.

This conclusion might be regarded as starry-eyed in the extreme, given the course of the century they are reviewing, which in its turn opened with liberal, progressive optimism about the rising tide of political freedom, intellectual emancipation and the triumphs of science. We have more of all of these, to be sure, in the late century, but the path towards them traversed a terrible no-man's-land of war, civil strife and genocide.

These are issues that are difficult for a book of this kind to engage with. The themes are broadly progressive - urbanisation, the physics revolution (where Steven Weinberg's almost impenetrable account is a reminder of how wide is the gulf between what passes as popular science and what scientists are actually doing), the growth of knowledge, global culture, the record of economic growth (expertly outlined here by Robert Skidelsky). There is also a pervasive, if understandable westernism to a great many of the contributions. It is the view of the world from the Oxford combination room, urbane, balanced, intelligent but somehow devoid of passion and experience.

It may well be that the global history of the entire century is just not susceptible to a one-volume treatment. Are there other ways that would get to the heart of the century more effectively? One way might be to approach it through selecting a number of critical issues rather than telling the whole story, much as Mark Mazower did recently in his challenging survey of 20th-century Europe, Dark Continent. There are important questions to be addressed about the century that this collection barely touches on. How was the vast increase in population managed by states and societies often ill-equipped to cope with its implications? Are there broader systemic explanations for the descent into two world wars and the long period of state barbarism that went with it? Why did some racial tensions result in genocide? (This is an area poorly served by the book, where the Holocaust gets a couple of sentences, the Armenians only half of one.) How can western liberalism be squared with the dropping of atomic bombs and the development of an arsenal that could destroy the globe? There are many more questions besides, the answers to which, if answers there are, would illuminate much about the social, cultural and political processes of our century.

Another approach might be to look at the century through the eyes of a wide range of those who experienced it. For example, imagine yourself a Pole born in 1900 under Tsarist rule, surviving to the age of 90, witness to two world wars and the two worst regimes of the century, and to the Holocaust. Or a Chinese doctor supporting Sun Yatsen in 1911, witness to 50 years of upheaval before being compelled to work in the fields as an old man by Mao's Red Guards.

The permutations are, of course, endless, but properly chosen they too,would light up the century and the many different kinds of society in which it was experienced outside the Atlantic axis. The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century gives little sense of the millions of ordinary people who have both made and suffered the history it outlines, a defect compounded by the lack of any chapters on society or social change, on work and leisure, on family and education. The texture of everyday life appears hardly at all. The result is a book less exciting than the century it records.

Richard Overy is professor of modern history, King's College, London.

The Oxford History of the 20th Century

Author - Michael Howard and Wm Roger Louis
Editor - Michael Howard and Wm Roger Louis
ISBN - 0 19 820428 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 458

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