Into battle with massed prose

A History of the 20th Century
January 16, 1998

What is to be done with Martin Gilbert? After the huge histories of the second world war and the first world war comes the first of three volumes on the 20th century to greet the millennium. All of them follow the same remorseless pattern: a disjointed, quirky chronicle, barren of serious historical explanation. Scholars shun them; the public buys them in hundreds of thousands. Does the public know better? Clearly publishers and booksellers think so. "The Definitive History of the Century" runs one advertisement, "by its greatest historian".

Academic snobbery about Gilbert can backfire. Sniping from behind footnotes and theories, professional historians expose themselves to the accusations of elitism and detachment (to say nothing of baser envy) that could not in any sense be directed at Gilbert. His enthusiasm for place and physical context and the oddities of the human condition make him immediately accessible and sympathetic for the wider reading public. Gilbert has become a people's historian writing, we suppose, people's history.

By this measurement his opening volume on the century is a disaster. It is as usual full of illuminating anecdotes, odd corners of history, apparently bizarre coincidences, telling quotations, but it makes little pretence at putting them in an order that will make much sense to a lay reader. A good historical general knowledge is a necessary precondition for getting anything much out of the text. Some detailed familiarity with the war and the politics of the period is a requirement for any higher level of understanding. The reader is presented with a quite bewildering array of fact upon fact in a text so dense that only the most dogged explorer will follow Gilbert all the way.

The density is made worse by the decision to follow the century a year at a time, and to try to cover in a cursory and descriptive way as much of the globe as can be crammed into an average of 25 pages a year. This pattern was Gilbert's deliberate choice. In a brief introduction he warns the reader that this is a history that follows his personal preferences. Gilbert colludes with his chronology in including and excluding what he likes, and not what the history might warrant. There is here an arrogance that belies the popularist image. An author more sensitive to his public might do it the service of supplying a story of the century less subjectively idiosyncratic than this.

To be sure Gilbert cannot avoid saying something about the nature of the project he is embarked on but what he has to say is banal to an exaggerated degree ( "the ever-changing, ever-renewing drama of the world stage", "the culmination of centuries of political and social evolution"). He concludes that the century he is sketching is "the century of war", but he does so through a simple tautology: wars occur throughout the century therefore it is a century of war. Aside from the self-evident objection that no century of human history has not been a century of war Gilbert arrives at the conclusion only because it is war and civil war, indeed any event even scarred with violence, that interests him. They crop up page after page; they are vivid, sanguinary, the stuff of popular history perhaps. But the result is a narrative that is devoid of so many other areas of human experience that we end up with a mere epiphenomenal gloss, a kind of literary trompe l'oeil, surfaces rather than depths.

The idea of the 20th century as a "century of war" could be defended only if Gilbert moved beyond mere description. If war is its central and defining feature even the most casual reader might want to know why. He will look in vain here for the causal link. The rise of mass politics, the forces generating a violent and confrontational nationalism, the dissolution of the European imperial order worldwide, the changing character of military technology and military deployment might be inferred from the bits of the story that Gilbert gives us, but they are never confronted directly.

Gilbert might well object that he has chosen not to write this kind of history and should not be admonished for it. The nature of history writing is once again a subject of hot debate. The revolt against theory and "discourse", bete noire of the practical chronicler, opens the way to old-fashioned story-telling. The problem is that Gilbert does not do this very well either. The story is constantly fractured, the links between the vignettes are platitudinous and unhelpful:"In that respect 1914 mirrored the previous 14 years of the century"; or a real gem, "the growing fervour of the masses of the population, themselves drawn from every segment of each societyI". Above all the story is patchy to the point of being threadbare. How can the history of the first third of the century be written with almost no culture, no science, little musical history, an invisible economy (the greatest slump of the century in 1929 is explained by a fall in timber and grain prices). During this period Einstein produced the theory of relativity; the electron was identified (in 1897) and harnessed; the foundations of atomic physics were revolutionised. They are absent from this account. So too are most of the most historically significant writers and artists - no Marinetti, no Kandinsky, no Yeats, no Gropius, no Brecht, no Spengler, no Gramsci, no Nietzsche, whose death in 1900 did not diminish the huge debt owed by 20th-century culture and psychology to his insights - and so on. Beyond Europe even the sparse treatment meted out to European culture and ideas evaporates.

The least that might be expected from a chronicle is facts and dates but even here too many errors slip through. Bosnia-Herzegovina came under Austrian domination not two decades before 1914, but 36 years. Von Jagow was not "secretary of state" (an American office) but foreign minister. Serbia was surely threatened along her exposed western, not eastern frontier. In 1932 there is even "rising inflation" in Germany at the very depths of the price slump, and so on. Even in its own terms the chronicle lacks factual precision and completeness. The most that might be said for it is that Gilbert has given us a good read, but alas, this is the ultimate deficiency. The prose is leaden and portentous, full of "would become" and "continued to", and the reader will thank God for the many quotations from Winston Churchill which pepper Gilbert's history.

The final judgement on this first volume is unambiguously glum. This view is not merely the product of academic conceit but of real concern for the nature of the popular history that this volume purports to represent. There will be more to come. Gilbert completes the first book in his trilogy with a typical flourish: "The question so often asked was, would the forces of liberalism and parliamentary democracy, of equality before the law, and of reasonable debate, be able to make headway against the forces of dictatorship and terror? Would one system or the other prevail, or would the world remain divided into two vastly different systems?" Who knows?

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

A History of the 20th Century: Volume One, 1900-33

Author - Martin Gilbert
ISBN - 0 00 215867 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments