What a disappointment the 20th century has been," lamented Winston Churchill in a speech in 1922. "How terrible and how melancholy is the long series of disastrous events which have darkened its first 20 years. We have seen in every country a dissolution, a weakening of those bonds, a challenge to those principles, a decay of faith, an abridgement of hope, on which the structure and ultimate existence of civilised society ultimately depends. We have seen in every part of the globe one great country after another which had erected an orderly, a peaceful, a prosperous structure of civilised society, relapsing in hideous succession into bankruptcy, barbarism or anarchy."
At the other end of the centennial telescope, the fin-de-si cle orgy of global navel-gazing now under way tends almost inevitably to oscillate between recapitulation and recantation of that precocious lament. Where The Times Atlas of the 20th Century stands on this issue, as on most other issues, is not explicitly stated. It must be inferred from the selection and situation of material on offer in its pantechnic pages. The demand to know where an atlas stands - other than on the shelf - may appear unreasonable. But The Times Atlas is no ordinary atlas, as those familiar with its older brothers will appreciate. In recent years The Times has atlased world history, European history, archaeology, and even the Bible ("an opportunity of appreciating the Bible in a far more comprehensive way than has previously been possible," puffs the Church Times rather puzzlingly).
Like the others, the atlas of the 20th century is by no means silent. The maps themselves are extremely garrulous - and often tipsy on the page - abounding in all manner of marvellously mappable annotations, specifications, delineations, conflagrations. Times atlases, moreover, are not merely books of maps, however luxuriant. A little like those "illustrated histories" from the better class of university press, they also contain a profusion of illustrations, long captions or short capsules of information, topical and biographical ("The Italian Colonial Empire", "The Prague Spring", "Nelson Mandela", "Ayatollah Khomeini"), and, cramped but crucial, an accompanying text: a kind of running commentary, cut into bald, bite-size essays on each double-page spread ("The Spanish civil war", The United Nations", Africa since independence", "Genocide in Europe"). Threaded together, the double-pages make a number of substantial chapters, in this instance five chronological and essentially geopolitical or geo-economic - "The end of the world order", "The world between the wars", "The world at war", "The cold war world", "Towards the new world order" - plus one thematic and essentially social or technological, covering such topics as "Migration", "Disease and health", "Telecommunications", and "Religion".
Given the distinction and variegation of the contributors - Anthony Best, Margaret Byron, Kathleen Burk, Richard Clutterbuck, Lesley France, James Gow, Michael Hendrie, Geoffrey Jones, Ephraim Karsh, Sarah Stockwell, Richard Vinen, and Geoff A. Wilson - to say nothing of the magnificent reach of the editor, Richard Overy, it is a perculiar triumph of this peculiar medium to have produced, or mass-produced a text of remarkable sameness, and, indeed, blandness. The constraints on length in any 200-page book on the century are certainly formidable, and naturally enough this one is fact-packed; but these draconian disciplines are the essence of the exercise. As Michael Ignatieff has recently observed, "history is not pageant, it is argument". Precious little argument finds a place in The Times Atlas of the Twentieth Century. What there is tends to be either unexceptionable (the second world war was a watershed in world history; rapid change is the hallmark of the 20th century) or questionable (firm US resistance forced Moscow to back down in the Cuban missile crisis; the 20th century has witnessed the end of imperialism). The explanation for this argumentative paucity appears to be overweening ambition. Having brand-named the age - the 20th-century phenomenon of corporate vulgarity - The Times Atlas aspires to be an atlas of record: "the definitive account of our century", in the flatulent words on the cover. In fact, it is as partial as any other; more so, indeed, on account of the dirigiste format. Too often it resembles a huge technopageant, both in its production values and in its storyline. In spite of all the suffering so sumptuously recorded in its double-pages, there is something of the comic-strip about it - a morganatic marriage of Dan Dare and Maus. In this high-frontier, high-gloss history, the soul of the machine is slowly but surely squeezed out.
"The truth of our little age is this", wrote Cynthia Ozick in What Henry James Knew in 1993: "no one gives a damn about what Henry James knew. I dare to say our 'little' age not to denigrate (or not only to denigrate), but because we squat over the remnant embers of the last diminishing decade of the dying 20th century, possibily the rottenest of all centuries, and good riddance to it (despite modernism near the start and moonwalking near the middle). The victories over mass murder and mass delusion, West and East, are hardly permanent. 'Never again' is a pointless slogan: old atrocities are models (they give permission) for new ones. The worst reproduces itself; the best is singular. Tyrants, it seems, can be spewed out by the dozens, and their atrocities by the thousands, as by a copy machine; but Kafka, tyranny's symbolist, is like a fingerprint, or like handwriting, not duplicatable. This is what Henry James knew: that civilisation is not bred out of machines, whether the machines are tanks or missiles, or whether they are laser copiers. Civilisation, like art its handmaid (read: handmade), is custom-built." Another truth of our little age is this: what Henry James knew cannot be atlased. Not even by The Times.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
The Times Atlas of the 20th Century
Editor - Richard Overy
ISBN - 0 7240 0766 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 239