The production of general histories of Europe's 20th century has become something of an industry in recent years, and a very productive one. Even before the century was over, we had two fine texts, in Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes and Mark Mazower's Dark Continent . Now Richard Vinen, known for his work on modern France, offers us A History in Fragments , which holds its own in this distinguished company.
A History in Fragments seems a title for an ideal postmodern history text, appropriate for a century in which grand historical narratives appear to have been overtaken by events. The organising ideas that framed earlier attempts to make sense of Europe's tumultuous recent past - socialism versus capitalism, individualism versus collectivism, the rise and fall of modernism, civilisation and barbarism, democratisation - have been undermined. Vinen deals with them all but privileges none. He neither explicitly engages with theoretical approaches nor does he refer much to the historiography. Instead, he observes: "Now everything is more complicated. There is no single European history but multiple histories that overlap and intertwine with each other."
Although Vinen admits that his choices of what to include may have been somewhat arbitrary, his text is broadly thematic and framed within fairly conventional chronological divides, and France and Britain get a lot of attention. The book is laid out in digestible chapters, each with its own conclusion.
Altogether, this is a lucid discussion of a complex subject. From the opening pages, which contain a thoughtful discussion of European emigration, to the closing pages, in which Vinen discusses "sexual revolutions" and debunks the idea of the "new politics", the book is filled with fascinating observations and vignettes culled from the best of recent English and French-language research.
The discussions about women and the family are excellent; the reflective treatment of the period before the outbreak of the first world war avoids the trap of viewing the pre-1914 period as an idyllic period of stability; and the observations about changing business practices are perceptive.
Of particular note are the illustrations: not the standard images so often used as wallpaper, but an intriguing collection of photos arranged as a thoughtful photographic essay.
Some subjects - such as old age and taxation - are not covered as perhaps they should be, but no volume of this sort can cover everything. Vinen seems more sure of himself when writing about France and Britain than when writing about Germany and Russia, and occasionally he does put a foot wrong. In the first world war, Germany did not succeed in "holding territory in the Russian Empire that exceeded anything Hitler was to gain in the second world war"; and Vinen writes of "Sweden's relatively recent secession from Norway", rather than the other way round.
The one significant place where his text seems inadequate is the chapter on "genocide', which in fact is about just the Holocaust. Here Vinen attempts, on the basis of a tiny fraction of a vast literature, to sandwich a short narrative into a volume characterised elsewhere by clever, telling examples. But the murder of the Jews is not a story that lends itself to being slotted into a "history in fragments".
So does Vinen's histoire pointilliste allow us a perspective from which we may perceive a clear picture? Vinen does not share Hobsbawm's pessimism about Europe and the world after 1991, and he ends his book with a rather upbeat "sort of conclusion". Nevertheless, his relative optimism does not bracket out the horrors of Europe's 20th century, and he concludes with the "uncomfortable truth" that Europe's "20th century is a bloc and the success of liberalism and democracy at the end of the century cannot be separated from the terror and dictatorship in the middle part of the century". This, perhaps, is where the "fragments" come together. "Everything is more complicated" - yet at the end of the 20th century, most Europeans are better off in almost every way than were their forebears in the first half of the century. The harvest of the second half of the century was fertilised by the bones of the first.
Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history, University of York.
A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century
Author - Richard Vinen
ISBN - 0 316 85374 7 and 0 349 11269 5
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 724