The definitive history of the Twentieth Century can't be written until all the participants are dead and buried, but seeing as how we'll miss that, we have to make do with a few interim works.
One series that looks promising is the three volume History of the Twentieth Century by Martin Gilbert. So far, I've only been able to find Volume One (1900-1933), but I'm sure the other two will appear at my book stores any day now. In any case, don't be frightened by its size because it is quite well-written and extremely readable, in addition to offering a vast amount of detail.
One of the problems in reading about history rather than living it is that we lose the feelings of uncertainty and the distractions of daily life that attend real events. For example, having lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember wondering and worrying what might happen next, whether each new trend would continue, or crash, or veer sharply off-course. Many history books sacrifice this storytelling sense of personal involvement, but Gilbert's History of the Twentieth Century brings it to the forefront by arranging the events of the 20th Century in strict chronological order. Rather than discussing, say, the rise of the Nazi Party in a single chapter on the subject, the story is spread out year by year, interrupted here and there with treaties, economics and riots that have nothing at all to do with it, so we can almost see it through the eyes of contemporaries. He makes us feel the length of events like the First World War, by paying attention to the details, often by focusing on the experiences of the same individuals over and over again as they pass through the major events of the era.
Once you've mastered the Woodstock and Watergate details of the Twentieth Century, you'll probably want a more analytical work to put it all in perspective. The best I've seen so far is The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm.
Hobsbawm breaks the century down to its trends and patterns, beginning when the old world was swept away by the First World War in 1914, and ending with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between these two bookends, we find smaller divisions: The Age of Catastrophe (1914-45), two world wars separated by a total economic collapse; the Golden Age (1945-73), the longest economic boom in recent history; and finally, the Landslide (1973-91), during which so much of what defined the century collapsed.
The details of Hobsbawm's work are not the names and dates of presidents and battles; his details are the social changes unleashed by the century, such as the disappearence of the peasantry in the industrialized world, or underlying causes of the Cold War, or the increasing availability of higher education.
This might be an insultingly obvious piece of advice, but if you really want to understand the past, there comes a time to put down the history books that were written last year and actually start reading what was written at the time.
For example, we've all been trained to view the past as irredeemably racist, so it was quite a surprise for me to look into the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and see this in the article for Portugal:
"No European race confronted with the problem of an immense coloured population has solved it more successfully than the Portuguese and their kinsmen in Brazil; in both countries intermarriage was freely resorted to, and the offspring of these mixed unions are superior in character and intelligence to most half-breeds."
The last clause rankles a bit, partly from changing semantics -- no one would use "half-breed" today except as an insult -- and partly because it presumes that that some races actually have character and intelligence superior to others; however, this passage contains far more praise for intermarriage ("solved successfully", "superior") than I would have expected from a mainstream Anglo-Saxon authority at the dawn of the Century.
For another example -- in the gigantic Europe: A History, published in 1998 and currently featured prominently in many book stores, Norman Davies writes:
"At the very same time that the Soviet Union was extending and consolidating its empire over the peoples of Eastern Europe, the imperial governments of Western Europe were desperately seeking means to dismantle theirs. For some reason, these twin aspects of European imperialism are rarely discussed under the same heading."
A few day after reading this, I was surprised to discover this in John Gunther's 1955 bestseller Inside Africa:
The New York Times (July 29, 1954) mentions that the colonial powers have given freedom and independence "to 600,000,000 people at the same time that Communists enslaved a like number."
Now, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that when a bestselling book quotes the nation's leading newspaper, this is not "rarely discussed".
Now that I mention it, I would heartily recommend any of Gunther's "Inside" books. They are well-written and well-researched, and because they sold so well in their day, you can easily find them in bulk at any second-hand book store.
Part of the joy of Gunther is the discovery of little ironies. In Inside USA (1946), the recent election of John F. Kennedy to Congress appears as a footnote in the discussion of his more prominent father. Gunther also declares that "Earl Warren [at the time, the governor of California] is honest, likeable and clean; he will never set the world on fire or even make it smoke; he has the limitations of all Americans of his type with little intellectual background, little genuine depth or coherent political philosophy.... a man with nothing of a grand line and little inner force..." There's more, but you get the drift. He completely missed the fact that Earl Warren, later Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, is the man who -- for good or ill (usually good) -- is probably more responsible than any other individual for the changes that we've seen in American society over the last 50 years.
More importantly, however, John Gunther had a knack for being in place just before great changes swept away the old order. He describes lost worlds in their final years -- Europe on the eve of the Second World War, colonial Africa, warlord China, imperial India, the United States in the era of machine politics and Jim Crow -- and by reading his books, we can get a strong sense of the unpredictability of history. There's nothing really obvious or inevitable about the future, and slight nudges could have sent the world spinning off in a drastically different direction. Inside USA (1947) describes the day-to-day workings of racial segregation in America, and mentions a few places where the wall is slowly eroding, but the book flounders on the problem of how to get rid of it entirely. The overall mood is that, unfortunately, segregation will persist for a long, long time, and there's not the slightest hint that it would all be gone within twenty years [n.1].
I don't mean to trash Gunther for being so entertainingly wrong so many times, but rather to point out that he captured the mood of the era, and that most people in positions of power were planning for the future and making decisions based on assessments similar to Gunther's. Inside Europe (1938) anticipates that a second World War will soon be fought against Hitler, but Gunther (and most importantly, his high-level government sources) expect that France can hold him in check. Inside Africa (1955) expects that the Europeans will maintain their colonies into the foreseeable future -- with either greater autonomy (if British) or gradual incorporation into the motherland (if French), but probably not independence for a long time.
If we study the past in order to help us create the future, it's important to see that we've failed before, and the future isn't what it used to be.
FAQ: You're wrong. It's been more than 20 years since Inside USA, and we still haven't achieved racial equality.
A: Maybe so, but if you can't recognize the important changes that occurred in the years 1947-67, then look again at how it was before.
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Last updated October 1998
Copyright © 1998 Matthew White