Al's Reviews > A History of the 20th Century: Volume Three: 1952-1999

A History of the 20th Century by Martin Gilbert
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May 25, 09

Read in May, 2009

This is a magnificent overview of the last fifty years of the twentieth century by one of Britain's leading historians.

The book is presented in a strictly chronological style, with each chapter covering a specific calendar year. This approach allows the reader to appreciate the flow of events in the order they occurred rather than encountering them within the context of the writer's subsequent interpretation. Despite this, the book does not read as if it were a series of news reports. The historian does interpret, analyse and sift in order to create a coherent narrative of an extradoridany epoch in world history.

An illustration of the benefit of this approach is, for instance, the story of the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We encounter these events in the book in a similar way that many of us experienced them in 1990 and 1991 - as unexpected, dramatic and amazing, rather than as the logical outcome of a totalitarian state facing financial collapse.

The author has been careful to include events from across the world - as far as such an overview will permit. We meet politicians in Asia and Africa who we might otherwise ignore and natural disasters that we may have only vaguely remembered but which affected entire nations.

Themes - of course - do emerge. Among the author's favourites are the ravages of war and political violence in history's bloodiest century, advances in technology and health care set against the backdrop of widespread global poverty, the rise of nationalism, tribalism and ethnic conflict and the rise and fall of communism.

The writer's own interests and biases also come through, though not (to me) in an intrusive way. His regular reports on the incidence of road traffic deaths worldwide is important, for instance. His descriptions of the work of the United Nations are interesting and go beyond the traditional focus on its peacekeeping role. The author also appears to have a positive view of British Prime Minister John Major as well as being a friend, not uncritically, of the state of Israel.

Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, Martin Gilbert could have made more of the growth of radical Islam, which before 9/11 could easily have looked like a side show on the world stage. His analysis of the growth of the environmental movement is often limited to anti-pollution laws passed in the United States and does not appear to have anticipated the major grass roots interest in sustainability that has become a mainstream concern in the first decade of the new century.

These latter issues are minor criticisms, however, in a book that is a treasure of information and analysis. It's extensive index enables the reader to follow discreet topics if one wishes and the book will be of interest to both the general reader and the specialist.

One favourite quote sees the author indulging in just the slightest self-congratulation when describing the events leading up to the first Gulf War. He is quoting President Bush Senior: "In the first few weeks of the crisis, I happened to be reading a book on World War II by the British historian Martin Gilbert. I saw a direct analogy between what was occurring in Kuwait and what the Nazis had done, especially in Poland....I saw a chilling parallel with what the Iraqi occupiers were doing in Kuwait."

I imagined how much fun the author must have had writing that sentence, knowing that his work was influencing world leaders as they pondered major foreign policy responses. One of the spin-offs of being a brilliant historian, I guess.


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