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From 1901 to 2000, history flipped

Twentieth Century J.M. Roberts Viking

Like every other profession, history has become the province of specialists. Few generalists have survived the ferocious emphasis on knowing more and more about less and less. J. M. Roberts is a towering exception to this unfortunate trend. A former Warden of Oxford University's Merton College, he has spent his career surveying the broad sweep of historical change. In well-received books such as "The History of Europe" and "History of the World," he has mastered the art of compressing a vast amount of material into a compelling narrative.

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Now, he has turned his attention to our own century. His new book, "Twentieth Century," tells the complicated story of world events of the last 100 years in 900 pages.

Such an encompassing book defies simple summary. Roberts recognizes that history is in fact continuous and that focusing on a century is an artificial and arbitrary convenience. He also acknowledges the imperative to be selective. He chose to assess the events and ideas that have "affected the largest numbers of human beings." With a deft touch, he weaves together diverse strands into a compelling story about changes "of unprecedented scope and scale."

Making sense of this century is not easy. We lack the benefit of perspective. Roberts, however, asserts that this much is already sure: The changes that have occurred during the 20th century have been revolutionary in scale, scope, and intensity.

The world that existed in 1901 was fundamentally different from today. It was Eurocentric and imperialistic, predominantly rural and agrarian, and male-dominated. At the start of this century, most of Africa and Asia were under the control of European powers. Some 300 million Indians, for example, were governed by about 900 British civil servants. The Islamic world in 1901 was relatively insular and isolated. China, Russia, Japan, and the United States were just beginning to emerge onto the world stage.

Now the situation is almost reversed. "A huge recession of alien, white-race rule," Roberts observes, "is one of the most important facts of the history of this century." At the same time, he stresses the paradoxical truth that the same century in which tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot have wreaked havoc has also been "a century of growing personal freedom," rising life expectancy, and material prosperity. In 1999 there are far more people around the world living in freedom and at least modest material comfort than was the case in 1901.

In explaining the profound changes during the 20th century, Roberts recognizes the transforming role played by science, invention, ideas, technology, and mass communication. He also highlights the rise of Bolshevism and fascism, the eventual triumph of democratic capitalism, and the ever-evolving role of women. But Roberts devotes most of his attention to the disruptive carnage and geopolitical reconfigurations wrought by the two world wars. He argues persuasively that they "contributed decisively to the ending of Europe's political, economic, and military supremacy." His succinct explanations of the origins and effects of the wars as well as the onset of the cold war are splendid.

Roberts stipples his narrative with the century's traumas, ironies, and unexpected consequences. Along the way, he provides nuggets of understatement. At one point, for example, he explains that the Bolsheviks resorted to widespread terror and brutality during the Russian civil war because "it was unpleasant for them to think about what would happen to them if they did not win." Later, he observes that "authoritarian states enjoy great flexibility in the conduct of diplomacy."

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The strength of this book lies in its brisk narrative and its attentiveness to regions of the world that Americans rarely study. Yet for all of its capacious coverage, there are a few curious gaps in a book claiming to highlight the events that affected the most people. In discussing World War I, for instance, Roberts fails to mention the Spanish flu epidemic, a global scourge that killed far more than the battlefields.

Occasionally, Roberts's research is shallow. In discussing the evolution of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and its commitment to "contain" communism, he recognizes that such a policy later led to mistaken applications of American power, but explains that "this could hardly have been envisaged at the time." Yet, in fact, the dangers of the containment doctrine were foreseen. Walter Lippmann and several other prescient observers in the late 1940s warned that it would likely produce a dangerous imbalance between the ends and means of foreign policy.

But these quibbles aside, Roberts's new book is the best one-volume history of the world during the 20th century so far. It captures the bewildering energy and pathos of a century that has been horrific, innovative, and inspiring. By describing the pivotal events and personalities that have shaped our present, "The Twentieth Century" helps prepare us for the new century ahead.

*David Shi is the president of Furman University, Greenville, S.C., and the co-author with George Tindall of 'America: a Narrative History' (Norton).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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