Just Finished Reading: Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm (FP: 1994)
I like reading a truly general history book from time to time. Delving into individual historical events or characters in any great depth is a must but you also need the wider context onto which individual aspects of history can hang giving the whole thing a much broader narrative structure – without such a structure history truly is just one damned thing after another. Well, if you’re looking for a sweeping narrative of the 20th century (or at least most of it) you can pick up much worse books than this one.
Despite its size (my edition was a large format paperback of just under 600 pages which would’ve probably been closer to 850 pages in normal size) such a book – even written by an excellent historian at the top of his game – can hardly do justice to something as complex as the 20th century which was (truly) an age of extremes. Quite rightly the author makes no such attempt. What he does do is to pick out themes, trends and ‘must see’ events which defined the 20th century and are still shaping the present one. The three events he points to – without a knowledge of which the 20th century simply cannot be understood – are World War 1, The Russian Revolution and the financial Crash of 1929. With such a knowledge – and the deeper the better – much of the last century becomes explicable.
Surprisingly, for a book covering this time frame, precious few pages focus on either World War 1 or Wold War 2. What the author is interested to point out is how the first led to the second and how the fallout from both created their subsequent worlds of the interwar collapse of Empire and the Cold War. What came from both, naturally, where a series of revolts, revolutions and the shaking off of Imperial ambition. The 20th century was a time of liberation and nationalism across Europe, Africa, the Far East and South America. Whilst some experiments in independence fizzled and died others defined a generation and helped to create unrest elsewhere. Above all else the processes at work in the world became increasingly global in reach and consequence. Globalisation of political ideology went hand-in-hand with globalisation of trade and the movement of peoples.
Of course the dominant contest in the second half of the century was the Cold War which fortunately never went ‘hot’ despite deep-seated fears on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Not surprising, given the authors Marxist credentials, a great deal of time is sent on both the Soviet Union and Communist China. However, the author is far from unreflective and both systems hardly get a free ride in his analysis of their many systemic faults and the collapse of the Soviet system is gone into in great details.
As difficult it is for a world class historian to precis the 20th century I do not intend giving even a hint of a precis of this valuable contribution to understanding the modern world. Naturally much detail is left out but a much more needed analysis takes its place. This is a book about the currents of history and about where those currents took and continue to take us. It is, above all else, a book of context, a place or device enabling the hanging of detailed events in a much broader background perspective. Here, with some reading around the subject and some delving into individual events you can begin to understand the Why of history rather than the How of history. Definitely recommended for anyone wanting access to the bigger picture.
Up next in History: 3 Battles that Made Britain – although somewhat interrupted by some special guests.