This is a bad time to be born

1st August 1997 at 01:00
A History of the Twentieth Century Volume One: 1900-1933. By Martin Gilbert, HarperCollins, #163;30.

The exiled Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, called the 20th century "the most disturbed century within the history of humanity". "Any contemporary of ours who wants peace and comfort above all," he wrote in 1933, where Martin Gilbert ends the first volume of his history, "has chosen a bad time to be born."

The first third of the century had certainly been apocalypti c and the unstable aftermath of the First World War would inexorably lead to war again. Trotsky didn't live to see how comprehensively the new order would fail. Martin Gilbert hardly leaves us guessing, the one thing he can rely on in a history of this century being that his readers know the plot.

His narrative is rigidly chronological, a chapter for each year, augmented by additional chapters called "Roads to War", "War", and "Armistice". The approach has its infelicities: 34 times over - for each year of the period - the writer must decide what to include of developments on the margins of his main theme, such as the economy, technology and the arts.

Sometimes the decisions are bizarre: Picasso appears in 1900, 1901 and 1925, but in 1908, the year he and Braque invented Cubism, he is not there.Descriptions of natural and unnatural disasters (deaths in transit loom large) are also introduced repeatedly and somewhat formulaically.

But it is unfair to focus on what is secondary to Gilbert's real theme. His subject, like Wilfred Owen's, is war, and the pity of war. National aspirations and international negotiations are his cantos, and the tragic intransigences, great and small, which led to the break down of co-existence and the taking up of arms.

His account of the First World War maintains a brilliant perspective on its truly global nature while recording in painstaking and painful detail the sufferings of those caught in it. He plots the entries and exits of the powers - Russia, Japan, Italy, Turkey, the United States - and developments of technology. In 1916 the first tanks rolled in to the Western Front, and the first convoys escorted troops and supplies to beat the German blockade. The Maxim gun, which, as British soldiers fighting imperial wars had famously reminded themselves "We have got, which they have not", was supplanted by the machine gun.

Nothing, it seemed, could be the same again after 1918. Gilbert sees the 20th century as overwhelmingly characterised by clashing ideologies and clashing arms, a century of arrogant empires and their dismemberment. By 1920, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Romanov and German empires had all vanished. Other empires replaced them. And how like the beginning of the century the end of it has become in the Balkans, for so long, apparently, part of the lost pre-1914 world. But the keynote struck in 1903 when King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia were murdered in Belgrade still resonates, against the same background of national aspiration and continuing cultural differences bequeathed by long years of Turkish and Austrian domination.

The end of a century is always the occasion for reflection on change and progress. The narrative pauses, for the moment, in 1933, a year pregnant with promise and threat.

Early in March, Roosevelt had injected confidence into a nation, telling his fellow Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. In the same month in Germany, Hitler passed a law "for Alleviating the Distress of the People and Reich". But it was not what it seemed. Otherwise known as the Enabling Law, it allowed Hitler to do, with a veneer of constitutionalism, anything he liked.

In the Soviet Union, the year saw Stalin's modernisation programme make progress, but on the backs of hundreds of thousands of forced labourers. Already a new abyss was gaping; Gilbert's second volume will take us over the edge.

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