Twentieth-century boy;Book of the week;Features amp; Arts

19th November 1999 at 00:00
A HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: challenge to civilisation 1952-1999. By Martin Gilbert. HarperCollins pound;29.99. The third part of Martin Gilbert's history of the past 100 years weighs in at 1,000 pages. Tom Deveson searches for a plot in the pageant.

Martin Gilbert lays the 20th century to rest in the third volume of his vast work, with 1,000 pages devoted to the past 47 years. Each chapter has the uncompromising title of a single date, and with some recklessness Gilbert has included 1999. The practicalities of publishing mean that he hasn't been able to include the ominous electoral success of the far Right in Austria, the military takeover in Pakistan and whatever else may emerge between the writing of this review and the year's end.

Nonetheless, his more-than-diligent labours are vast and impressive. Gilbert's chronicle scheme deliberately eschews the more thematic strategies of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm who write with a fortifying theory behind them. Insofar as he has a topic, it is implied by the book's title: the ever-renewed struggle for pluralistic democracy against dictatorship and ideological certitude.

This means that more subtle explanatory urges are often held in abeyance; it means too that room is found for an astonishing accounting of places and people. Once important, now half-remembered names - Quemoy and Matsu (tiny islands off the south China coast and a potential spark for EastWest conflict in 1958), former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Lal Bahadur Shastri, prime minister of India between Nehru and Mrs Ghandi - take their brief bow and are replaced. The plot could be clearer, but the pageant is rich and unstoppable.

Three crucial years show the benefits and drawbacks of his method. The 1956 chapter intercuts the events of the year's two most important stories. From Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin, through Imre Nagy's brief attempt to set up a more accountable government in Budapest, to the brutal crushing of the Hungarian struggle by Soviet tanks and the angry eyewitness report in the Daily Worker, we see how turmoil behind the Iron Curtain began and was suppressed.

At the same time, we watch the Suez crisis develop, with Anglo-French collusion leading to serious splits in the Western alliance. Just when a united front against Russian aggression was most needed, the UK and France themselves stood condemned, their credibility critically compromised. The narrative unfolds capably, but little sense lingers of how the year marked a turning point, both in the disillusioned loyalties of western communists and in the perception of Britain's post-imperial role.

That extraordinary year, 1968, is less well handled. Something goes amiss with the chronology, so that Martin Luther King's assassination in April comes after Robert Kennedy's in June and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August. The account thereby misses the growing sense of disgusted desperation that took root as the killing in Vietnam continued, against a backdrop of horrifying events in both East and West.

That even more extraordinary year, 1989, when the Iron Curtain was broken, is hinted at rather than properly anticipated. The Eurocommunist defiance of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Afghanistan, the US's Star Wars plan, the dissembling over Chernobyl, the drive to perestroika under Gorbachev, the mistreatment of dissidents - all this (and much more) is seen as contributing to the final explosion, but somehow the motif itself remains muted. There is little time to reflect on just how (and how stupendously) the Brezhnev Doctrine of military intervention was replaced by the so-called Sinatra Doctrine ("My Way") as an encouragement to the democrats of half a dozen countries.

A similar difficulty encompasses the account of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. It features on many pages as a litany of assassinations, bombings, jihads and edicts, as a force both inspiring suicidal devotion and promoting legislative obduracy, as a cause of civil wars and international tensions, but is not discussed as a circumstance in itself. The historical conundrum of why this multi-faceted religious phenomenon should grow and grow in an age widely predicted to witness the exponential growth of secularism is left unanswered.

In such a massive work, there will always be contradictions, anomalies and occasional errors. Gilbert misspells Wilfred Owen, mentions the death of the photographer Robert Capa twice and extends the Labour party's pre-Blair hold on power from 11 to 15 years. Bertrand Russell is described on page 172 as "pro-Russian", but appears twice more in the book denouncing Soviet nuclear tests and protesting to Khrushchev about the death penalty inflicted on Jewish "speculators". There is an admirable detail to the accounts of the cruelties suffered by many "refuseniks"; their names are given, their stories told. Yet the countless victims of the Biafran war, of Pol Pot and Idi Amin are passed over in shorter space and remain largely anonymous.

Gilbert makes heroic efforts not to forget the individual. He writes inspiringly of those who have survived persecution and those who have laboured on their behalf.

But for all his monumental striving to remind us that humankind has made enormous advances in medicine, social welfare and in life-enhancing technology, the book tells a sombre story of oppression, murder, tyranny and war. Its unspoken motto might come from W H Auden: "Acts of injustice done ... In history lie like bones, each one."

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