If we removed all the page numbers from War and Peace, it would not take anything away from the meaning of the novel. Nor would restoring the numbers deepen the story. The numbers are there to help us return to a passage in an artifact to whose meaning they are irrelevant. When different editions of Tolstoy’s Russian novel, or of its translations, make Peter’s words show up on differently numbered pages, the words are unaffected. The numbering of years and centuries and millennia is as arbitrary a way of flagging reality as is pagination. The flow of life is not deeply altered by the fact that December 31 is assigned to one year, January 1 to another—or by saying that we are twentieth-century creatures now but will become twenty-first- centuryites in five (or in seventeen) months. Reality does not come to us in neatly labeled packages. We impose the labels. Even our talk of “this century” is a Eurocentric convention, ignoring the existence of other calendars in China or Thailand. It was comparatively recently that parts of Europe itself ceased having two calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian (Russia did not give up the former until 1917, and Greece not till 1923). Farther back in time, Europe began the new year in March, not January. What happened on either date was not altered by what was no more than a different “page number.”
One attempt to escape arbitrary units simply reifies in a more drastic way some stretch of time as an entity. I have been told, for instance, that the “real” 1960s, as opposed to the calendar 1960s, ran from (say) 1963, from Dr. King’s March on Washington and President Kennedy’s assassination, to 1974, to American withdrawal from Vietnam and the Watergate investigations. But for whom was this time unit the reality? Not, presumably, for a poor mother in Africa, who could not care much about America’s designs on Vietnam.
As some people search for the “real” Sixties, others now want to define the “real” twentieth century. The most famous of these is the respected historian Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes, a book he published in 1994. He could analyze the period so early since his twentieth century runs only from 1914 to 1991, a “short century” to go with his “long nineteenth century,” described in an earlier trilogy—a century which ran from the 1780s to 1914. That long period, Hobsbawm claimed, was an age of “revolution, capital, and empire.” Our later, shorter time is just an age of “extremes,” concluded by the fall of the Soviet Empire. Naming these periods as if they were single things is a dubious exercise. The eighteenth century, called by many the age of reason, was as much a time of Pamela’s tears and Rousseau’s sentiment as of Newton’s Optics. The Romantic Era, so called, was the time when science and the industrial revolution radically reshaped lives.
Generalizations can mislead us not only about the past but about the very time we are living in and experiencing—as when people accept the assurance that ours is a secular age, though it is subject to waves of mystical, fundamentalist, and plain fanatical belief, often in the closest union with the tools of modernization (as Alan Ryan notices in his shrewd contribution to The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century). Hobsbawm, believing in the triumph of secularism, just ignores or minimizes such aberrations.
Despite these problems with encompassing the concrete evidence of time’s passage, the modern mass media continue the game of name-that-century or name-that-decade, as if they were playing the old radio game “Name That Tune.” But when a contestant identified a Cole Porter song and gave its name—“Night and Day,” let us suppose—he or she was just recalling a thing already composed and entitled. Naming a decade means inventing a single label for a stretch of time not created by a single composer. The results, it should be no surprise, are more misleading than helpful. We talk of the Conformist Fifties, yet that was the era of beat poets and “existential” coffee shops, of folk singers and Elvis, of James Dean and Marlon Brando, of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott. And if the 1960s were so radical, how did the combined vote for Nixon-Agnew and Wallace-LeMay total 57 percent of the electorate in 1968? Clearly most of the electorate was conservative, if not reactionary.
If it is so hard to impose a single ethos or pattern on a decade, what hope can we have of imposing a shape on all the events of a century? Rather than seek a separable “real” century as Hobsbawm does, it may be better just to let the very arbitrariness of the numbers serve—as page numbers do—to flag the most measurable differences between, say, page 1900 and page 2000. In this approach, it does not matter whether one is choosing page 1900 or 1914 (or 1890) to begin with. The aim is not to identify turning points or test what was “real” in some predetermined way, but to let the most tangible differences leap out—irrespective of where one begins, so long as the period treated is extensive enough for the scale of change to be obvious. For this purpose, a century is a conveniently large chunk of time.
What obvious differences are there between human life in 1900 and in 2000? The clearest difference is that there is more of human life, well over three times more, a rate of population growth unlike any that preceded it. Not only are more people here; they can expect to stay here longer. The normal life span in industrial countries grew from forty-five to seventy-five in this century. The growth in poorer countries lagged, of course, but the rate of increase was even greater because the starting point was so low—from twenty-five years in 1900 to sixty-three in 1985. Infant mortality has declined, and a woman’s risk of death by childbirth is forty times less since 1940.
The obvious reason for these changes is the impact, at many levels, of science and technology. Science has changed food production as radically as technology has improved its distribution. Disease control has benefited from medical research, from the technologies for applying the results of that research, from systematized sanitation, from the regulatory sophistication of the Food and Drug Administration, and from the organizational tools of groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.
Science has not only increased the numbers of people and the years they can live. It has rearranged the patterns of that living. Agricultural advances have changed humankind from being primarily rural to being primarily urban in less than a hundred years. In 1900 only Great Britain had less than half of its people working the land. Now that is true of almost every country. At the beginning of the century approximately 90 percent of the world’s population lived outside cities, mainly on farms. Now less than half of it does; and the rate of migration from the land is greatest in the less-industrialized southern sector of the globe, which is playing catch-up to trends that have already remade the northern tier of nations.
City complexes, with their rapidly changing functions as nodes of technological sophistication and services, grow exponentially, not least in the third world, which now contains eight of the thirteen cities with populations over ten million. In black Africa, major cities are increasing their population by 10 percent a year. Kinshasa has added from five to eight million people (no one can keep count) in just two generations. The most rural countries are now creating vast cities. Cairo acquires a thousand new inhabitants a day. India, whose few cities were small in 1900, now has three of them (Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay) with more than ten million inhabitants. Australia, thinly populated, has seen explosive growth in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane. Kenneth T. Jackson, in The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century, calls Africa’s “the fastest rate of urbanization ever recorded” and urbanization “the most powerful of the world’s demographic trends.”
Population has shifted not only between rural and urban sectors within continents but in terms of the balance of people between continents. As recently as 1850, Europe had double the population (400 million) of every other major region on the earth. But by 1900, India and China had far surpassed Europe, with two billion people, a third of the people living on the globe. Even sub-Saharan Africa had a larger population than Europe, and Latin America and Southeast Asia would soon equal it. In 1975, for the first time, a majority of the world’s people lived in the nonindustrialized countries.
This population shift went along with an even more dramatic power shift. In the first half of the century, the world’s major political reality was European colonialism. Britain’s domain covered a quarter of the earth’s surface. India alone would have been roomy enough for any nation to control. But Britain also held—besides its strong influence in white Commonwealth powers like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—imperial supremacy in three widely distant areas. In the American hemisphere, its colonies were Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana, Honduras, the Leewards, the Windwards, the Bahamas, and Bermuda. In the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Indian Ocean region, its holdings were Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Palestine, Jordan, Aden, the Gulf protectorates, Ceylon, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. In Africa, its writ ran in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Sudan, British Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Northern Rhodesia.
The French Empire included even more of Africa than Britain’s did—Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, the Congo, Mauritania, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Dahomey, French Sudan, French Guinea, Upper Volta, Niger, Chad, Gabon, the Middle Congo, Ubangui Chari, and French Somaliland. Its Caribbean empire included Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana. In Asia it held Indochina, in the Middle East Syria and Lebanon, in the Pacific Tahiti and New Caledonia, in the Indian Ocean Madagascar, and off Newfoundland the fishing bases of St. Pierre-et-Miquelon.
The Dutch Empire held the vast archipelago of Indonesia, with its 13,000 islands. Belgium had the Congo. Portugal had Angola and Mozambique in Africa, along with Goa, Macao, and Timor in the Far East. Italy’s African empire was composed of Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland. Earlier in the century, the German and Habsburg empires were broken up. Just to list the parts of the world formerly held by Europe shows how much history, and what diverse worldwide grievances, we carry around so casually in an adjective like “Eurocentric.” It also tells us what wrenching changes had to take place for us to refer to ours as a “postcolonial” world.
Nor were Europeans the only ones to lose empires in this century. After World War I, the Ottoman and Romanov empires were dismantled. After World War II, the Japanese lost Korea and Manchuria. The United States gave up the Philippines and the Canal Zone. More recently, the Soviet Union came apart. The world is not hospitable to colonialism. The concomitant to this breakup of empires was the astonishingly rapid proliferation of new nations. If population has tripled in this century, the number of separate countries has more than tripled—from about 50 in 1900 to about 180 at present, with fissiparous pressures still building in many places. The twenty years of decolonization after World War II produced 100 new nations to be accommodated in the UN (or, worse, to thrash about outside it).
Almost all these nations are, nominally at least, democracies. Though most countries in the early part of this century still had kings—seven of them, on various thrones, the grandchildren of Queen Victoria—monarchy has been as discredited as empire. Authority, it is felt, can be legitimated only from below, not from above. The failure of empire loosened the hold of racist theories that had always accompanied it. Theodore Roosevelt, the American champion of imperialism, had contempt for blacks (“a perfectly stupid race”), Indians, and Chinese (admitting them to America in any numbers would be “race suicide”). Winston Churchill, on the other side of the Atlantic, argued for mandatory sterilization of 100,000 “mental degenerates” who posed “a national and race danger.” The shrinking number of white people on earth, and their shrinking bases of power, make it hard to maintain these cruel dogmas.
The national and international challenges to authority were bound to affect private, voluntary, and domestic life as well. The changes so far noticed all affect the structure of the family. The rural family was a discrete unit, relatively contained, its children a workforce with a vertical (patriar-chal) relation to mother (intermediately) and to father (ultimately). Urban living calls for fewer children, for more intensive and extended education outside the family, for horizontal ties of adults with adults for work and entertainment and of the young with the young for education and companionship and entertainment. Education is both extended in duration and expanding in inclusiveness. In the 1970s alone, “the number of the world’s universities more than doubled,” as Hobsbawm notes. The number of college students in Europe increased seven- to ninefold in Spain and Norway, five- to sevenfold in Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Italy. Even in the less industrialized nations, the numbers shot up. Before World War II, even countries like Britain and Germany had only one tenth of one percent of their total population in universities. Now, 3.2 percent attend in Ecuador, 2.7 in the Philippines, 2 percent in Peru.
The time invested in education delays children’s entrance into horizontal relations with adult workers and prolongs a period that creates, to fill the gap, a “youth culture.” This culture is no longer a mere transit from point to point but a large and growing part of a person’s life, demanding its own measure of fulfillment. Servicing this time of life—with education, activities, music, fashions, and diversions—is a large commercial project. The horizontal ties formed within it are now worldwide, as was proved when ripples from the 1968 student uprising in Paris spread to the young around the globe. Besides, young people’s education and experience are now so different from those of their elders that the young can reverse certain old patterns of learning, since they sometimes know more about modern discoveries and technology than their parents. (My children have to show me how computers work.)
It is an apparent paradox, but only apparent, that our population growth is accompanied by a declining birth rate. With lower infant mortality, there is no need to assure descendants by multiple births. Urban costs and crowding penalize large families. Extended education is not affordable for many offspring. Improved contraception and abortion procedures make it easier to limit families. Reduced urgency to beget children affects the outlook and role of women, whose task becomes less the bearing and raising of children and more the raising of extra money to educate the ones that have been borne. The undermining of patriarchal authority frees not only children from patriarchy’s vertical authority structure, but women as well.
Women began this century excluded from politics and virtually excluded from most professions. They had limited property rights and few forms of legal equality with men. The change in their status, accelerating dramatically over the last thirty years, has no parallel in history. And to change the status of women is to invade the most intimate nexus of society, its central node—the relation of husband with wife, mother with child, sister with sibling, female worker with colleague. The decolonization of society reaches its most potentially disorienting level here, where the nature of authority is recast. As the horizontal relations of the parents with their peers float freer of the horizontal activities of their children, diversity and choice are sought by men as well as women, leading to the skyrocketing rates of divorce, or of cohabitation without marriage. Divorces in Britain increased five times over between 1960 and 1980. Half the children born in America during the 1970s saw their parents divorce before they reached the age of sixteen.
These are some of the most obviously measurable changes that have occurred over the last one hundred years. They affected (and were affected by) the century’s events—our wars and ideologies, religions and philosophies, businesses and labor, arts and sciences, fashions and sports. But how are the relations of all these things to be traced in any detail over the arc of these years? A single pattern would be hopelessly reductive. And so, probably, would a single narrative. Yet some writers have attempted a narrative synthesis. Others, despairing of that, take an analytic approach, giving separate treatment to different aspects of the period. Still others—most of those trying to make a commercially useful product—simply chronicle the century’s passing years. I have a table piled high with examples of these approaches.
Despite the reservations I have expressed about his book, Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes is a master historian’s synthesis. It weighs factors judiciously, relates events economically, and throws new light on everything it treats. It is written with clarity, conviction, and wit. It is narrative history of a very high order. There is real passion in his description of the horrible wars of this century, which go far to justify his label for this as an “age of extremes.” Hobsbawm arranges his mass of materials as a drama—a tragedy, to judge from its unhappy ending—in three acts: The Age of Catastrophe (1917-1945), The Golden Age (1945-1973), The Landslide (1973-1993). Admittedly he does not confine his story to his three main themes with rigidity; but they are the leading motifs nonetheless.
The Age of Catastrophe is marked by the breakdown of the liberal dream of the nineteenth century, signaled primarily by the capitalist crisis of the Great Slump. Liberalism’s failure gave rise to the socialist dream, strengthened by the fact that the Soviet Union, thanks in part to its isolation from other parts of the world economy, escaped the worst effects of the Slump. Visitors to the Soviet Union who saw a revolution “working” were not simply blinded by ideology. They were reacting to the fact that “during the 1930s, the rate of growth of the Soviet economy outpaced all other countries except Japan.” An anti-bourgeois avant garde in the arts further delegitimated liberal ideals, but fed the fears that led to a rise of dictators (a process on which Hobsbawm is especially good).
The Golden Age, in this scheme, reflects the postwar prosperity of an American-led economy and the hopeful birth of new nations out of the falling empires. Capitalism recovered its balance by tempering laissez faire with regulation and controls. The socialist ideal was rekindled in the third world, only to crash with the fall of the Soviet Empire at the end of the period. Renewed troubles in capitalism combine with that fall to deprive the current world of any coherent project, leading to Hobsbawm’s gloomy current assessment of the Landslide.
Why did the socialist revolution, in which Hobsbawm had invested his own hopes, fail so dramatically? He believes that the Soviet Union’s leadership was a disaster from the outset. The revolution occurred in the wrong place (rural Russia, not industrial Germany) and adopted the wrong tactics for its spread (secret cadres rather than open organization of the workers). The superficiality of communism’s hold on the mass of people in its regimes is reflected in the suddenness of its disappearance when the Party elite failed. Hobsbawm tempers his great historical disappointment with the reflection that the revolution saved capitalism’s bacon—first by the huge Soviet sacrifices that made the defeat of Hitler possible, and then by so scaring the West that it had to modulate its economies with regulation.
The gloominess of Hobsbawm’s reading of this century is matched or surpassed by a very different kind of book, Modern Times, Modern Places, by the Australian writer Peter Conrad. Though this purports to be a history only of the arts, Conrad interprets their context in such a way that the whole history of the period is encompassed—or at least one very jaundiced view of the period is sketched in. He gets a running start by beginning with the pessimism of the nineteenth century’s fin-de-siècle art. This whimpering end was an appropriate continuation from Impressionism, that bright and sunny movement that, Conrad declares, “elegiacally blinked at life through a waterfall of tears.” The twentieth century began with a tragic heritage: “The execution of the gods was the nineteenth century’s most splendidly arrogant achievement.” This sets the tone for what follows. Modernism is treated as “a systematic assault on reality.” Freud provided a patent medicine by which therapists “administered doses of conformity, unkinking heads as if nipping and tucking double chins.”
Each successive art form of the century is made to provide its dreary testimony to human failure. Conrad is especially harsh on “cinema’s burgling of our unconscious minds.” Chaplin was a nihilist who showed his true colors in Monsieur Verdoux: “The common man had incubated a monster.” The Bogart character in Casablanca is such a cynic that he will not join up with the Resistance after the movie ends: “Why should he contribute to the ‘hill of beans’?” Conrad, whose previous book was on opera (A Song of Love and Death), makes of the century one prolonged fit of hysteria, matching his style to the occasion. His overwrought prose produces things like this description of Marlene Dietrich’s character in The Blue Angel: “She is a pianola frantically pedaled by men, and asks them only to indulge her with an occasional pianissimo.” One ends the book with the same demand.
One goes from extreme subjectivity in Conrad to what might be considered extreme objectivity in J.A.S. Grenville’s A History of the World in the Twentieth Century. It is laid out like a textbook, but of an old-fashioned sort, concerned mainly with politics and war. There is little on the social changes I have mentioned. The status of women is mentioned when they gain the suffrage. The challenge of overpopulation merits one paragraph in a book of 973 large pages with dense printing. Interpretation is kept to a minimum. On controversial matters (the dropping of the atom bomb, for instance, or the Cuban missile crisis), Grenville accepts the official line of the Truman or Kennedy administrations. Statistics are used mainly for GNP and trade. It is not a book one goes to for ideas or good prose, but its low price and inclusiveness make it useful for those of us who have trouble keeping straight the political chronology of every country in Africa or Latin America.
Though Peter Jennings’s book is called The Century, it is really about Americans’ experience of the century. Events elsewhere enter into the book only when they are recalled by Americans who fought abroad, or escaped from other countries. Hatched in conjunction with an ABC and History Channel series of the same name, it reflects television’s need for faces and voices. Boxed page-long interviews with “participants” in history are strung together with a connective tissue of narrative (pedestrian) and pictures (wonderful). According to the layout of the interview pages, a person’s account can run from 900 to 1,300 words. A few (like Oliver North’s) spill over to the adjacent page, or even merit two pages—e.g., the editor of Life who bought the rights to use still frames from the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, an interview is parceled out to two or more voices—e.g., four people describing the impact on them of John Kennedy’s glamour. Despite these attempts at flexibility, the format is stultifying. The Life editor’s pursuit of the Zapruder film is exciting to him, but not the best way for a reader to learn about its importance or later uses. (The accompanying text tells us nothing about conspiracy theories of Kennedy’s death except that they exist). Sometimes a whole page yields only one interesting quote. Trying to get the personal angle on great events can be diverting, but it palls over the long read. We are probably being unfair if we judge this as a book. It is a TV show that has wandered off the screen where it belonged.
The American Century, by Harold Evans, looks superficially like the Jennings book—coffee-table format, special pages with uniform layout for things like presidential biographies, text woven around hundreds of illustrations. But there is a world of difference between the two. The pictures, searched out by Gail Buckland, an experienced creator of photography books, are the best collected in any of the books on the century. Some are funny, some harrowing; and their captions can sizzle. The scene of naked black men being processed for armed service in World War I has a caption titled “The Unrequited Loyalty of Black Americans,” and containing this sentence: “Unlike the black colonial troops of Britain and France, the black Americans were not allowed by their country to march in the victory parade in Paris.”
Evans’s text is well researched (by Kevin Baker) and written with indignation. He notes that of the seventy blacks lynched in 1919, some were still wearing the uniform of their country. He not only criticizes the dropping of the atom bomb, but shows how James Conant lied in order to defend that outrage. Missiles were put in Cuba because CIA-inspired terrorists had “exploded bombs in [Cuban] department stores and set factories on fire.” Namby-pamby journalists call Paul Robeson “controversial.” Evans calls him “persecuted” by his country. But the book is not a string of Menckenian epigrams. It gives thoughtful attention to major issues—feminism, for instance, and ecology, and the rise of the modern conservative movement. Tragedy is faced squarely—as in the picture of a charred body left behind by President Carter’s failed Desert One raid to get back hostages from Iran. This is an honest book. Because it truly cares about America, it is also a patriotic one.
Rather than attempt a single narrative, two books from university presses isolate major themes for separate treatment by experts in their subject—The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century and The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century. Both have useful sections on demography, urbanism, and imperial breakup—I drew heavily on them for my earlier comments on these topics. These subjects are treated well in both compilations—demography by William H. McNeill (Oxford) and Georges Sabagh and Kenneth T. Jackson (Columbia), imperialism by William Roger Louis (Oxford) and Ainslee Embree (Columbia). The Oxford compilation, which draws on older and marginally better known scholars, is broader and deeper on political history. The difference between the two books can be seen from the use made of the only historian to appear in them both. In the Columbia volume, Akira Iriye has one essay, on the broad topic of international organizations, with a stress on the way, in recent times, “non-Western, less developed countries were defining an alternative global system.” In the Oxford book he provides two essays, meatier ones, on his specialty, East Asia. The first one treats the period between 1900 and 1945, and develops the interesting idea that Japan, by adopting Western imperial ideals, helped to discredit every form of imperialism in Asia. The second, on the years 1945- 2000, traces the rise of “an Asian-Pacific community” in Asia.
The Oxford book’s twenty-seven essays give us broader international coverage—with five articles on Asia by outstanding scholars (Jonathan Spence deals with China), one and a half on Africa, and one on Latin America—but Columbia’s twenty-four essays make a more strenuous attempt to break from the politics-as-history straitjacket. It covers subjects like war as an institution, sports, “the woman question,” communications, transportation, and inventions. There is more stress on economics than in the other volume. Perhaps because these approaches are newer and less tried, the result is in places vague or tentative. One of the exceptions is a good treatment of nationalism by James Mayall, which contrasts civic nationalism with ethnic nationalism, describes the ease with which the former slides into the latter, and reflects on the difficulty (if not impossibility) of impeding or reversing that slide from outside any national unit. Both books are worthwhile, the Oxford solider, the Columbia more adventurous.
One analytic book on the century treats just one theme, as if a single essay from the Columbia University Press volume had been extracted and expanded to book length. This is Olivier Zunz’s Why the American Century? In single-minded pursuit of his theme, the rational organizing of society, Zunz is as optimistic as Hobsbawm and Conrad are pessimistic. Hobsbawm argues that capitalists were frightened by Bolshevism into tempering the market with controls in order to “buy off” worker discontent. Zunz says, rather, that businessmen were convinced by sober analysts that they needed a consumer society to sell products to, and this meant giving wages and opportunities sufficient to instill the consumer ethos in Americans as a whole. Zunz’s contribution is his detailed tracing of the way advertising and consumerism grew out of social measurement projects that made “applied psychology” a way of understanding average expectations and capacities. The pivotal moment for the modern social engineers was the testing of military personnel in World War I. The techniques and aspirations of the group of men who pioneered these tests were echoed in many projects, and led to the founding of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Zunz also shows how numerous programs financed by foundations—Russell Sage, Twentieth Century, Carnegie, Brookings, and Rockefeller—meshed with work in universities and corporations to make social organization rational. The short book is marred by a not very useful section on the attempted application of these American ideals to occupied Japan after World War II, but Zunz shows that the other books considered here do not put enough emphasis on consumerism and advertising as forces shaping the culture of American capitalism.
If Zunz’s book looks like one essay in the Columbia volume expanded, Clive Ponting’s The Twentieth Century looks like the Columbia volume with all the essays written by one man. He criticizes Hobsbawm for the Eurocentrism of his “short century”—beginning with World War I and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he argues, exaggerates the importance of those events for Latin America and Asia and Africa. He would rather accept the arbitrary limits of the century, and then trace the major changes without pinning them to privileged events. His own contribution—or so he would have us believe—is to concentrate on the periphery of world power (in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology) rather than the core, since the majority of people live outside the core. The scandal of our century, he says, is that 20 percent of the world’s population controls 80 percent of its wealth and eats two thirds of its food. Ponting’s effort to concentrate on the periphery is not vindicated in practice. The periphery reacts to the center, rather than vice versa, so he ends up describing the minority of people in the major part of his book. This is a problem no one seems capable of solving.
Ponting’s analytic breakdown of the century’s events falls into three main parts—social history, international affairs, and national politics. The first subject covers demography, urbanism, production, trade, and the family—he covers well the basic changes no one can miss. On the second count, he deals with the breakup of empires, the forming of nations, and the impact of war on our times. While describing World War II, “the most terrible war in human history,” he confirms Hobsbawm’s comments on the way Russia bore the brunt of Hitler’s war. The Soviets had more people in Germany’s prisoner of war camps than the United State had soldiers overseas, and half those Soviet prisoners died. During the siege of Leningrad, 100,000 citizens in the city died every month. Over 80 percent of all allied casualties were Soviet.
Ponting’s best section is his third, on national history. He traces the rise of dictatorships almost as well as Hobsbawm does, and argues that fascism, though it combines familiar elements from the past (Romanticism, antiSemitism, nationalism) was, in the way it combined these elements, the century’s only original ideology. It forged a new elite out of anti-elitism:
Unlike other authoritarian systems fascism tended to break from existing elites (initially they had little support in the military) and bring forward a new generation of leaders. The most socially marginal of all were the Nazis. In 1928, none of the leadership was in the German Who’s Who (which had over 15,000 entries) and they were untypical of normal political elites—they were poorly educated and contained few lawyers and teachers.
Ponting also lays more emphasis than others on the fact that genocide is a mark of our century—the Holocaust foremost, of course, but also the Germans’ earlier slaughter of Herreros in Africa, the Turks’ killing of Armenians, the Hutus’ of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Croats’ of Serbians in World War II, and the Serbians’ own ethnic cleansing in Bosnia (and now, after Ponting went to print, in Kosovo).
Oliver Zunz’s argument for the importance of consumerism is confirmed, perhaps inadvertently, by the illustrated year-by-year surveys published as the century nears its end. New products, fashions, and stars of commercial entertainment are celebrated here mainly for nostalgic purposes. But the books do allow for reflection on changing ideals (and illusions). Thanks to modern sophistication in the use of graphics, these books pack a great deal of information into pleasant containers. The most successful one that I have seen, called Our Times, was assembled five years ago by the Turner Broadcasting operation. Each decade of the century is introduced by a well-known contributor: D. M. Thomas writing on the cultural impact of Freud, Witold Rybczynski on Henry Ford’s mass production, Ger-ald Early on mass culture, Stephen Spender on the competitive totalitarianism of fascists and Communists, Robert Stone on the social mobilization of World War II, Arthur C. Clarke on space exploration, Mary Gordon on the commercialization of childhood, Stephen Jay Gould on environmentalism, James Gleick on the microchip revolution, and Taylor Branch on social protest.
The high expectations created by such names are not quite satisfied. But Early makes unexpected points—that T. E. Lawrence was the first media star of the century, thanks to the publicity created by Lowell Thomas and his cinematographer, Henry Chase. Early also shows how the entertainment media gave blacks their first opportunity to move up in American society. Stephen Jay Gould, too, catches one’s attention with his arguments that our destruction of the environment is “a civil war against ourselves.” Most of the writers seemto have felt they had to popularize their ideas, as well as put them briefly, and there is less light shed on their topics than one would have expected.
The editorial creativity shown in the assembling of such a group meets better success in the body of the volume. Color maps and graphs supplement the good pictures we expect in such a compilation, and the “signs of the times” are imaginatively chosen. The spirit of the Thirties is evoked by printing the whole “proem” to Hart Crane’s The Bridge beside a good color reproduction of Joseph Stella’s painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. Advertisements and posters, scientific diagrams and cartoons are artfully deployed. The clash of business and art is presented on a page that reproduces Nelson Rockefeller’s correspondence with Diego Rivera above a copy of the Rivera mural that Rockefeller had effaced from Rockefeller Center.
Chronicle of the Twentieth Century, with Arthur Schlesinger’s foreword, crams more information into its 1,400 pages of text—one page for every month in the century—than one can comfortably handle. It is strong on sports, with two-page layouts for each Olympic year. But it tends to give a brief biography and picture for major figures only in the year of their death, often decades away from the time when they were important to the culture.
A chronicle with a high-minded emphasis is the National Geographic Eyewitness to the Twentieth Century. This, too, lets scholars introduce each section—four of the ten from Yale—but they are followed by National Geographic staffers who stress things important to the magazine’s readership—exploration, cartography, oceanography, astronomy, and so on. The result is an uneasy combination of general and specialized interests.
Since there is no single way to understand the past, each of these books is revealing and useful, each supplements the others (with the partial exception of the last two mentioned). I found the university press collections of essays the most helpful for further reflection. They address in a direct way the salient changes that occurred in this century. We all need to orient ourselves in time, even if that means that we must use the clumsy labels of years and decades. The lack of any historical memory (even a false one) is like an attack of amnesia at the personal level. It deprives one of an identity. Though we do not learn to predict the future from the past, the greater our understanding of long stretches of time, the better become our chances of judging the past we all share in a convincing way. If we grasp, for instance, the sheer scale and intensity of anti-imperial developments in this century, then America’s mistake in Vietnam becomes clearer. We took over a colonial project that the French, though better equipped for it, had not been able to sustain in a postcolonial atmosphere. (In the same way, a survey of the nineteenth century as a whole makes it clear that our Civil War was just one engagement in the general movement toward abolition throughout Western civilization.)
History does not dictate that we must approve or disapprove of current trends like multiculturalism, the loosening of family ties, or the autonomy of youth culture. But the run of events affecting demography, urbanism, and technological education does help us put discussion of such matters in a wider setting. That kind of knowledge can teach us, at the least, the limits on our room for maneuver. We are all caught in a rushing flood of time that is hard to measure in meaningful ways. But the ride is more enjoyable if we can get just high enough in the waves to see the broad expanse of sea that carries us along.
July 15, 1999