The Worst of Times?

Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson; drawing by David Levine

The time has not yet come—and especially not as we crawl through our present Baghdad, Lebanon, Darfur, and Pyongyang mires—for us to obtain a balanced assessment of how the human species performed during the course of the twentieth century. Economists will tell us that it was the best of all centuries, in terms of sheer economic growth and advances in standards of living. Historians, joined by human rights lawyers, will argue that it was the worst of all historical periods, as measured by the number of human beings killed and mutilated by other human beings. Thus simultaneously amazed by our technological triumphs and ashamed by our self-inflicted wounds, we cannot but be daunted by the very idea of evaluating the impact and the import of the past hundred years. If, as Zhou Enlai once famously told Henry Kissinger, it is too early yet to assess the consequences of the French Revolution, how can we plausibly offer judgments on the effects of more recent convulsions, from Auschwitz to the airplane, from the Internet to Muslim intifadas?

Yet we cannot of course wait that long, even if we were immortal. While the chaos and dust of the twentieth century have not yet subsided, scholars and public alike feel a primal urge to make some sense of what went on; to grasp, and locate in their historical setting, the events that transformed our grandparents’ generation, such as the Great Depression and the onset of World War II; Nazism and the Holocaust; and the later age of cold war bomb shelters, Eisenhower prosperity, and Elvis songs. Then there are the challenges of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, third-world upheavals, and the weakening of the West.

This is not the place for a survey of various “histories of the twentieth century” that have been written, but it has to be said immediately that most of them are too hasty, unbalanced, and breathlessly one-sided (or bland and textbookish, which is even worse). Still, several of them already stand out by their sweep and originality, and before discussing the work under review it may be worthwhile to recall a few titles—the better to reflect upon Niall Ferguson’s long new study, and understand what it is and is not trying to do. All shortlists are artificial creations—“What Are the Five Most Original History Books on the Twentieth Century?” sounds like an after-dinner game—but the exercise is instructive in itself. I remain deeply impressed by Geoffrey Barraclough’s An Introduction to Contemporary History (what were the most important changes in our world condition since the fall of Bismarck?), William H. McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power (how society, technology, and war interacted over time in the modern age), Theodore von Laue’s The World Revolution of Westernization (on the destabilizing effects of borrowing Western technology but not Western liberal practices), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (on the destructive and creative twentieth century), and…

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