'A Short History of the Twentieth Century' Is Briskly Written, Fiercely Opinionated, and Cranky

by A. Bowdoin Van Riper

24 October 2013

Particularly in the later chapters, Lukacs' 75-year century leaves readers vulnerable to conceptual whiplash and the author vulnerable to rhetorical absurdity.

The End of the European Age

cover art

A Short History of the Twentieth Century

John Lukacs

US: Sep 2013

John Lukacs, who should know better, begins his new book by declaring (p. 1) that “there is no serious history of the twentieth century that I know of.” Where that leaves Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (1992), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes (1996), Jeremy Black’s The World in the Twentieth Century (2002), Martin Gilbert’s The Twentieth Century: A Short History (2002), and Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the Twentieth Century (2006), he doesn’t say.

It seems a safe bet that Lukacs—a professional historian who’s spent 40 years writing about the 20th century—“knows of” those books. Why he found them insufficiently “serious”, and what qualities will make his own take on the 20th century more serious, he leaves for the reader to puzzle over. A Short History of the Twentieth Century is that kind of book: briskly written, fiercely opinionated, and more than a little cranky. It’s long on sweeping pronouncements, short on detailed explanations, and very much the personal view of its author.

A Short History lives up to the first half of its title: at 222 pages of text it is, indeed, a short history. Whether it lives up to the second half of the title is another matter. Lukacs defines “the 20th century” as beginning with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and ending with the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1989. This is, certainly, his prerogative: Historians fudge the boundaries of decades and centuries all the time, starting the 19thth century in 1815, say, or ending “the ‘60s” in 1969 (Altamont) or 1973 (Watergate).

Twenty-five years is a lot of fudging, however, and it leaves a great deal on the cutting-room floor. The fall of imperial China and the rise of Japan are gone from the beginning of the story, the Gulf War and the Oslo Accords from the end. Porfirio Diaz, Sun Yat-sen, and Slobodan Milosevic are missing in action, along with the sinking of the Titanic and the emergence of the internet.

Particularly in the later chapters, Lukacs’ 75-year century leaves readers vulnerable to conceptual whiplash and the author vulnerable to rhetorical absurdity. Nelson Mandela’s five-year term (1993-1998) as president of South Africa, for example, is declared to have “happened after the historical twentieth century was over” (p. 201). Readers with a more conventional definition of “century” in mind may beg to differ, and (with reason) feel that they’re being shortchanged.

The first 30 years or so of Lukacs’ truncated century—the world wars and the 20 years of uneasy peace between them—account for 12 of the book’s 17 chapters and just under three-quarters of its text. The story of the 20th century is, for Lukacs, essentially a European story. Specifically, it’s the story of Europe’s displacement from the central position in world affairs to which it had grown accustomed. 

Other stories are entwined with the central one—the emergence of the United States as a world power, the rise and fall of a communist state in Russia, the dissolution of Europe’s colonial empires—but, in the end, all narrative threads lead back to Europe. The United States and Russia have significant supporting roles, but the rest of the world makes its way into the story only when something that happens there impinges (or reflects) on Europe. Lukacs paints the internal affairs of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East in the broadest of strokes. Events that would be allotted paragraphs, even whole chapters, if they happened in Europe are brushed over in a brief sentence or two.

Whether through unfamiliarity with the material or lack of attention to it, Lukacs’ grasp of the details slips when A Short History deals with events outside Europe. Warren Harding’s 1920 campaign slogan was “a return to normalcy”, not “back to normalcy” (p. 57). The first three carriers that Japan lost at the Battle of Midway in 1942 were crippled and burning by 10:30 AM, not “sometime after Noon” (pp. 132-133), and the 1943 assassination of Admiral Yamamoto was carried out by fighter pilots from the U. S. Army Air Force, not the Navy (p. 133). The Japanese garrisons defending Iwo Jima and Okinawa were not “a few thousands” (p. 144), but 20,000 and 120,000 respectively. Pakistan is not “northeast” of India (p. 193), and Bangladesh (which is not “southeast” of India) did not use that name until it declared independence from Pakistan in 1971 (p. 194). South America was the site of three international wars, not “none” (p. 202), in the nineteenth century, and the pretext for the 1969 “Football War” between Honduras and El Salvador was not the match itself (pp. 202-203) but post-game violence that the Salvadoran government likened (hyperbolically) to genocide.

The book’s relentlessly Eurocentric focus shapes the form of its arguments as well as the boundaries of its narrative. The results can be intriguing, as when Lukacs’ suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was Russia by another name: a traditional European “great power” bent on dominating central and eastern Europe, rather than an ideologically driven state determined to export communism to the world. Just as often, however, his determination to foreground Europe at every opportunity obscures more than it illuminates.

Non-specialist readers (to whom the book is addressed) aren’t well-served by Lukacs’ glib declaration that the Cold War ended “in all but name” in 1962—precisely the moment when (though he does not call attention to the fact) its flashpoints shifted from Berlin and Budapest to Stanleyville, San Salvador, and Saigon. Occasionally, the wages of Eurocentrism is absurdity. Lukacs declares, for example, that it would be “misleading” to call the music of the ‘20s “jazz”. Why? Because that would “suggest that the creators of American popular music in the twenties were African Americans”, rather than the European-immigrant songwriters of Tin Pan Alley (p. 60). It takes nothing away from Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers to call this tortured logic what it is: ludicrous.

Writing about postwar decolonization, Lukacs presents the European colonial powers as the active agents, writing that they “gave up” their Asian and African colonies. Native-led independence movements, suggestive of native autonomy and agency, have no place in his story. Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh—the architects of such movements in British India and French Indochina—are introduced, in a grudging line apiece, as a “guru” and a general, respectively. Nelson Mandela appears as South African president F. W. de Klerk’s negotiating partner, but not as a leader (or a jailed symbol) of black resistance to apartheid. Successful black African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya are missing, but rival dictators Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor—who brutalized Liberia in the ‘80s—get a generous half-paragraph.

Lukacs’ none-too-subtle message is that Doe and Taylor’s misrule was typical of the chaos, corruption, and violence that engulfed Africa when colonial rule gave way to independent, native-led governments. He notes that South Africa and Algeria, exceptions to the rising tide of “barbarism” in Africa, “represented the only substantial presence of white people” on the continent, but stops (just) short of drawing a causal link between white influence and (relative) stability. He likewise stops (just) short of equating black rule with “barbarism,” but notes that Doe—the first native-born president of Liberia—presided over a ceremony in which his soldiers ate the “still warm” flesh of a dead enemy, and that Taylor later sliced off and ate the ear of a jailed rival. Connecting the final dots is thus unnecessary. A book that describes only two specific acts by African heads of state, both involving ritual cannibalism, has already made its point.

Europe slipped, in the middle decades of the 20th century, from its once-central place in world affairs. A Short History of the Twentieth Century is an interesting, if idiosyncratic, history of that moment: what Lukacs calls (p. 14) the end of “the Modern (or, more precisely, European) Age.” It has—if approached with an engaged, critical mind—something to offer readers already familiar with the broader history that its title promises, but its pages don’t deliver. A Short History should not, however, be anyone’s first book on the history of the 20th century, or their second. For that, there are Johnson, Hobsbawm, and Black.

A Short History of the Twentieth Century


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