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

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

A Short History of the Twentieth Century

Publisher: Belknap
ISBN: 978-0674725362
Author: John Lukacs
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: 2013-09

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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