Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 179-181
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Although Eric Hobsbawm's study of the "short twentieth century" follows his three-volume study of the "long nineteenth century," the present enterprise is in a category apart. Rather than writing the history of the period bracketed by the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Age of Extremes undertakes to explain the causes for the three major changes that have taken place in the author's lifetime. These changes are identified as the decline of European dominance over the globe, the unprecedented transformation of the world into a "single operational unit" through a revolution in communications and transportation technologies and associated political and economic developments, and the disintegration of earlier patterns of social relationships (pp. 14-15).
In this endeavor, Hobsbawm divides the epoch into three sub-periods: the "Age of Catastrophe" (1914-45), the "Golden Age" (1945- early 1970s), and the "Crisis Decades" (early 1970s-1991). As is ap-parent from its nomenclature, the first part of the triptych focuses on the breakdown of nineteenth-century Western civilization: the two world wars, the waves of revolution that followed both, the interwar depression, and the rise of fascism. The second phase of the "short twentieth century" witnessed an unprecedented spread of material prosperity all across the world, most notably an urbanization so rapid that for the first time in history more people lived in towns and cities [End Page 179] than in rural areas. Compared to this, Hobsbawm predicts, the concern of contemporaries with the consequences of the Cold War will be of limited historical interest in the long run. Precisely because the economic, social, and political transformations of the "Golden Age" had so integrated the world into a "single operational unit," the onset of a prolonged period of difficulties in the early 1970s was a global phenomenon, a global crisis that was not confined to the economic realm but undermined the institutional and ideological foundations of all regimes and systems. Finally, in a concluding chapter, Hobsbawm surveys the consequences of the decline of the legitimacy and regulatory competence of states within their jurisdictions—the pivot of international stability since at least the nineteenth century—as we stand at the threshold of a new millennium. Given Hobsbawm's intellectual formation and abiding concerns, it is not surprising that the scaffolding supporting this impressive synthesis of compartmentalized bodies of knowledge is a heroic attempt to understand the rise and demise of the Soviet Union, a project in which his revolutionary sympathies were fully, if not uncritically, engaged.
Even as he transports us over this familiar terrain—for there is nothing startlingly new here—Hobsbawm's considerable talents make the journey an unforgettable experience. His unerring capacity to choose a telling detail or an arresting quote to vividly illustrate the complexities of the issues at hand or penetrate the essence of a question, the lucid fluidity with which he can move back and forth across time to illuminate some obdurate problems, his easy mastery of the literature, and the compassion that pervades his exemplary scholarship: all this and more will linger long after the book is savored. It is, quite simply, the best one-volume chronicle of the world we have just lost.
And yet, as one surveys the rich feast that Hobsbawm has served, it is clear that from the inception the project is deeply flawed by its very pronounced Eurocentrism. Its failure to give due and proportionate consideration to the experiences of people outside the privileged arena of Europe reduces the subtitle of the book to an unnecessary act of hubris. (Curiously, the British edition of the book carries a different subtitle: "The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991".) In a century when European domination of the globe visibly shrank, as colo-nial empires were dismantled and states in the extra-European world rose to global prominence...