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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 398-401

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Book Review

1968: The World Transformed

1968: The World Transformed. Edited by CAROLE FINK, PHILIPP GASSERT, and DETLEF JUNKER. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xi + 477. $54.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

The editors of 1968: The World Transformed aim to treat this year as a "coherent historical phenomenon" (p. 1). To this end, they have collected eighteen essays that deal with 1968 in a "global or transnational" context. The editors maintain that while the political legacy of 1968 is still contested, "there is little doubt that the upheavals of the [End Page 398] 1960s transformed Western societies, at least culturally." The collection's title implies that 1968 was the culmination of these global transformations, a date comparable to 1789 or 1848. Yet as Konrad Jarausch argues in "Epilogue: 1968 and 1989," 1968 has acquired a "symbolic force" out of proportion to its actual significance. It has become irretrievably confused with the entire era of the "sixties," whose "cultural revolution," according to one recent analyst, actually began circa 1958 and ended circa 1974 (Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c. 1958-c. 1974, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). The media--sometimes with scholarly assistance--has continuously mythologized the struggles of a "long sixties" and reduced it to twelve or even fewer months.

Fortunately, the individual essays are much more subtle than the volume's title. Anticipating Jarausch's epilogue, Claus Leggewie calls 1968 "a laboratory of postindustrial society" since it "symbolized a lasting process of accelerated social change" that affected both capitalist and socialist societies. George Herring's "Tet and the Crisis of Hegemony" skillfully argues that the events of 1968 initiated a "crisis" in American foreign and economic policy, even if American policy changed significantly only in 1975. Chester Pach, in "Tet on TV," deftly probes the media coverage of the Tet offensive and finds that it revealed a stalemate which endured until 1973. Mark Kramer's impressive "Czechoslovak Crisis and the Brezhnev Doctrine" shows the continuity of Soviet foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Using a variety of primary sources from Eastern European nations, Kramer details how the USSR resorted to force to keep Eastern Europe, especially Czechoslovakia, under its domination. Although Gottfried Niedhart sees 1968 as consequential, he prudently concludes that the most dramatic steps of German Ostpolitik "had to wait until 1970." Lawrence Wittner judiciously shows how "the multiple crises of the 1960s" weakened the campaign against the bomb and antinuclear protest generally. In "The Third World," Arif Dirlik reasons that although 1968 seemed to be "the culmination of previous years or the point of departure of years to come; it does not follow that the individual movements that went into the making of 1968 necessarily reached their culmination in that year, or even that 1968 appears significant when viewed from within these different movements." In other words, in much of the Third World (Mexico excepted) 1968 was just another year.

Some essays do sustain the attempt to view 1968 as a rupture. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker argues convincingly that 1968 was "a watershed in China's international history." Confronted by the Soviets and their invasion of Czechoslovakia, Beijing began to reach out to the West. Stuart Hilwig shows how in 1968 German and Italian students [End Page 399] confronted the establishment media and therefore challenged authoritarian traditions in both countries. Alan Brinkley captures the revolution/counterrevolution paradigm of the era by pointing out that "the most important political legacy of that critical year was the rise of the Right" in the form of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. According to Brinkley, American "liberalism" has been on the defensive ever since. For Jerzy Eisler, "March 1968 in Poland" was a battle for "elementary civil rights, rights already possessed" by Western Europeans. Manfred Berg's fine contribution, "1968: A Turning Point in American Race Relations?" argues that the death of Martin Luther King Jr. was a significant turning point which led from civil...