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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 281-302

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Review Forum: Rewriting the Twentieth Century

Extreme Opinions

Omer Bartov

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. 627 pp. ISBN 0679730052. $16.00.
Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 450 pp. ISBN 0679438092. $30.00.
Dan Diner, Das Jahrhundert verstehen: Eine Universalhistorische Deutung. Munich: Luchterhand, 1999. 383 pp. ISBN 3630879969. _25.50.
François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Deborah Furet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 596 pp. ISBN 0226273407. $35.00.
Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Ed. Mark Kramer, trans. Jonathan Murphy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 253 pp. ISBN 0674076087. $39.50.

The 20th century has probably generated more hopes, illusions, and disillusions in more people than any other period in human history; it has also been the site of the greatest destruction of human lives ever recorded. As it came to a close, following several decades of relative peace in those parts of the world that had seen the greatest devastation during its first half, and after the collapse of a political system and a vast empire that seemed destined to many more years of tyrannical rule, it was felt that some reckoning with the legacy of the passing century was necessary before plunging into the unknown of the next. History was on everyone's mind, as many believed that they were living through momentous events that would change the universe forever. The century seemed to come to a close with the sound of the iron curtain crashing down, and in retrospect it was seen to have begun with the moment in which, in the words of British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, "the lamps [went] out all over Europe" in August 1914 (Hobsbawm, 22). There was something elevating in this neat chronology: it was [End Page 281] a century of war, genocide, tyranny, and enslavement, but it ended with the last "evil empire" tumbling down and the consequent triumph of democracy, liberalism, capitalism, and human rights. Journalists celebrated the liberation of the masses; scholars joined the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate. American teenagers streamed to Prague, swiftly followed by MacDonald's and Benetton. A new age had dawned, and the threshold to the 21st century could be passed with the blessing of a handsome young American president, the ultimate baby boomer of the postwar generation of innocence, hopes, and flowers.

To be sure, it was not all roses. The last years of the 20th century, at least chronologically, were anything but peaceful, if we take into account such events as the massacres in Bosnia and the even more recent attempts at "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo and Macedonia, the genocide in Rwanda, the African "world war" in the Congo, the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and the deteriorating situation in Israel and the occupied territories. As we are all painfully aware, the 21st century began with mass terrorism on American soil and the declaration of war on terrorism unleashed, at least initially, in Afghanistan. Nor can we say that the end of communism and the dawn of a new age of capitalist domination has brought even the most basic material security and health to the great masses of the world's population, let alone freedom from tyranny and violence or even a minute measure of social and political justice. In fact, the end of the century saw tremendous prosperity in some parts of the world, accompanied by greater political rights and social comfort (though by no means a diminishment of the gap between the rich and the poor), and horrific poverty, rampant disease, uncontrollable political violence, and all forms of degradation and suffering in much of the rest of humanity. This is, of course, one reason why the world's population is on the move these days, with millions trying...


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