- A Companion to Europe 1900–1945
With its thirty-two contributors, American, British, and Canadian, most of them well established in the field, this handsome but expensive volume provides a solid summary of the state of contemporary historical scholarship dealing with Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The era was, of course, one of extraordinary violence, real and imagined, and how one describes and assesses that violence may be the central intellectual and methodological problem of any study dealing with this period. The editor of this collection, Gordon Martel of the University of Northern British Columbia, has urged his sundry contributors to focus on issues of continuity and change. Politics, economics, international relations, military strategy and the nature of warfare, science, and mass culture are among the topics treated. Older approaches discussing, for instance, the 'origins' and 'causes' of war, comingle with more recent concerns about gender, generations, sexuality, and urban space. In other words, there is a bit of everything here, a veritable historiographical rijsttafel. All of the essays are informative, some are engaging, and all are accompanied by up-to-date bibliographic suggestion. In short, this is an impressive effort.
And yet, churlish as it may seem, one can't help wondering about the purpose of a project such as this. These Companion volumes by Blackwell are meant to be useful as introductions. But for whom is this particular introduction intended? All but the brightest undergraduates will find the level of discussion here over their heads. At the same time, those versed in a field are inclined to find compendia such as this superfluous. Graduate students swatting for comprehensive examinations may be delighted to have an aid like this, but in the end that's a pretty small market.
The other Gorgonesque issue that rears its head throughout this text is how one goes about representing the historical reality of an age [End Page 337] whose experience, as Adorno and many others pointed out, transcends traditional methods of representation? That issue is not broached here, but is it not central to the task? The principal character of André Gide's L'Immoraliste, published in 1902, is a historian who, gravely ill, embraces not knowledge but experience. In Parade's End Ford Madox Ford's character Tietjens loses his memory in the trenches of the Great War. In 1925 Thomas Mann wrote Unordnung und frühes Leid, whose main protagonist is a professor of history and whose children call him 'the ancient'; his eldest son plans to become a dancer. Has the dancer supplanted the historian in the modern age? Many would argue otherwise, but Mann's rhetorical query is nonetheless critical to the exercise at hand.
Gordon Martel has a good deal of editorial experience, having put together a number of worthy collections on issues of diplomacy and war. He seems to relish what others would regard as a hellish task and, clearly, he is very good at what he does. But, in this case, cui bono remains the curmudgeonly question that dangles over the enterprise.