- A Short History of the 20th Century
This newest volume by Geoffrey Blainey makes a brave attempt to survey the past one hundred years of world history. Blainey grapples with this daunting task and brings to it his own knowledge from writing A Short History of the World (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), The Causes of War (New York: Free Press, 1973), among many others. Recognizing the challenge of producing such a broad account, he applies a narrative style to address some major themes with a focus on war and peace. Blainey finds this approach suitable as the two world wars and the “nervous peace,” a phrase he prefers over “Cold War,” dominated so much of the century that many scientific, social, and political developments were precipitated by them. He provides no overarching argument or theory, admits that this endeavor forces him to generalize on things like causations, and hopes readers will look to his other publications for explanations. This book is divided into three sections, beginning with a short overview of the world at the beginning of the century, larger coverage of World War I and World War II, and then the postwar world.
Since Blainey makes no substantive argument, I have concentrated my comments on the methodological challenges posed by his attempt to present a broad history in such a short space. Reading Blainey’s book may serve as a useful exercise in the classroom. How does one decide what topics are significant and how to situate them in “world history”? How is space allocated? Does writing a period of history according to a unit of time as opposed to a subject’s own discernable beginning and end diminish our ability to appreciate significant details and complexities?
While the connections between some topics seem obvious, such as the link between ethnic tensions in the Balkans and the start of World War I, others are not. For example, after completing a discussion on the Cuban missile crisis and the Six-Day War, Blainey ends the chapter with a section on the race to the moon and Mars. Although his title, [End Page 475] “Explosive Island and Ghostly Galleon,” attempts to link these loosely connected events under one heading, the restrictions posed by a limited space and a large topic hinders Blainey from providing an explanation for the precise relevance of space exploration to the tensions that mounted in these two regions (p. 230).
There is also the problem of time/text allocation. As a student of modern U.S. and East Asian history, I was struck by his discussion of the Korean War in his chapter on how the “Curtain” fell. In the opening sentence to the subject he writes, “Korea did not seem a likely site for a world-shaking event” (p. 189, all subsequent italics are my own). Expecting a relatively detailed discussion on the Korean War, he spent only four paragraphs describing it in summary. He designated more time and specifics to the rise of the entertainment industry (pp. 94–96). Similarly, in his section on “The Plight of Jews and Gypsies” in his chapter on Hitler, I had not anticipated that only six of the total forty-eight sentences in the section would be allocated to the latter group (pp. 133–135).
The final significant challenge of writing a broad history in a short space relates to the tendency to generalize, raising subsequent problems with sources, cursory statements, and perspective. In his note on sources, he writes that they “are not exhaustive,” that the trivia he has provided often leaves him with “no idea where it came from,” and his usage of the two primary sources that deserve the most note are the 1922 and 1926 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Understanding that this volume is an overview, I was still disappointed with the lack of primary materials.
I was also frustrated by inadequate citations. On one occasion, he writes that the “present viewpoint is that Stalin proved to be the most resolute leader, that the Soviet Union exerted undue...