A History of the World in the Twentieth Century:

by Martin Gilbert,
932 pages,
ISBN: 0688100651

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The Cloudburst that Left il Duce Soaked
by Martin Kitchen

Martin Gilbert's recent books have two things in common. The first is their sheer size-with the present volume measuring 24.5 by 16.5 by 6 centimetres for a total of almost 2.5 litres of relatively small print with narrow margins. The second is that they are the work of a man with a deep compassion for the persecuted, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. But does this combination of astonishing assiduity and humaneness add up to good history?

Volume Two of A History of the Twentieth Century focuses on the action close up, and only briefly sketches in the background. The voices are those of the little people. But this is not "history from below". Nor is it social history or a study in mentalités. The avowed aims of this volume are to describe how the peace shattered after two decades, and to analyse the struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. Unfortunately, although the author takes over 1,000 pages to describe the eighteen, admittedly eventful, years from 1933 to 1951, we are left none the wiser on either score. Gilbert is so concerned with detailing the sufferings of this century's pitiable millions that he seems unable to stand back and ask the two big questions that historians have to ask: what happened and why?

A reader seeking to be enlightened about this period's major issues is likely to be disappointed. There is precious little on the process of Gleichschaltung and the organization of the Nazi state. Fascist Italy is ignored for the most part, and fascist movements elsewhere in Europe are overlooked. Gilbert offers no reasons for German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War. A.G. Stakhanov, the Russian coal miner, is mentioned en passant, but the implications of the movement to which his name was lent are not analysed. There is nothing on the complete reversal of Comintern policy towards Social Democracy in the 1930s and the evolution of Popular Front tactics. Lord Halifax's mission to Hitler in 1937 is described in some detail, but the fact that Hitler turned down his offer to settle all his territorial demands is not even mentioned. Even the causes of World War II are given only perfunctory attention.

The war, the subject of another of Martin Gilbert's weighty tomes (The Second World War: A Complete History), is presented as little more than a series of mindless murders, brutalities, and deaths supported by a mass of often dubious figures on the dead, wounded, murdered, and captured. There is nothing on Hitler's strategy, on the decision to halt before Dunkirk, on responses to the Soviet invasion of Finland, on Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union, on the significance of the failure of PQ17 and the cancellation of further convoys via the northern route. The reader will look in vain for details of the debates on the Mediterranean strategy or the Second Front. And there is no indication of the complexity of alliance politics.

Post-war politics are also given very short shrift. There is virtually nothing on the Potsdam Conference. The thorny issue of the repatriation of Soviet soldiers-just the sort of topic one would expect to see treated at some length-is scarcely mentioned. No details are provided of the Communist takeovers in Eastern Europe after the war. The origins of the Cold War are left in obscurity. Even the fierce debates over the proposal to divide Palestine are skated over with astonishing speed. The division of Germany is likewise ignored, and the Korean War seems to have broken out purely on Kim Il Sung's whim.

In theory, at least, this is a world history. Gilbert does mention China. There is a lot on Ho Chi Minh's slippery tactics in Indochina, and a rather garbled version of India and Pakistan's route to independence is given. Japan, with its appalling record of violence and its victims of both conventional and atomic warfare, provides ample copy for horror stories. Canadians, who suffered the highest casualties of any Commonwealth country during the war and whose prisoners were murdered by the Waffen-SS, are afforded greater space than most of the other minor players; the fact that Gilbert spent the war years in Canada as a refugee from Britain and the Blitz may explain why he treats us so generously. By contrast, Africa and Southeast Asia receive skimpy treatment, while South America, at least, had a rather nasty war in the Chaco and, therefore, is worthy of mention.

In order to give a sense of immediacy to his story, Gilbert relies heavily on the accounts of journalists, eyewitnesses, and fiction writers. Central Europe is presented through the eyes of G.E.R. Gedye and Elizabeth Wiskeman, while Germany is left to William Shirer. For China, he turns to Jung Chang's intensely moving account of three generations of her remarkable family in Wild Swans. Curiously enough, although mention is made of Victor Klemperer's shattering diaries, which recount in minute detail his harrowing experiences as a Jew in Germany from 1933 to 1945, there is only one rather uninteresting excerpt in the book.

Such sources do enliven the story, add a touch of colour and drama, and offer an alternative perspective by bringing high politics down to the human level. However, by relying too heavily on this material, Gilbert renders the story virtually unintelligible. Eric Gedye's dramatic description of the execution of radical Social Democrats Karl Münichreiter and Georg Weissel in Austria in 1934 leaves the reader clamouring for more information about why they ended up on the scaffold. Elizabeth Wiskeman describes Sudeten Germans spitting on photographs of Masaryk in 1937, but we would like to know something about the grievances, real or imagined, of the German minority in Czechoslovakia. Jung Chang vividly describes the Communist bombardment of Chinchow in 1948, but we are given no clear idea of the issues involved in the Chinese civil war. Other writers, such as Martha Gellhorn, with her dreadfully sentimental and kitschy account of poverty in the United States, are less well chosen.

When the focus is on politics, the author is content to tack together a few quotes from the parliamentary speeches or public addresses of various important figures, while eschewing any comment. It is hardly surprising that Churchill is the most widely quoted of all. His tireless biographer carefully selects his most far-seeing, wise, and ennobling remarks; however, a few silly comments manage to slip through. For example, in April 1936, Churchill describes the Autobahnen as roads designed to permit German troops to march four abreast towards the enemy; in fact, military considerations played no part in their planning, and the German army preferred to move by train. Also, in September of the same year, Churchill managed to convince himself that the strength of France resided in its army.

To give the book even more of a common touch, brief mention is made of popular culture. Thus, 1933 saw not only the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor, but also the introduction of the Ritz cracker. 1935 was the year of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Greta Garbo's Anna Karenina, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and the first Monopoly set. For the war years, such frivolity is bypassed, although 1940, we learn, does mark the opening of the Colonel's first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, the introduction of nylons, and the debut of Bugs Bunny. In 1948, we are reminded, Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a drive-in burger joint, the Columbia Record Company released the first long-playing record, and Scrabble was invented. History is reduced to the level of those delightful birthday cards that list outstanding events that took place in the year of the celebrant's birth.

Most of Gilbert's books, although short on analysis, are usually useful reference guides of facts and dates. Alas, this is not the case with this volume. His concentration on victims and their sufferings means that insufficient attention is paid to the reasons why so many millions fell victim to such a tragic fate. Gilbert makes no attempt to address the question of why a highly civilised nation like Germany would cause the mass murder of the European Jews, a crime which is the central horror of this story. Nor will the enquiring reader be able to reconstruct the main events of the Shoah.

All too often, Gilbert seriously misleads us. It was not the army but the police that stopped Hitler's triumphal march through Munich in November 1923, nor did Von Kahr lead them. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD) was a Nazi party and not a state organization. On page 133, Gilbert claims that Germany and Italy sent 80,000 men to Spain to fight for the Nationalists. Two pages later, the number is reduced to a more accurate 50,000. That Hitler addressed a crowd of 3 million in Berlin in 1937 is a trifle far-fetched: Hitler certainly claimed to be speaking on behalf of 115 million Germans and Italians, but the much smaller crowd dispersed rapidly after a cloudburst that left Mussolini soaked. The pomp and ceremony of the Duce's official visit ended in farce, as his son-in-law commented in his diary.

Gilbert further claims that, in 1939, the Germans developed a jet-propelled fighter (which the author incorrectly calls the Me 109) that reached a speed of 481 miles per hour. In fact, Sir Frank Whittle's first jet engine, built in 1937, was not used in flight until 1941, on the experimental Gloster E.28/39. The Germans began work on jet engines later. Owing to Hitler's lack of interest in the project, compounded by the effect of bombing raids on the Messerschmitt works, the shortages of qualified labour, and uncertainty as to whether it should be a fighter or a fighter bomber, the jet-propelled Messerschmitt 262 was first launched in April 1944. The propeller-driven Messerschmitt Bf109E of 1939 had a maximum speed of 348 miles per hour.

The book is rife with factual errors. Perhaps it is because he was misled by the belief in the technological superiority of German aircraft that Gilbert makes the astonishing claim that the campaign in Poland was won from the air. Kursk was apparently won because the British provided the Red Army with "Enigma" decrypts, not because of the superiority of Russian armour. Reinhard Heydrich was not head of the SS but of the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei) and the Security Service (SD) under Himmler. The complex character, Otto Ohlendorf, was much more than the leader of Einsatzgruppe D, which was responsible for the murder of 90,000 people, most of them Jews; he was also a brilliant lawyer and economist whom Himmler obliged to prove his worth as a National Socialist by spending one year as a butcher before returning to his desk in the Ministry of Economics. Friedrich Barbarossa was not buried near Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden but in the Kyffhäuser about fifty miles to the east of Leipzig. Trotsky was murdered with an ice pick, not an axe. And Paris was not the goal of Bradley's army. The French capital had no strategic significance; Eisenhower reluctantly sent General Leclerc to liberate the city since he had to agree with de Gaulle that it would be dangerous to allow it to fall into the hands of the communist-led FFI (French Forces of the Interior).

The reader gets the impression that the Dumbarton Oaks meeting was solely concerned with setting up the United Nations. The vitally important economic agreements are totally ignored. Economic issues, which, after all, affected the lives of Gilbert's ordinary folk, only make brief appearances in the extreme forms of poverty, famine, and mass unemployment.

I don't know who will benefit from reading this book. Only the most conscientious of reviewers is ever likely to read it from cover to cover, and it has little value as a reference work. Perhaps anyone needing to be reminded of the abject misery and hideous suffering inflicted on millions of people by half-crazed ideologues and tyrants in our unhappy century will profit from this selective list of atrocities. Hopefully, Martin Gilbert will give himself more time to prepare the next installment of his history of the twentieth century, and not rush it so quickly into print. We shall then be spared yet another disappointment. 

Martin Kitchen is Professor of History at Simon Fraser University.


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