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A HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Martin Gilbert

A HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Vol. II: 1933-1951

By Martin Gilbert

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-688-10065-1
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

If the first volume of Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century (1997) seemed tired, the second, covering the years up to and following the Second World War, reveal again his high quality as a narrative historian. Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, continues to deal with the period chronologically, year by year, but the era itself has a grim coherence. The war, he writes, “saw the greatest loss of military and civilian life in so short a time in recorded history,” but as he notes, the years 1939 to 1945 are “in many ways arbitrary” as a division. Before WWII’s outbreak, civil war had raged in China and Spain, the prolonged and cruel Japanese invasion of China was in full swing, Stalin had waged a pitiless war against his own people and purged his party, and Hitler had overthrown Austria and Czechoslovakia, and begun the annihilation of the Jews. During the war itself more than three million Soviet soldiers were murdered in German concentration camps. Of more than half a million Jews in Warsaw, only 200 survived to witness its liberation. The end of the war, while it brought relief to millions and punishment to some of the guilty, left most of Eastern Europe under the control of the Soviet Union, saw China fall under an equally ruthless despotism, marked the beginning of the colonial war in Indochina, and led to the Korean War. This is classic political history, with only cursory attention paid to economic and social developments and almost none to Africa or Latin America. Gilbert does not really try—perhaps no one could—to account for this long night of the human spirit. But his skill in leavening grand strategy with individual experience and in illuminating the pathos of these events makes this a memorable achievement.