A sweeping, big-picture view of the bloodiest century in human history.
The 21st is giving the 20th century a run for its money, but, as prolific historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; Colossus, 2004, etc.) notes, the latter is still the standard-bearer for human savagery, “far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any other previous era.” Borrowing a page from the little-read German historian Oswald Spengler, Ferguson introduces grand themes in an effort to determine why the time should have been so murderous even as standards of living were improving throughout so much of the world. The War of the World (encompassing the period from before WWI to the end of the Korean War, about half a century), and particularly its bloodiest phase, WWII, were, he writes, fueled by several disparate sources, which “may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.” The first helps explain the Holocaust and Japan’s savagery against captive Asian populations; Ferguson catalogues some of the endlessly inventive ways in which militarized states and pseudo-states have efficiently slaughtered their own people before tangling with their neighbors. Having delineated these far-reaching themes, which he has addressed in previous work—indeed, this opus is a sort of summary of his work to date—Ferguson delivers a more or less standard history, little of which will come as news to readers familiar with the work of, say, David Reynolds or Paul Johnson. Still, Ferguson writes with an eye for the telling detail, showing, for instance, that anyone who professed surprise at the Third Reich’s program of expansionism could not have been paying attention, since Hitler publicly announced in 1936 that “the German armed forces must be ready for combat within four years.”
A lucid, blood-soaked study that will give no comfort to those pining for peace in our time.