Mark Kurlansky has set himself the task of writing the history of 1968, a year of rock n roll n rebellions. Much of the focus of the book is on the student movements that erupted across the world, principally in France, the United States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Germany, though Kurlansky still finds room to deal with the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the war in Biafra, as well as topics such as feminism, and the popular philosophy and literature of the era.
Kurlansky writes in a crisp readable prose, the sections that cover the student movements in the various countries appear to have been covered in a reasonably impartial and thorough manner, though the focus on student movements does seem to be a little overdone for a book that claims to be a history of the whole year. The perversity of this is quite clear when one considers that the actuality of the Vietnam War receives far less coverage than the anti-war movement in the United States and such coverage as there is gives little idea of the reality of that war. The troubles in Northern Ireland receive zero coverage, as does South Africa. Latin American, African, and Asian (the cultural revolution in China is graced with a few paragraphs) coverage is primarily focussed on a single country in each continent: Mexico, Biafra and Vietnam. And then there is the big problem I had with this book . . .
Ever seen the The Big Lebowski
? In that brilliant film by the brothers Coen there is a character called Walter, the Big Lebowski's bowling buddy. No matter what the subject under discussion is, Walter manages to bring it back to the issue of `Nam. Kurlansky's `Nam is Zionism and Israel.
Firstly there appears to be a problem with emphasis, for example there are well over twenty mentions (often of multiple pages) in the index for Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism and Judaism. In way of comparison the total for Muslims, Islam and Arabs is zero. That problem of emphasis is a relatively minor one in comparison to the out-right lying and propaganda that serves for Kurlansky's coverage of the Middle East. For him Palestinians don't exist as a people, except as terrorists; anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are synonyms; Israel offered back the land it invaded and occupied in 1967 in return for peace; the Israeli government had nothing to do with the settlement of the occupied territories, etcetera, etc. And Kurlansky's source for all this wisdom? In the bibliography section we have one book covering the Middle East, Michael Oren's Six Days of War
. Who is Michael Oren? Currently he is Likud prime minister Netenyahu's man in Washington. The only other "scholar" mentioned is the intensely partisan Zionist Walter Laquer.
Without Kurlansky's nonsense on Israel and Zionism this would be a reasonable book on the Student movements of 1968; not a deep or profound book on that year, but rather on the level of a good television documentary series. With the nonsense, the book is a disgrace and certainly doesn't deserve the back page blurb from Uncut magazine ("combining the rigour of a historian"). To put it mildly, "1968: The year that rocked the world", was a disappointing read.