British historian and academic Sir Martin Gilbert (knighted by the Queen in 1995) has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most authoritative academics on the subject of the twentieth century, and has written perhaps more prolifically than anyone else on various aspects of this remarkable epoch. Indeed, he has written such a torrent of different books on everything ranging from a multiple volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill to histories of World War One, World War Two, that a complete accounting of his efforts would require more space than is available for the review. Thus it should come as no surprise that he has written a three-volume overview of the twentieth century itself. What is so surprising is how engaging, entertaining, and accessible each of the three volumes is to the reader.
In this third and final volume of the epic narrative of the twentieth century, Gilbert carefully and cogently describes the unfolding of the post world war drama as the struggle between the forces of the western democracies face down the forces of the socialist states of the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba in a fight for the hearts and minds of the burgeoning world population. In providing this continuous narrative thread from the beginnings of the struggle from the beginning of the century and the transformation from all that was traditional, autocratic, and orderly to all that was democratic, innovative, and chaotic, we see the master forces behind the massive dislocations, murderous warfare, and technological transformations that characterize the last hundred years. Of course, much of the narrative covering the last fifty years is a description of regional conflicts, from the so-called police action in Korea to American involvement in Vietnam, from the continuing Irish "troubles" to the murderous genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot, from the fratricide in Rwanda to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, this is a portrait of an increasingly violent, dissonant, and fractured world in which many more voices, angry and otherwise, add to the shouts and clamorous sounds of history.
From the description of the postwar resurrection in Europe to the momentous dissolution of the Soviet Union in the last ten years, this is a narrative of a world in the process of multiplying its faces, voices, and flavors. This is a book that engages the reader in the spectacle of the transformation of our world from everything autocratic, traditional and rigidly controlled to all that became so characteristic of the century thereafter; democratic, irrational, murderous, and wildly chaotic. With an amazing and delightful eye for absorbing detail, Gilbert threads his way through the particular personalities, events and issues as they arise chronologically. One criticism I have read about concerning the book is absolutely dead-on, and that is Gilbert does somewhat pedantically stick to a faithful chronological narrative.
Yet, given the plethora of events, issues, personalities and changes occurring throughout the world, any other organization would suffer from other problems such as maintaining context for the reader, so one can appreciate all that faced a particular leader in a given situation. Understanding how the multitudes of actors, issues, and countries are involved and intertwined lends itself to better comprehension, at least in this reviewer's mind. After all, it is mind-boggling to understand in the last hundred years the western world transformed itself in almost every dimension imaginable; technological, scientific, social, economic, and philosophical. To attempt to do justice to this wide panoply of revolutionary change requires a certain perspective and rigorous discipline to do so, especially in the 3,000 or so pages allotted to the overall work. This is a book and also three volume set I can heartily recommend. Enjoy!