Top critical review
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Entertaining but a little biased and dated, too
on 29 June 2008
I've had something of a feast of Paul Johnson in recent months. I finished his History of the American People a few weeks ago which I read alongside this one. I did notice that big chunks of the former turn up in the latter!
This is great history as journalism. Johnson has lots of tendentious opinions, and funnily enough he comes up with the thesis that his brand of religion and politics is good, and you can blame most of the world's ills on people who don't think like him. Also a few of his friends, like Thatcher, get glowing references.
He says the Americans weren't ruthless enough in Vietnam, and praises the First Gulf War, as a sign of healthy intervention in foreign affairs. However, the success of the First Gulf War led to the Second Gulf War -and that has been a disaster. He is a bit of a neocon and 80s fuddy-duddy. He has lots of scorn for Left wingers - which is intriguing, since he used to be one.
However his sweep is broad and I learnt loads about Africa and Asia that I had no idea about. He's good on the Soviet Union (though presumably a lot of this stuff has been updated since the collapse). I enjoyed the chapters on Weimar Germany and his views on commerce - and the importance of separating it from Government - I agree with.
He has some strong opinions about the Great Depression, though he admits that no historian can properly explain it. All I noticed is that the conditions he describes before it are very familiar today (long period of boom, low interest rates, excessive credit, hubris from the banks).
To stick him through nearly 1000 pages, or 2000 if I include his American history, he's definitely got an engaging and entertaining style. If you want to get interested in world history, Johnson is a man to get you started. After that, you can be amused by how other historians see the same events in a different light.