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Not as good as the other Ages
on 18 May 2013
As other reviews make clear, no book is perfect, and Hobsbawm's not even attempting to hide his love for the Soviet Union during the early part of the book will likely vex the typical reader. The attendant downplaying (though never denial) of Soviet misdeeds and crimes produces a similar reaction. Still, one consults a history book for a presentation and interpretation of the facts, so it is senseless and boorish to write the book off because one does not share an author's ideological sympathies. So enough with the author and let's move to the text.
I guess I would liken it to reading John Lewis Gaddis's 2005 sweep of the Cold War: so readable that its flaws almost don't matter. Don't get me wrong: one would do far, far better to read the chapter on the Cold War in the book under review than wasting time with Gaddis's 2005 offering. For this, and other reasons, I can see why 'Extremes' has a continuing reputation as a good way into the history of the 20th century. And I like the way that Hobsbawm sprinkles interesting little facts and asides throughout his prose.
One nice thing is that he has no time for silly rubbish about Reagan's performance during the latter stages of the Cold War. Hobsbawm's analysis of the end of the Soviet Union (arms-related spending) has stood the test of time. Not bad, given 'Extremes' was written so soon after the end of the Cold War that its author partially relies on newspaper articles! Out of the US and USSR, Hobsbawm correctly calls Washington as the greater danger to the world, though in my view this is hardly surprising, given the balance of power.
Anyway, with so many other reviews here, it was really just my intention to mention a few gaps that I am aware have been filled since 'Age of Extremes' was published. The first is on p.41:
"The mystery is," Hobsbawm writes, "why Hitler, already fully stretched in Russia, gratuitously declared war on the USA ... There is no adequate explanation of Hitler's folly, though we know him to have persistently, and dramatically, underestimated the capacity for action, not to mention the economic and technological potential, of the USA because he thought democracies incapable of action. The only democracy he took seriously was the British, which he rightly regarded as not entirely democratic."
The mystery has been solved, we now have the (more than) adequate explanation of Hitler's follies, which had nothing to do with underestimating the United States. Indeed, quite the opposite. I direct you, without spoiling the story, to Adam Tooze's simply outstanding 'The Wages of Destruction' (2006).
Another thing, and again Hosbawm can't be faulted since this information came out after he wrote it, is that the book doesn't emphasise enough how unbelievably lucky humanity was to have survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. We are here today by sheer, sheer luck. "We lucked out", in McNamara's words. You can read Thomas Blanton's review of these developments in his introduction ("The Cuban Missile Crisis Isn't What It Used to Be") in CWIHP 'Bulletin', Issue 17/18, "The Global Cuban Missile Crisis at 50," pp.11-18. Just slap it into Google and download the pdf for free. You may need to be patient while it opens, but it DOES eventually open, I promise!
OK bit more: EJHobs doesn't emphasise enough the game-changing potential of what happened in the Middle East in 1958, and what it nearly led to. It was recognised fully by US officials at the time: 1958 could have been 'it' for the Western powers in the Middle East. If you have an understanding of the linchpin of postwar American power, that is really pretty serious stuff. Here's CIA Director Allen Dulles on the immediate aftermath of the coup: "If the Iraq coup succeeds it seems almost inevitable that it will set up a chain reaction which will doom the pro-West governments of Lebanon and Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and raise grave problems for Turkey and Iran." Perhaps it's just the case that a single-volume take doesn't have room, but I'll still say it deserved more attention.
I don't know at which point contending that the USSR was originally aiming for multi-party democracies in its Eastern European buffer of puppet states became untenable, but the contention in 'Extremes' that this was so is untenable. Similarly, the well-known communist myth of the communist role in the Spanish civil war is given an (admittedly equivocal) airing.
Another standard communist line that Hobsbawm pedals is on p.238, namely that "[t]he USA planned military intervention if they [the communists] won the 1948 elections in Italy." (It's mentioned more explicitly by Vladimir Pechatnov in Volume I of this: "Fearing US military intervention in Italy, Moscow cautioned Italian Communists against trying to take power through armed insurrection.") This, again, is untenable. After reviewing the effects of World War II on Italy, Gabriel Kolko points out (p.305, 307 of 'Century of War') that "[t]he subsequent Communist rationalization that the existence of of Anglo-American armies precluded their taking power merely unconvincingly obfuscates the true reasons for their failures to do so", which were the threat of "losing absolute mastery of their parties' organizations", "to prevent the enormous numbers who enrolled from acting autonomously of the Party line". As with better-known equivalents like the Spanish Civil War, the communists' tired justifications of their efforts to immobilise the genuinely democratic dynamics that WWII facilitated just don't wash.
Still, Hobsbawm is not exactly the first to fail to extricate his history-writing from personal commitments. Yes, and so the strangest thing for me in the whole book, given Hobs's freedom from nationalism and the worship of liberal democracy and its leaders, is that he doesn't seem to deploy a basic feature of US policy in his analysis of it - namely CONTROL of oil reserves, not simply securing access to oil supplies. There is a crucially important distinction between those two things, and one's grasp of the post-WWII period is hobbled without being aware of it and taking account of it. I can understand why liberal scholars aren't interested in the Anglo-American quest for control of oil, but it is weird that Hobsbawm, someone who knew so much, who rightly takes account of the economic considerations of 20th-century history more generally, wouldn't or couldn't accept this fairly straightforward and wholly undeniable feature of Western policy. Anyway, given his failure to understand or whatever on this point, the late professor is puzzled as to why the US supported the Israelis in 1973 ("The US believed - one does not quite see why - that its own vital interests were at stake", p.245). As Hobsbawm will have known full well, people like Noam Chomsky have been documenting Israel's role within the US's oil-centred Middle East strategy for many decades now. Strange.
[Talking of America and oil, might be interested in a free issue of 'Journal of American History' from last year:
David Painter's article comes highly recommended!]
In Vietnam (pp.244-5): "Why the USA came to embroil itself in a doomed war, against which both its allies, neutrals, and even the USSR had warned it, is almost impossible to understand, except as part of that dense cloud of incomprehension, confusion and paranoia through which the main actors in the Cold War tapped their way." This just isn't good enough. There are solid accounts of why the Americans went into Vietnam that go beyond vague terms like "incomprehension, confusion and paranoia."
This series of unknowns and misunderstandings does not really satisfy the reader. Some of it, as I said, is because this book is almost 20 years old, and historical understanding moves on thanks to new and better analyses, and new sources becoming available. Some of it, I'm afraid, can only be put down to the fact that, for whatever reason, Hobsbawm's handle on the short 20th just wasn't as good as that on its longer predecessor.