A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Two: 1933-1951
By Martin Gilbert
William Morrow, 1999, 932 pp.
The Twentieth Century: A World History
By Clive Ponting
Henry Holt, 1999, 592 pp.
These two histories of this century take opposite approaches. In a book impressive in its sheer ambition and historical detail, Gilbert tells the story of war and peace among the great powers during the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s. In contrast, Ponting seeks to paint a more general portrait of the century, tackling themes such as the environment, globalization, societal change, empire, freedom, fascism, and revolution. Illustrating neatly how lifestyles have changed, he presents a way to gauge the achievements and discontents of world civilization. While Gilbert sees world history through European eyes, concerned with traditional statecraft and power politics, Ponting views a wider global struggle in everyday life between progress and degradation. But both histories have their place and limits. Gilbert's account would be more illustrative had he woven the interwar economic crisis into the story, while Ponting's version is overly pessimistic, anticipating a world based on progress for the few and barbarism for the many. The reader comes away more optimistic after examining Gilbert's book, which portrays the bloody battles of this century as a triumph for democracy and the rule of law. Despite their divergent approaches, these two works suggest something in common: The century may be ending, but the contest over its history is just beginning.