In This Review

Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000
Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000
By J. M. Roberts
Viking, 1999, 906 pp

In this engaging portrait of the twentieth century, Roberts underscores the unique character of the last 100 years -- especially the speed and depth of its political, technological, and social change -- to unify his sprawling narrative. The center of gravity of the volume is decidedly European, but Roberts defends this bias by arguing that Europe, more than anything else, has shaped today's world and its revolution in human expectations. The paradox is that the modern world increasingly embraced European ideas and institutions while the two world wars radically diminished Europe's confidence in its own civilization. Inevitably, much of the narrative is familiar, but Roberts does offer interesting insights on the transformation of political authority and the changing identities of nations and regions. He is most eloquent in contrasting the utterly dissimilar character of everyday life at the start and the end of the century. Perhaps the book's most useful contribution is not its themes or ordering of events but its evocation of a century that began with such little awareness of what the new era would bring.