In This Review

Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time
Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time
By Bernard Wasserstein
928 pp, Oxford University Press, 2007

Trying to write a single-volume "history of Europe in our time," Wasserstein admits at the beginning of this massive study, is necessarily a "tilt at the windmill." The result demonstrates the limitations one would expect in such an exercise, yet it must still be judged a success. A British historian at the University of Chicago, Wasserstein displays encyclopedic knowledge of his subject but has written far more than an encyclopedia. Amply justifying his choice of a title for the book, he shows how Europe over the past century has been the scene of "some of the most savage episodes of collective violence in the recorded history of the human species" while at the same time producing "incontestable improvements in many aspects of the life of most inhabitants of the continent." A case could be made -- based on the long-term trends in a story that moves from Verdun and the Holocaust to peace and the European Union -- that this is the story of an evolution from barbarism to civilization, but Wasserstein avoids that more optimistic implication. His authoritative account of Europe's highs and lows over the past century will give readers everything they need to decide for themselves.