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A Short History of the Twentieth Century

A Short History of the Twentieth Century

by John Lukacs

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The historian John Lukacs offers a concise history of the twentieth century--its two world wars and cold war, its nations and leaders. The great themes woven through this spirited narrative are inseparable from the author's own intellectual preoccupations: the fading of liberalism, the rise of populism and nationalism, the achievements and dangers of technology


The historian John Lukacs offers a concise history of the twentieth century--its two world wars and cold war, its nations and leaders. The great themes woven through this spirited narrative are inseparable from the author's own intellectual preoccupations: the fading of liberalism, the rise of populism and nationalism, the achievements and dangers of technology, and the continuing democratization of the globe.

The historical twentieth century began with the First World War in 1914 and ended seventy-five years later with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. The short century saw the end of European dominance and the rise of American power and influence throughout the world. The twentieth century was an American century--perhaps the American century. Lukacs explores in detail the phenomenon of national socialism (national socialist parties, he reminds us, have outlived the century), Hitler's sole responsibility for the Second World War, and the crucial roles played by his determined opponents Churchill and Roosevelt. Between 1939 and 1942 Germany came closer to winning than many people suppose.

Lukacs casts a hard eye at the consequences of the Second World War--the often misunderstood Soviet-American cold war--and at the shifting social and political developments in the Far and Middle East and elsewhere. In an eloquent closing meditation on the passing of the twentieth century, he reflects on the advance of democracy throughout the world and the limitations of human knowledge.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this slim, dense volume, historian Lukacs (History and the Human Condition) delivers an insightful overview of the “historical” 20th century, a span beginning in 1914 with WWI and ending in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In attempting to discuss 75 years of extremely eventful world history, Lukacs naturally picks and chooses the things he considers most important. He places a disproportionate focus on the United States and Europe and the events and aftermaths of the World Wars, while giving short shrift to Asia, Africa, and South America. Most events are discussed within one or more of a handful of frameworks (e.g., nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, etc.), resulting in an entertaining if idiosyncratic tour of what Lukacs refers to as “—an? the?—American century.” His biases show throughout, especially when he refers to the “deplorable, dwarfish dictatorships in the so-called Third World” or “the unbroken reputation of America, an object of worldwide emulation.” His take on the historical 20th century is one in which states become nations, wars are waged, and borders are redrawn. Lukacs has definitely bitten off more than he can chew, but if taken with a grain of salt, it’s still a tasty morsel. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Oct.)
Maclean’s - Brian Bethune
The 1920s, according to Lukacs, was the only true revolutionary decade of the last century--all that stuff we saw in the 1960s was merely ‘further exaggerations’ of Roaring Twenties trends. That’s the sort of arresting remark that makes the Hungarian-born American scholar one of the most idiosyncratic historians of his era…And he makes a thought-provoking case for the 20s as the fulcrum of modernity…There are many…swipes at conventional wisdom and prevailing assumptions in this engaging book…Most intriguing is Lukacs’s conclusion as to what might be the 20th century’s signal achievement. Advances in physics, tellingly accomplished in the revolutionary 1920s, demonstrated that observers are an inseparable part of what they observe. Humans have thus returned, metaphysically, to the center of the universe, something that will affect, unpredictably, our concept of ourselves for decades to come.
World Magazine - Caleb Nelson
More an interpretation than a history. But what an interpretation! To Lukacs, communism and anti-communism were blips on the historical radar. Russia has always been a giant authoritarian despotism, as has China--whether the autocrats of these states call themselves ‘communist’ or not has little to do with overall conditions there. This insistence is the most refreshing aspect of the book--rather than viewing politics as a perpetual crisis, where the existence of life as we know it is threatened with each presidential campaign, Lukacs insists that nations will, generally speaking, continue to keep their fundamental character.
Australian Book Review - Geoffrey Blaine
Impressive…[A] fascinating book…[Lukacs’s] book focuses on the century’s powerful nations, leaders, and ideas…Generally, he views material factors as less important than the human mind in shaping history.
Times Higher Education - Vladimir Tismaneanu
A cultural pessimist, an erudite historian and a humanist, Lukacs does not mince his words when he explores the follies of a century second to none in terms of mass delusions, violence and state-organized terror. Insightful, unorthodox and unpredictable, the book offers new perspectives on communism, fascism, liberal democracy and nationalism. His discussion of communism as rooted in fear is truly original.
Library Journal
Historian Lukacs (Five Days in London) defines the "historical twentieth century" as the years between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. A "transitional" century, it marked the end of the modern (or European) age. While Europe remained the center of world history, according to Lukacs, it was also, he continues, a decidedly American century with the United States winning both world wars and the Cold War and profoundly influencing global events. Although purposefully focusing on Europe and the States—and Soviet roles there—Lukacs does cover major events and changes in the rest of the world. He also analyzes the effect of key figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin (whose historical reputation he takes some issue with), but most of all he discusses Adolf Hitler. The themes Lukacs addresses include nationalism, the advance of democracy and popular sovereignty, the demise of liberalism, and the impact of technology. VERDICT Neither in-depth nor intended to be, this readable and thought-provoking book is one of the first short histories of the 20th century that is more than a list of dates and facts. Recommended for those interested in an overview or refresher of crucial events during these decades.—Leslie Lewis, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh
Kirkus Reviews
Compressed history as sharp and provocative as it is short. Though the matter-of-fact title might suggest a primer or student guide, renowned historian Lukacs (The Future of History, 2012, etc.) demonstrates the argumentative power of the simple declarative sentence. "The twentieth century was--An? The?--American century," he writes. It "meant the end of the European age" and was "a short century, seventy-five years, from 1914-1989." True to that last declaration, Lukacs begins with the start of World War I and closes with the belated end of the Cold War, consistently contending that the Soviet Union was overrated as a threat to the United States and American primacy. Some will take issue with how much this history focuses on Europe in general and the two world wars in particular; it gives comparatively short shrift to the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of Japan, the emergence of the Third World and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Yet the author has a solid point of view and requires readers to come to terms with it, whether they agree or not. Where other histories focus on larger economic, cultural and political forces, Lukacs stresses the crucial roles played by individuals, "the historical importance of national leaders." If someone like Hoover rather than FDR had been president in 1940, he claims, "Hitler would have won the war." He writes convincingly about the confusion of communism with anti-Americanism and how, in the United States, conservative "meant to be fixedly and rigidly anti-Communist," sardonically noting that "many of the now self-proclaimed American conservatives were not really very conservative at all." He furthermore asserts that the advancement of "the equality of human people...is God's design." A masterpiece of concision and a marvel of clear, controlled prose, a quality lacking in much academic writing.
From the Publisher
"A masterpiece of concision and a marvel of clear, controlled prose, a quality lacking in much academic writing." ---Kirkus Starred Review

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Meet the Author

John Lukacs is a historian and the author of more than thirty books, including Five Days in London, The Future of History, and The Legacy of the Second World War.

With acting credits that span stage and screen, Gildart Jackson is most often recognized for his role as Gideon on Charmed. He has also been featured on Providence and General Hospital, and his theater roles include Trigorin in The Seagull, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and Adrian in Private Eyes at the Old Globe.

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