A Little History of the World.
by E.H. Gombrich.
Yale Univ. Press, 284 pages, $25.
In 1935, a young German with a newly minted doctorate in art history was challenged to write a history of the world for children, and was given six weeks to do so. It has sold in the millions and been translated into dozens of languages but, until now, not into English. Gombrich, who is best known for The Story of Art, lived to be a very old man and updated the “little history” to cover the last sixty years. The result is a charming read that extends from prehistory to nuclear warfare and can be enjoyed also by adults in search of an instructive overview of the human drama. Of course, it is not, and does not pretend to be, an authoritative account. American history makes a late and rather brief appearance. Most strikingly, the cheerful account of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—”A Truly New Age”—is sadly contradicted by so much that was to follow. The book ends on the note that “we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.” The right, perhaps, but on the author's telling of the story, it is not evident we have the reason.
Decade of Nightmares.
by Philip Jenkins.
Oxford Univ. Press, 344 pages, $28.
Although he employs it, Jenkins is rightly skeptical of the device of labeling history by decades. His subtitle is “the end of the sixties and the making of eighties America.” Endless books have been written about “the sixties.” Then there are those who say the sixties were really the flowering (or the rotting) of the fifties, while others contend that what we associate with the sixties mainly happened in the seventies. Jenkins is inclined to the view that the mid-seventies saw the apex of radicalisms to which the country has been reacting ever since. His account is nothing if not detailed, recalling the specifics of stories behind headlines even those who were there at the time may have long forgotten. Decade of Nightmares provides a a wild and informative ride.
June 1941: Hitler and Stalin.
by John Lukacs.
Yale Univ. Press, 164 pages, $25.
Following up on his other celebrated books on World War II, historian Lukacs once again makes the case that history is made more by persons than by anonymous forces. The progress and outcome of World War II turned on the persons and personalities of Hitler and Stalin, and how each understood, and critically misunderstood, the intentions of the other. Up until the very last moment, and beyond, Stalin convinced himself that Hitler would not attack Russia. He did not welcome the prospect of becoming the indispensable ally of the capitalist British and Americans in defeating Hitler. Hitler, on the other hand, thought his quick defeat of Russia would convince Britain that it was futile to hold out against a Europe, West and East, entirely dominated by Germany. As with Lukacs' other books on this great conflict, June 1941 is an engrossing and instructive read.