The Historian’s List: 20th Century
The history of the 20th Century is a very difficult subject to study. It is full of dates and people, some more relevant than others. However, this is only a fraction of its content. Cultural, economic, and social transformations are its very essence. You can always search online for years and people, but understanding historical phenomena is a whole different challenge. This short list is for those who want to discover history from a new perspective.
Paul Johnson — Modern Times: A History of the World
Unlike others on our list, this book comes from the real of intellectual thinking. It does not overly focus on factual history. Johnson tries more to understand events through the lens of the cultural present. Consequently, it can sometimes be a more challenging read. However, it does a better job of explaining the rise of totalitarian regimes and the start of the Cold War. Also, the success of the book is evident in its many editions and translations.
Henry Kissinger — Diplomacy
Henry Kissinger needs little presentation. He is one of the key figures of 20th Century American foreign policy. It would be difficult to list all the events in which he played a role. His books is one of the best histories of international relations, focusing on the Western World. Kissinger offers one of the best explanations for what Realpolitik and raison d’Etat. However, students and amateur historian should be careful for any potential factual inaccuracies. I stepped into one of these traps as a young student.
Peter Calvocoressi — World Politics Since 1945
One of the best references for any student of contemporary history. It is a broad analysis of political transformations during the postwar era. From the style of the book can be obvious that Calvocoressi had a background in intelligence. He was an office at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. The fact that it was published in eight editions and translated in multiple languages speaks for its quality and importance.
Magaret MacMillan — Peacemakers / Paris 1919
The Treaty of Versailles and the Peace Conference are subjects which have fascinated historians. Consequences were complex and tragic, especially World War II. MacMillan writes a history of events, but with the added details of the main actors’ biographies. This is not only the story of international politics, but also of people. However, critique can be brought to the analysis of smaller states. MacMillan often falls in the trap of stereotypes and fails to understand parts of their reasons.
John Lewis Gaddis — The Cold War: A New History
John Lewis Gaddis is one of the historians of grand strategy and the Cold War. His revisionist stance on the beginning of the Cold War changed the way we see events. Instead of focusing on the antagonistic narrative of the West facing off totalitarianism, he does a better job of understanding Soviet reasoning and actions. Gaddis uses his access to relevant archives to the fullest extent. Now we can very much see the start of the Cold War as a series of miscommunications and reciprocal misunderstandings.
Timothy Snyder — Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder made history very popular. Bloodlands is a bestseller outside the realm of specialists. The style is both accessible and narrative, turning history into a dramatic and gripping story. His focus is on East-Central Europe’s fate, caught between the ambitions of two dictators, Hitler and Stalin. I found the story of the Holodomor to be one of the best written parts of the book, highly emotional. However, critique was brought mostly from specialists. This had to do with sources used or better said not used. Basically, Snyder was criticised for the lack of archival material in his research.
Anne Applebaum — Gulag: A History
Anne Applebaum writes for prestigious media outlets: The Economist, The Washington Post or The Atlantic. Gulag won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. It is a gripping history of human suffering at the hands of the stalinist regime. Applebaum looks at the history of the gulag system from its inception to its closure in the 1980s. The book is a combination of the system’s history described through individual experiences. It does not replace Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it is complementary.
These are just some of the books one can read to have a better understanding of the 20th Century. It is a mixture between general works covering both cultural, economic, and political aspects and those focusing on particular events. Readers might observe that most books on the list deal with dark episodes of history. However, the 20th Century, for all its achievements, remains one of the deadliest and bloodiest periods in humanity’s existence.
Find more of our reading lists here.
- Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism or Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (one of my all-time favourites).
- Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century.
- Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
- David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present.
- Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich Trilogy.
Originally published at https://www.theworldbriefly.com on April 5, 2022.