Books: The world is not enough

Should a big history of our times aim for the global picture, or the telling details?; Twentieth Century by J M Roberts Allen Lane, pounds 25, 906pp; Challenge to Civilisation: 1952-1999 by Martin Gilbert HarperCollins, pounds 29, 1072pp; This Sceptred Isle: twentieth century by Christopher Lee BBC, pounds 19.99, 497pp
Writing a general history of the 20th century is "mission impossible". No conceivable mixture of narrative and analysis will command general approval, and the text is bound to have its biases. It may be Asiocentric (like the last part of Felipe Fernandez- Armesto's Millennium), Eurocentric or Americocentric; it may lay too much emphasis on race and gender (fetishes of the late 20th century) and not enough on economics and demography; or it may be written with parti pris and a hidden agenda.

The volumes by J M Roberts and Martin Gilbert point up other dangers: excessive formalism or undiscriminating fact worship. Gilbert aims to build up a picture of the century by a kind of radical empiricism, whereby millions of facts tell their own story. Roberts, by contrast, employs an almost Gallic method, with emphasis on structures at the expense of individuals; only the most towering figures, like Hitler, receive biographical treatment.

Roberts's book claims to be aimed at the general reader. It packs an amazing amount into 800 pages but is vitiated by academic dryness, occasional turbidity and, most seriously, inadequate research. Roberts sets out his stall by talking of general issues such as power, communications, information technology and medical science. The impact of these factors is highly complex and his sophisticated glosses beg a multitude of questions. It is simply too difficult for the "intelligent layman or laywoman" (his target audience) to be able to take in all these nuances in a critical way. I also had trouble with Roberts's prose, which sometimes lapses into mandarin-speak. "Pope John Paul II soon showed a vigorous determination to exploit to the full the historical possibility of his office" in his version what in normal English would be "John Paul II put the clock back".

Yet what worried me most in Roberts was that the author does not always seem abreast of the most modern literature on his subjects - fascism, for example. He has no general bibliography and many citations refer to a book 30 years old or more. There is a very bowdlerised version of Freud, containing several false state- ments. Roberts is not good on warfare. His treatment of the Spanish Civil War is woefully inadequate, and on the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-1945 he reproduces the old (now discredited as far too low) casualty figures of 20 million dead in the Soviet Union.

Although sound on Europe and Asia, Roberts does not inspire confidence by his judgement on the Americas. There is a very flat account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom Roberts seems to regard as Britain's friend; his remarks on the Lend-Lease make no mention of the notorious clauses requiring Britain to rescind its Imperial Preference tariff system. His account of the Cuban missile crisis attributes a level of statesmanship to John F Kennedy that the president did not possess.

So cavalier is his treatment of Latin America that he cannot even be bothered with the details of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920; Pancho Villa appears as "one revolutionary general". His assessment of Allende's Chile reads like a CIA handout: "the new government embarked upon measures which brought economic chaos and seemed to be slipping further leftwards... into a breakdown of lawlessness".

Roberts's book is undoubtedly the most ambitious and challenging of these three, though I often wondered what his putative readership was. Those who have a reasonable grasp of 20th-century history will find his coverage often superficial; those who don't will find the mountain range of structures, systems and "mentalities" unconquerable.

Where Roberts works at a general level, permitting only the occasional intrusion of minute particulars, Martin Gilbert toils at the level of facts, allowing only the occasional generalisation. The two are like the labourers on the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railways, working towards a central meeting point, except that in this case the Gold Spike proves elusive.

Gilbert has been criticised by reviewers of his two earlier volumes for a Gradgrindian "just the facts, ma'am" approach, and in this final volume shows welcome signs of having gone some way to meet his critics. He does not allow himself explicit comment but juxtaposes information in such a way that his point is made for him.

Two particularly good examples pin Robin Cook and Bill Clinton to the wall. Gilbert points out that in pursuit of his "ethical" foreign policy Cook, in his first year, issued twice as many export licences for arms shipments to Indonesia as in the last year of the Major government. Speaking of the late Priness Diana's work on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Gilbert notes that in October 1997 "the charity was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In congratulating Jody Williams, the American co-ordinator... President Clinton said that the US would still not sign the global moratorium which 89 nations had ratified".

Both Gilbert and Christopher Lee's British-based BBC volume follow a year-by-year sequence through the century. Gilbert is more scholarly, thorough and intellectually polished, but his annual diaries lack the snippets of popular culture and the quirkiness of Lee. I wish Lee had spent more time on his fascinating sociological asides and less on the accounts of forgotten political in-fighting.

In general, Gilbert's records score over Lee's but there are one or two moments when it is Lee who does the surpassing. There is nothing in Gilbert as good as this, for 1991, when Lee speaks of Western hopes that Russian markets would be opened up: "What opened up were the corrupt coffers of the new mafia of the late 20th century, and at the head of all this was a man who had great cunning but little intelligence, who drank excessively and who had the dexterity of an ageing circus clown. Yeltsin was, nevertheless, feted by Western governments".

All three volumes stress that the 20th century has been the fastest in human history in terms of technological advance and innovation. All three, to varying degrees, draw attention to mankind's dark side, manifested in the Holocaust and the other crimes against humanity. Yet all three, too, exhibit a remarkable jauntiness in the face of the Millennium. It seems we are back to the old conundrum. The optimist claims this is the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears this may be the case.