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Book review / A hundred years of turpitude

A History Of The Twentieth Century: Vol 1 1900-1933 by Martin Gilbert, HarperCollins pounds 30
In 1933, Trotsky - exiled in Turkey, en route to Mexico and his appointment with the icepick which Stalin's thugs drove into his brain - took stock of the 20th century so far. He deplored it as "the most disturbed century within the memory of humanity", and advised his contemporaries that, if they wanted peace and comfort, they had chosen the wrong time to be born. He was wrong about comforts, which the 20th century has lavished on us: automated bank tellers and supersonic jets, video recorders and cellular phones - all those technological boons which (as Freud declared) turned modern men into "prosthetic gods". But is the same technology engaged in a war against the human race which it claims to be serving? Ours is the century of machine guns, gas chambers and atom bombs. Even the emissions from our innocent refrigerators are stealthily gnawing a hole in the sky.

Like Trotsky, Martin Gilbert pauses reflectively in 1933, aware that, with Hitler newly installed as German Chancellor, the worst is yet to come. Eric Hobsbawm ingeniously abbreviated the subject in his "short century", arguing that modern history began belatedly in 1914 and prematurely ended in 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed. Gilbert's, however, is a long, long century, and on his exhausting trek - this 900-page volume is the first of three - he intends to allot 35 pages to each of its years. He defines the century's agenda well, concentrating on the disintegration of those European empires which profitably gobbled up the globe during the 19th century, and connecting decolonisation abroad with movements of liberation at home: campaigns for workers' rights, and for female suffrage.

Gilbert begins with the Boer war and the Boxer rebellion, early challenges to imperial hegemony. He seems to be sneakingly fond of Britain's empire, and among his manifold excerpts from the Times is a letter in 1901, after Queen Victoria's funeral, which reports that "African chiefs have ordered tom-toms to be beaten or cattle sacrificed" to ensure the repose of the old trout's soul. Gilbert also laments the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1904 the "11 separate peoples" ruled by the Habsburgs agitated for autonomy. Ninety years later, those 11 peoples are busy fragmenting themselves in genocidal civil wars. The empires of others, as Gilbert makes clear, were less benevolent. In Morocco, zealous Spanish troops hacked off the heads of Moorish insurgents, which Franco considered an "exemplary punishment". The Belgian king treated the Congo as a personal fiefdom, pocketing pounds 360,000 a year from the rubber trade and countenancing the enslavements and massacres on which his wealth depended; he spent the spoils on malachite beds, electrified pagodas, and the beautification of Ostend. Little, in the long run, has changed, except that in recent years the profiteering has been done by the indigenous despot Mobutu.

The best and liveliest part of Gilbert's book is his account of what Churchill in 1914 called "those stupid Kings and Emperors", whose cosy, proprietorial complacency destroyed the old world order. The German Kaiser - attending the funeral of his grandmother, Queen Victoria - proposed an alliance between "the two Teutonic nations". Britain could rule the waves, while Germany would control the land. "Not a mouse," Wilhelm growled, "will stir without our permission." Ah, the mordant retrospective ironies of history: the Kaiser and the Tsar, chummily corresponding in English, addressed each other as Nicky and Willy. By 1908, these clubbable potentates were on the defensive. When Edward VII visited his cousin the Tsar in one of Russia's Baltic ports, they socialised on board their yachts, fearing assassination if they came ashore. In 1918, shamed by Germany's defeat, Wilhelm slunk off to exile in Holland, where he consoled himself by blaming the Jews for his disgrace.

Elsewhere, these trumped-up ceremonial dummies had a longer shelf-life. On tour in 1911, the Japanese emperor was delayed for 20 minutes when his train jumped the points. A station master accepted responsibility and disembowelled himself. How differently things are run on our own non- feudal railways!

History, of course, has no happy endings, and - like the transition from greedy King Leopold to the equally rapacious Mobutu - the social engineers who unseated those plumed dotards turned out to be just as villainous. Lenin in 1922 advised his so-called Commissar of Justice that "the law should not abolish terror". Dangerously joking with a tyrant, the official remarked that "his department might better be named 'Commissariat for Social Extermination'". Lenin nodded serenely, but reminded his underling that in politics one must never tell the truth. Later in the same year, he quaintly denounced Stalin's lack of "the most elementary honesty".

When the century began, who could oppose the assault on bourgeois civilisation, with its smug inequities and its hypocritical equation between riches and virtue? But the dialectic moves in mysterious ways, and Gilbert exposes the cynical destructiveness of the revolutionaries. Lenin, sitting out the combat in Switzerland, delighted in the First World War, because he thought it presaged "the fall of capitalism". Ideologues reduced the range of political options to a starkly binary conflict. "The choice of the 20th century," Mussolini insisted, "must lie between Fascism and Bolshevism." Hitler offered two mutually exclusive emblems: "the swastika or the iron star". We are still, as the century expires, seeking to define a middle way.

The spirit of modernity briskly took the world to pieces, then puzzled over how to put it back together again. The new physics killed off time and space, while cubism, as Apollinaire said, "aggressively interrogated the universe". Kandinsky, reading about the electron theory, felt the ground shudder beneath him. Once the makeshift empires fell apart, everything became unstable. A Bavarian Soviet was established in 1918. The next year, even Switzerland had a brief Red revolution, although the shops soon reopened for business.

Maps were frighteningly malleable, their boundaries fickle and relativistic. In 1913 Germans received financial rewards for beating up Frenchmen in Alsace, seen as renegades from the Reich. Italy squabbled with Yugoslavia over the islands in the Adriatic and undertook, as Mussolini put it, the "ruthless Italianisation" of the South Tyrol. Hitler, like Kaiser Wilhelm, based German foreign policy on the race-hatred between Teuton and Slav. Stalin identified a class of home-grown enemies, and modernised Soviet agriculture by starving and shooting four or five million peasants. The United States reverted to the squabbling disunity which is its native condition. In 1910 a black boxer defeated a white rival in Nevada. White Americans rioted throughout the country, and lynch mobs warned blacks not to become too uppity. The Ku Klux Klan paraded through New York in 1927. In the same year, a rabid mayoral candidate vowed to decolonise Chicago: he promised to remove all English books from the public library and have them burnt.

Churchill - Gilbert's particular hero, about whom he has written a dozen books - wearily sighed in 1922: "What a disappointment the 20th century has been." Less than a quarter of it had then elapsed: if only he'd known about the rest! Gilbert has trudged through a third of his chronicle, and it too is a disappointment. He relies so heavily on journalistic dispatches that his book sometimes reads like an anthology of archival quotes from the Times. He fusses over treaties and diplomatic deals, and ignores profounder changes taking place inside the mind. Freud and Einstein are mentioned once only, and then with reference to political, not intellectual, activities. Each chapter otiosely informs you how many people died in cinema fires in that particular year, and all bulletins conclude with a weather report. "In the United States," Gilbert comments in his summary of 1913, "natural and man-made disasters were a feature of the year." In which year, I wonder, weren't they?

He tries to dispense some occasional good news: ignoring the arts, he touts pre-sliced Wonder Bread and the paper cup as among the century's blessings. Though not looking out for errors, I couldn't help noticing that he misquotes the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, attributes the tubular steel chair (another of the century's dubious legacies) to Charles not Marcel Breuer, and does not understand Australia's federal constitution.

Gilbert's style is already fatigued. Historical or moral tides punctually turn, and Slav clouds appear on Austrian horizons. The fires of dissent "smoulder and burst into flame", though "the fires of nationalism" are quenched. Hotbeds of revolt inevitably seethe. The Tsar "bows to the storm", while the Kaiser blows hot, then blows cold. Gilbert has toiled mightily (and even expects credit for the fact that the index is "compiled by the author"), but the result, I fear, is a triumph of a manual not mental labour.

O brave new world, that has such gadgets in it: (above) demonstrating the Sunbeam Mixmaster at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1934; (below) the vehicle which went in the garage of 1928's House of the Future, a car which incorporates aeroplane and boat. From The Ideal Home through the 20th Century by Deborah S Ryan (Hazar pounds 17.99).