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The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1994)

by Eric Hobsbawm

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2,617314,457 (4.07)14
THE AGE OF EXTREMES is eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's personal vision of the twentieth century. Remarkable in its scope, and breathtaking in its depth of knowledge, this immensely rewarding book reviews the uniquely destructive and creative nature of the troubled twentieth century and makes challenging predicitions for the future.… (more)
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A considerable 'left' of centre History of the middle 80 years of the 20th Century: an important perspective on the cataclysmic episodes and remarkable people that marked the final century of the 2nd millennium (using the Christian calendar). ( )
  tommi180744 | May 11, 2022 |
This is a magnificent book and can best be described as a grand sweep of the 20th Century. Considering that we went through two world wars, this was indeed the age of extremes.

I'd like to quibble, as a good Asian, and say that he did not pay enough attention to the changes in Asia and Africa. He did mention these regions, but the weight given to them is low. Having said that, the western countries did dominate the age and, in the process, caused a lot of mayhem.

Eric Hobsbawm was an excellent historian and a man who could weave a tale together. Weaving the complex threads of the 20th century into a composite whole is a magnificent achievement. ( )
  RajivC | Jul 14, 2021 |
Hobsbawn ambisce a compiere un impresa folle: raccontare un periodo storico che lui stesso non ha terminato di vivere. Quello che ottiene non è solo un racconto che un capolavoro lucido, preciso, documentato. Quello che ottiene è di lasciare stupito il lettore contemporaneo sopravvissuto al secolo breve, rispetto ai grandi sconvolgimenti già insiti nel racconto storico e che, solo adesso stiamo vivendo direttamente. Un testo fondamentale per orientarsi nel passato, nel presente e persino nell'immediato futuro. ( )
  battangelo | Nov 11, 2020 |
Hobsbawm is a master historian and Age of Extremes is his final entry in his series recording the history of the world since the industrial revolution. The short twentieth century covers the carnage of world wars, the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union. Hobswbawm can even personally impose himself on the book, mentioning that the atom was being split less than a kilometre from where he studied. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Oct 30, 2020 |
Hobsbawm is a provocative guide to the "Short Twentieth Century." He is usually labeled a Marxist historian, but from reading his tetralogy, of which this is the final volume, I see him more as a writer not in thrall to capitalist triumphalism. He's certainly not a free marketeer, his loathing for economists is palpable, but neither is he an apologist for Stalin. His chapter on the last years of the USSR, analyzing what was gained and lost in its fall, is a masterpiece of historical perception, more remarkable in that it was penned only a few years after 1989. ( )
1 vote le.vert.galant | Nov 19, 2019 |
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On the 28 June 1992 President Mitterrand of France made a sudden, unannounced and unexpected appearance in Sarajevo, already the centre of a Balkan war that was to cost many thousands of lives during the remainder of the year.
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Only the temporary and bizzare alliance of liberal capitalism and communism in self-defence against this challenger saved democracy, for the victory over Hitler's Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won, by the Red Army. In many ways this period of capitalist-communist alliance against fascism – essentially the 1930s and 1940s – forms the hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment. In many ways it is a moment of historical paradox in the relations of capitalism and communism, placed, for most of the century – except for the brief period of antifascism – in a posture of irreconcilable antagonism. The victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler was the achievement of the regime installed there by the October Revolution, as a comparison of the performance of the Russian Tsarist economy in the First World War and the Soviet economy in the Second World War demonstrates… Without it the Western world today would probably consist (outside the USA) of a set of variations on authoritarian and fascist themes rather than a set of variations on liberal parliamentary ones. It is one of the ironies of this strange century that the most lasting results of the October revolution, whose object was the global overthrow of capitalism, was to save its antagonist, both in war and in peace – that is to say, by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War, and, by establishing the popularity of economic planning, furnishing it with some of the procedures for its reform.

Still, even when liberal capitalism had – and only just – survived the triple challenge of slump, fascism and war, it still seemed to face the global advance of revolution, which could now rally round the USSR which had emerged from the Second World War as a superpower.

And yet, as we can now see in retrospect, the strength of the global socialist challenge to capitalism was that of the weakness of its opponent. Without the breakdown of nineteenth-century bourgeois society in the Age of Catastrophe, there would have been no October revolution and no USSR. The economic system improvised in the ruined rural Eurasian hulk of the former Tsarist Empire under the name of socialism would not have considered itself, nor been considered elsewhere, as a realistic global alternative to the capitalist economy. It was the Great Slump of the 1930s that made it look as though it was so, as it was the challenge of fascism which made the USSR into the indispensable instrument of Hitler’s defeat, and therefore into one of the two superpowers whose confrontations dominated and terrified the second half of the Short Twentieth Century, while – as we can also now see – in many respects stabilizing its political structure. The USSR would not have found itself, for a decade-and-a-half in the middle of the century, at the head of a ‘socialist camp’ comprising a third of the human race, and an economy that briefly looked as though it might out-race capitalist economic growth.
How did the world of the 1990s compare with the world of 1914? It contained five or six billion human beings, perhaps three times as many people as at the outbreak of the First World War, and this in spite of the fact that during the Short Century more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history. A recent estimate of the century’s ‘megadeaths’ is 187 millions…, which is the equivalent of more than one in ten of the total world population in 1900. Most people in the 1990s were taller and heavier than their parents, better fed, and far longer-lived, though the catastrophes of the 1980s and 1990s in Africa, Latin America and the ex-USSR may make this difficult to believe. The world was incomparably richer than ever before in its capacity to produce goods and services and in their endless variety. It could not have managed otherwise to maintain a global population several times larger than ever before in the world’s history. Most people until the 1980s lived better than their parents, and, in the advanced economies, better than they had ever expected to live or even imagined it possible to live. For some decades in the middle of the century it even looked as though ways had been found of distributing at least some of this enormous wealth with a degree of fairness to the working people of the richer countries, but at the end of the century inequality had once again the upper hand. It had also made a massive entry into the former ‘socialist’ countries where a certain equality of poverty had previously reigned. Humanity was far better educated than in 1914. Indeed, probably for the first time in history most human beings could be described as literate, at least in official statistics, though the significance of this achievement was far less clear at the end of the century than it would have been in 1914, given the enormous and probably growing gap between the minimum of competence officially accepted as literacy, often shading into ‘functional illiteracy’, and the command of reading and writing still expected at elite levels.

The world was filled with a revolutionary and constantly advancing technology, based on triumphs of natural science which could be anticipated in 1914, but had then barely begun to be pioneered. Perhaps the most dramatic practical consequence of these was a revolution in transport and communications which virtually annihilated time and distance. It was a world which could bring more information and entertainment than had been available to emperors in 1914, daily, hourly, into every household. It let people speak to one another across oceans and continents at the touch of a few buttons, and, for most practical purposes, abolished the cultural advantages of city over countryside.

Why, then, did the century end, not with a celebration of this unparalleled and marvellous progress, but in a mood of uneasiness? Why, as the epigraphs to this chapter show, did so many reflective minds look back upon it without satisfaction, and certainly without confidence in the future? Not only because it was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record, both by the scale, frequency and length of the warfare which filled it, barely ceasing for a moment in the 1920s, but also by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide. Unlike the ‘long nineteenth century’, which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress, that is to say of improvement in the conditions of civilized life, there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population.

Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism. We forget that the old revolutionary Frederick Engels was horrified at the explosion of an Irish Republican bomb in Westminster Hall, because, as an old soldier, he held that war was waged against combatants and not non-combatants. We forget that the pogroms in Tsarist Russia which (justifiably) outraged world opinion and drove Russian Jews across the Atlantic in their millions between 1881 and 1914, were small, almost negligible, by the standards of modern massacre: the dead were counted in dozens, not hundreds, let alone millions. We forget that an international Convention once provided that hostilities in war ‘must not commence without previous and explicit warning in the form of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war’, for when was the last war that began with such an explicit or implicit declaration? Or one that ended with a formal treaty of peace negotiated between the belligerent states? In the course of the twentieth century, wars have been increasingly waged against the economy and infrastructure of states and against their civilian populations. Since the First World War the number of civilian casualties in war has been far greater than that of military casualties in all belligerent countries except the USA. How many of us recall that it was taken for granted in 1914 that:
    Civilized warfare, the textbooks tell us, is confined, as far as possible, to disablement of the armed forces of the enemy; otherwise war would continue till one of the parties was exterminated. ‘It is that this practice has grown into a custom with good reason with the nations of Europe’. (Encyclopedia Britannica, XI ed., 1911, art: War.)
We do not quite overlook the revival of torture or even murder as a normal part of the operations of public security in modern states, but we probably fail to appreciate quite how dramatic a reversal this constitutes of the long era of legal development, from the first formal abolition of torture in a Western country in the 1780s to 1914.

And yet, the world at the end of the Short Twentieth Century cannot be compared with the world at its beginning in the terms of the historical accountancy of ‘more’ and ‘less’. It was a qualitatively different world in at least three respects.

First, it was no longer Eurocentric. It had brought the decline and fall of Europe, still the unquestioned centre of power, wealth, intellect and ‘Western civilization’ when the century began. Europeans and their descendants were now reduced from perhaps a third of humanity to at most one sixth, a diminishing minority living in countries which barely, if at all, reproduced their populations, surrounded by, and in most cases – with some shining exceptions such as the USA (until the 1990s) barricading themselves against the pressure of immigration from the regions of the poor. The industries Europe had pioneered were migrating elsewhere. The countries which had once looked across the oceans to Europe looked elsewhere. Australia, New Zealand, even the bi-oceanic USA, saw the future in the Pacific, whatever exactly this meant.

The ‘great powers’ of 1914, all of them European, had disappeared, like the USSR, inheritor of Tsarist Russia, or were reduced to regional or provincial status, with the possible exception of Germany. The very effort to create a single supranational ‘European Community’ and to invent a sense of European identity to correspond to it, replacing the old loyalties to historic nations and states, demonstrated the depth of this decline.

Was this a change of major significance, except for political historians? Perhaps not, since it reflected only minor changes in the economic, intellectual and cultural configuration of the world. Even in 1914 the USA had been the major industrial economy, and the major pioneer, model and propulsive force of the mass production and mass culture which conquered the globe during the Short Twentieth Century, and the USA, in spite of its many peculiarities, was the overseas extension of Europe, and bracketed itself with the old continent under the heading ‘western civilization’. Whatever its future prospects, the USA looked back from the 1990s on ‘The American Century’, an age of its rise and triumph. The ensemble of the countries of nineteenth-century industrialization remained, collectively, by far the greatest concentration of wealth, economic and scientific-technological power on the globe, as well as the one whose peoples enjoyed by far the highest standard of living. At the end of the century this still more than compensated for de-industrialization and the shift of production to other continents. To this extent the impression of an old Eurocentric or ‘Western’ world in full decline was superficial.

The second transformation was more significant. Between 1914 and the early 1990s the globe has become far more of a single operational unit, as it was not, and could not have been in 1914. In fact, for many purposes, notably in economic affairs, the globe is now the primary operational unit and older units such as the ‘national economies’, defined by the politics of territorial states, are reduced to complications of transnational activities. The stage reached by the 1990s in the construction of the ‘global village’ – the phrase was coined in the 1960s … – will not seem very advanced to observers in the mid-twenty-first century, but it had already transformed not only certain economic and technical activities, and the operations of science, but important aspects of private life, mainly by the unimaginable acceleration of communication and transport. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the end of the twentieth century is the tension between this accelerating process of globalization and the inability of both public institutions and the collective behaviour of human beings to come to terms with it. Curiously enough, private human behaviour has had less trouble in adjusting to the world of satellite television, E-mail, holidays in the Seychelles and trans-oceanic commuting.

The third transformation, and in some ways the most disturbing, is the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and with it, incidentally, the snapping of the links between generations, that is to say, between past and present. This has been particularly evident in the most developed countries of the western version of capitalism, in which the values of an absolute a-social individualism have been dominant, both in official and unofficial ideologies, though those who hold them often deplore their social consequences. Nevertheless, the tendencies were to be found elsewhere, reinforced by the erosion of traditional societies and religions, as well as by the destruction, or autodestruction, of the societies of ‘real socialism’.

Such a society consisting of an otherwise unconnected assemblage of self-centred individuals pursuing only their own gratification (whether this is called profit, pleasure or by some other name) was always implicit in the theory of the capitalist economy. Ever since the Age of Revolution, observers of all ideological colours predicted the consequent disintegration of the old social bonds in practice and monitored its progress. The Communist Manifesto’s eloquent tribute to the revolutionary role of capitalism is familiar (‘The bourgeoisie ... has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest’). But that is not quite how the new and revolutionary capitalist society had worked in practice.

In practice, the new society operated not by the wholesale destruction of all that it had inherited from the old society, but by selectively adapting the heritage of the past for its own use. There is no ‘sociological puzzle’ about the readiness of bourgeois society to introduce ‘a radical individualism in economics and to tear up all traditional social relations in the process’ (i.e. where they got in its way), while fearing ‘radical experimental individualism’ in culture (or in the field of behaviour and morality) …. The most effective way to build an industrial economy based on private enterprise was to combine it with motivations which had nothing to do with the logic of the free market – for instance with the Protestant ethic; with the abstention from immediate gratification; with the ethic of hard work; with family duty and trust; but certainly not with the antinomian rebellion of individuals.
The peace-settlement, imposed by the major surviving victorious powers (USA, Britain, France, Italy) and usually, if inaccurately, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was dominated by five considerations. The most immediate was the breakdown of so many regimes in Europe, and the emergence in Russia of an alternative revolutionary Bolshevik regime dedicated to universal subversion, and a magnet for revolutionary forces everywhere else …. Second, there was the need to control Germany which had, after all, almost defeated the entire Allied coalition singlehanded. For obvious reasons this was, and has ever since remained, the major concern of France. Third, the map of Europe had to be re-divided and re-drawn, both to weaken Germany and to fill the large empty spaces left in Europe and the Middle East by the simultaneous defeat and collapse of the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The main claimants to the succession, at least in Europe, were various nationalist movements which the victors tended to encourage insofar as they were adequately anti-Bolshevik. In fact, in Europe the basic principle of re-ordering the map was to create ethnic-linguistic nation states, according to the belief that nations had the ‘right to self-determination’. President Wilson of the USA, whose opinions were seen as expressing those of the power without whom the war would have been lost, was passionately committed to this belief, which was (and is) more easily held by those far from the ethnic and linguistic realities of the regions which were to be divided into neat nation-states. The attempt was a disaster, as can still be seen in the Europe of the 1990s. The national conflicts tearing the continent apart in the 1990s were the old chickens of Versailles once again coming home to roost. The remapping of the Middle East was along conventional imperialist lines – division between Britain and France – except for Palestine, where the British government, anxious for international Jewish support during the war, had incautiously and ambiguously promised to establish ‘a national home’ for the Jews. This was to be another problematic and unforgotten relic of the First World War.

The fourth set of considerations were those of domestic politics within the victor countries – which meant, in practice, Britain, France and the USA – and frictions between them. The most important consequence of such internal politicking was that the US Congress refused to ratify a peace settlement largely written by or for its President, and the USA consequently withdrew from it, with far-reaching results.

Finally, the victor powers desperately searched for the kind of peace settlement which would make impossible another war like the one that had just devastated the world, and whose after-effects were all around them. They failed in the most spectacular manner. Within twenty years the world was once again at war.

Making the world safe from Bolshevism and re-mapping Europe overlapped, since the most immediate way to deal with revolutionary Russia, if by any chance it survived – this was by no means certain in 1919 – was to isolate it behind a ‘quarantine belt’ (cordon sanitaire, in the contemporary language of diplomacy) of anti-communist states. Since the territory of these was largely or wholly carved out of the formerly Russian lands, their hostility to Moscow could be guaranteed. Going from north to south, these were: Finland, an autonomous region that had been allowed to secede by Lenin; three new little Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), for which there was no historical precedent; Poland, restored to independent statehood after 120 years, and an enormously enlarged Rumania, its size doubled by accessions from the Hungarian and Austrian parts of the Habsburg empire and ex-Russian Bessarabia. Most of these territories had actually been detached from Russia by Germany and, but for the Bolshevik Revolution, would certainly have been returned to that state. The attempt to continue this isolation belt into the Caucasus, failed, essentially because revolutionary Russia came to terms with non-communist but revolutionary Turkey, which had no fondness for the British and French imperialists. Hence the briefly independent Armenian and Georgian states, set up after Brest Litowsk, and attempts under the British to detach oil-rich Azerbaijan, did not survive the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War of 1918–20 and the Soviet-Turkish treaty of 1921. In short, in the East the Allies accepted the frontiers imposed by Germany on revolutionary Russia, insofar as these were not made inoperative by forces beyond their control.

This still left large parts, mainly of formerly Austro-Hungarian Europe, to be re-mapped. Austria and Hungary were reduced to German and Magyar rumps, Serbia was expanded into a large new Yugoslavia by a merger with the (formerly Austrian) Slovenia and the (formerly Hungarian) Croatia, as well as with the formerly independent small tribal kingdom of herdsmen and raiders, Montenegro, a bleak mass of mountains whose inhabitants reacted to the unprecedented loss of independence by converting en masse to communism, which, they felt, appreciated the heroic virtue. It was also associated with orthodox Russia, whose faith the unconquered men of the Black Mountain had defended against the Turkish unbelievers for so many centuries. A new Czechoslovakia was also formed by joining the former industrial core of the Habsburg empire, the Czech lands, to the areas of Slovak and Ruthenian country people once belonging to Hungary. Rumania was enlarged into a multinational conglomerate, while Poland and Italy also benefited. There was absolutely no historical precedent for or logic in the Yugoslav and Czechoslovak combinations, which were constructs of a nationalist ideology which believed in both the force of common ethnicity and the undesirability of excessively small nation-states. All the southern Slavs (= Yugoslavs) belonged to one state, as did the western Slavs of the Czech and Slovak lands. As might have been expected, these shotgun political marriages did not prove very firm. Incidentally, except for rump Austria and rump Hungary, shorn of most – but in practice not entirely of all – their minorities, the new succession states, whether carved out of Russia or the Habsburg Empire, were no less multinational than their predecessors.
It seemed obvious that the old world was doomed. The old society, the old economy, the old political systems had, as the Chinese phrase put it, ‘lost the mandate of heaven’. Humanity was waiting for an alternative. Such as alternative was familiar in 1914. Socialist parties, resting on the support of the expanding working classes of their countries and inspired by a belief in the historic inevitability of their victory, represented this alternative in most countries of Europe …. It looked as though only a signal was needed for the peoples to rise, to replace capitalism by socialism, and thus to transform the meaningless sufferings of world war into something more positive: the bloody birth-pains and convulsions of a new world. The Russian Revolution or, more precisely, the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, set out to give the world this signal. It therefore became an event as central to the history of this century as the French revolution of 1789 was to the nineteenth. Indeed, it is not an accident that the history of the Short Twentieth Century, as defined in this book, virtually coincides with the lifetime of the state born of the October revolution.

However, the October revolution had far more profound and global repercussions than its ancestor. For, if the ideas of the French revolution have, as is now evident, outlasted Bolshevism, the practical consequences of 1917 were far greater and more lasting than those of 1789. The October revolution produced by far the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history. Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century. A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ (Reed, 1919), and Lenin’s organizational model, the Communist Party. Most of them followed the USSR in a second wave of revolutions which emerged two-part revolution, although it naturally concentrates on the original and formative revolution of 1917 and the special house-style it imposed on its successors.

In any case, it largely dominated these from the second phase of the long world war of 1914–45.
The world revolution, which justified Lenin’s decision to commit Russia to socialism, did not take place, and with it Soviet Russia was committed to a generation of impoverished and backward isolation. The options for its future development were determined, or at least narrowly circumscribed …. Yet a wave of revolution swept across the globe in the two years after October, and the hopes of the embattled Bolsheviks did not seem unrealistic. ‘Völker hört die Signale’ (‘Peoples, hear the signals’) was the first line of the refrain of the Internationale in German. The signals came, loud and clear, from Petrograd and, after their capital had been transferred to a safer location in 1918, Moscow; they were heard wherever labour and socialist movements operated, irrespective of their ideology, and even beyond. ‘Soviets’ were formed by the tobacco workers in Cuba where few knew where Russia was. The years from 1917–19 in Spain came to be known as ‘the Bolshevik biennium’, though the local left was passionately anarchist, i.e. politically at the opposite pole from Lenin. Revolutionary student movements erupted in Peking (Beijing) in 1919 and Córdoba (Argentina) in 1918, soon to spread across Latin America and to generate local revolutionary Marxist leaders and parties. The Indian nationalist militant M.N. Roy immediately fell under its spell in Mexico, where the local revolution, entering its most radical phase in 1917, naturally recognized its affinity with revolutionary Russia: Marx and Lenin became its icons, together with Moctezuma, Emiliano Zapata and assorted labouring Indians, and can still be seen on the great murals of its official artists. Within a few months Roy was in Moscow to play a major role in forming the new Communist International’s policy for colonial liberation. Partly through resident Dutch socialists like Henk Sneevliet, the October revolution immediately made its mark on the Indonesian national liberation movement’s main mass organization, Sarekat Islam. ‘This action of the Russian people’, wrote a provincial Turkish paper, ‘someday in the future will turn into a sun and illuminate all humanity’. In the distant interior of Australia, tough (and largely Irish Catholic) sheep–shearers, with no discernible interest in political theory, cheered the Soviets as a workers’ state. In the USA the Finns, long the most strongly socialist of immigrant communities, converted to communism en masse, filling the bleak mining settlements of Minnesota with meetings ‘where the mentioning of the name of Lenin made the heart throb In mystic silence, almost in religious ecstasy, did we admire everything that came from Russia’ (Koivisto, 1983). In short, the October revolution was universally recognized as a world-shaking event.
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THE AGE OF EXTREMES is eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's personal vision of the twentieth century. Remarkable in its scope, and breathtaking in its depth of knowledge, this immensely rewarding book reviews the uniquely destructive and creative nature of the troubled twentieth century and makes challenging predicitions for the future.

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