The Age of Extremes:
The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991

Eric Hobsbawm

Penguin 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Eric Hobsbawm has produced a superb overview of the middle three-quarters of the 20th century. Age of Extremes is broadly chronological, but does not offer a narrative of events, instead tackling broad themes in nineteen largely self-contained chapters. The topics on which Hobsbawm focuses are the advent of total war, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the end of liberalism and the rise of dictatorships, the alliance against fascism in the Second World War, decolonisation and the end of empires, the Golden Years of the post-war boom and later economic crises, the development of the Third World, 'Real Socialism', wars and revolutions, and the end of socialism. There is good coverage of social history in this, as one would expect given Hobsbawm's background, but also a chapter on "the cultural revolution", two chapters on the arts, and one on science and technology.

While his approach is necessarily "broad sweep", Hobsbawm avoids bland generalisations, working into his analysis specific events and details, statistics, provoking facts, and even the occasional personal anecdote. He is as much at home describing how radio changed the lives of the poor, sketching the course and implications of the Spanish Civil War in five pages, or explaining the effects of the world economy on subsistence farming. Most importantly, he is never dull. Age of Extremes also includes a really excellent 32 page selection of black and white photographs, which would make a nice photo-essay in its own right.

There are certainly things one can quibble about. Hobsbawm's own area of specialisation is the nineteenth century and Age of Extremes is based almost entirely on secondary sources, the limitations of which are occasionally visible. A brief explanation of Gödel's Theorem, for example, is confused. Hobsbawm's own interests and biases are also obvious: most obviously, not everyone would have devoted so much space to socialism (and some consider him insufficiently "anti-communist", despite his incisive forensic analysis of the failures and disasters of communist regimes). Such problems would arise for anyone attempting to paint on such a broad canvas, however, and they barely dent Hobsbawm's achievement in Age of Extremes.

January 2002

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%T The Age of Extremes
%S The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991
%A Hobsbawm, Eric
%I Penguin
%D 1994
%O paperback, b&w photos, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0718133072
%P xii,627pp