A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century

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9780306810633: A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century

The problem with the history of twentieth-century Europe is that we all think we know it. The great stories of the century—the two world wars, the rise and fall of Nazism and Communism—seem self-evident in their importance. But behind the politics and the ideologies lies another history: the history of forces that shaped the lives of individual Europeans...and the lives of men and women around the world. (Americans need only think of the way that the history of Europe has shaped the flow of immigrants to the U.S. and thereby altered our nation's history.)Richard Vinen contends that there is no single history that encompasses the experience of the century, but rather a multiplicity of different, interlocking histories—stories not only of politics and military movements, but also of culture, religion, sex, and demographics, related here with an unmatched eye for the telling detail and spiced with memorable anecdotes. As the Sunday Telegraph put it: "Vinen moves effortlessly from social and economic issues to politics, from ideology to military history. . . . The writing is lively, the enthusiasm infectious, and the gift for bold, epigrammatic summary genuinely impressive." A canvas encompassing both the broad and the particular, this is a major work of history—and history writing at its best.

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Review:

A History in Fragments captures the sweep of an extraordinary century. Richard Vinen, a popular young London lecturer, traces Europe's tumultuous evolution from imperialism to democracy and cyberspace, "the new frontier." Rather than taking a political, cultural, or economic approach, Vinen combines all in a highly intelligent tour de force. He argues that the key to understanding 20th-century Europe is in its diversity, hence the book's title. Yet this does not do justice to the seamless way he ties together such overarching themes as the rise and fall of communism, the crumbling of social traditions, and total war. His command of vast quantities of material is awe- inspiring; his well-chosen anecdotes lively and right on the mark; his analyses pithy and easy to understand. For example, a simple comparison of the words "internationalism" as used by the communist camp and "globalization" as used by capitalists speaks volumes about the world view of the two ideologies. One of the book's many virtues is a refreshing objectivity. Conscious of his own prejudices as a middle-class British historian born in the 1960s, Vinen takes pains to see events from the viewpoints of those involved. A rather awkward section tucked before a chapter on post-war Europe presents striking photos and a short essay on the use and manipulation of images in the 20th century. Instead of a list of histories and biographies, the bibliography includes useful short critiques of reference material. A History in Fragments inspires both optimism and cynicism in the reader but never boredom. This is drama on the grandest scale and history-telling at its best. --John Stevenson

About the Author:

Richard Vinen, one of the most celebrated young historians writing today, lectures in history at King's College in London.

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