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Staff Pick: History of Twentieth Century

Name: Puan Zarina binti Abu Bakar
Position: General Manager, Perdana Leadership Foundation
Book: History of the Twentieth Century
Author: Martin Gilbert*
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Year: 2001
Language: English

Staff Comments:
A century in 800 pages. This is what Sir Martin Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century promises its readers, and the book delivers, giving an account of history across the world’s continents in compact and well-written prose.

Covering 1900 right up to 1999, there is a lot that readers can glean from the book, and while reading it in chronological order will awe any reader with the relentless march of change, taking casual dips into the book is also an eye-opener. I would also recommend starting from the index section and selecting a subject to get a better grasp of the changes that took place. One such example would be the Soviet Union – its birth (p.117), rise, and disintegration (p.619), with many entries in between. Not every subject is merited the same attention (that would make the book an impossibility) but events in smaller nations are documented, albeit in passing. There are ten mentions of Malaya and Malaysia, in the context of the British colonisation, Japanese occupation, and communist insurgency, though here I have to point out the author misattributed “Malaysia” in an entry under 1955, eight years before our formation. The last mention of Malaysia is in connection to the haze of 1997, not the Asian Currency Crisis, of which there is, inexplicably, no mention despite the economic, social and political upheavals it wrought on this part of the world. 

The book is recommended for its breadth of history and sprightly narrative. It is by no means exhaustive but it covers the major turns of history from the Western viewpoint well enough that it will whet any amateur historian buff’s appetite. It is particularly useful as a year-by-year narrative of world events. Readers who want to delve deeper may want to read the three-volume chronicle this book is condensed from (all by Sir Gilbert), or check out other individual titles.

*During his career as a historian, Sir Martin Gilbert wrote 88 books, including the official biography of Winston Churchill, and was regarded as one of Britain’s eminent historians. He was also pro-Israel, a fact to bear in mind when reading the entries on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation of the state of Israel.

“During my work on the history of the twentieth century it is the part of the individual on which I have tried to focus: not only on individual actions, but the struggle for the rights of the individual, for the civil rights and human rights, in every land. By the end of the century those rights were better understood, and more widely respected, than in earlier decades, but not universally.”
Introduction, XV

“In the Far East, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on February 15 after incessant Japanese shelling and bombing. The British Empire’s largest city east of India had fallen. The soldiers who surrendered included 32,000 Indians, 16,000 British, and 14,000 Australians. In the years ahead more than half of them were to die as prisoners-of-war (POW) in circumstances of the harshest deprivation and cruel treatment. On February 16, 25 British soldiers who had surrendered in Malaya were taken to the shore, bayoneted and shot. 65 Australians nurses who were with them were then ordered to march into the sea. As they did so, Japanese machine-gunners opened fire. Only one nurse survived.”
– 1942. Second World War, page 281

“With the exception of the Soviet Union, the imperial and colonial era was over. From the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, the Soviet Union was ruler of many dozens of national groups, each forced to pledge its language, flag, national heroes, even religion – for there were several Muslim republics in the Soviet Central Asia – for the greater good, and political will, of Moscow. The United States had relinquished its control over the Philippines. Holland had long seen an end to its possession in the Dutch East Indies. France was almost gone from Africa. Portuguese rule in Africa was ended. Globally, little was left of the British and French Empires. On June 18, Britain conceded independence to the Seychelles, and the island group – of 115 islands in all, spread over 400,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean – which it had ceded from France in 1810. The Seychelles became the 145th member of the United Nations.”
– 1976. Challenges of Modernity, page 517-518

The History of the Twentieth Century is available at the Perdana Library. If you are interested in reading or borrowing the book, please contact us at 03-88858961 (Library Counter).