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Book Review

 

Reynolds, David. One World Divisible. A Global History Since 1945 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Press, 2001). 861 pp, $19.95.

 
      David Reynolds is a fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and is a specialist in twentieth-century international relations. One World Divisible. A Global History Since 1945, is one volume in the Global Century series, which seeks to publish books by outstanding scholars on the history of the world in the twentieth century. The general editor of the series is Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The book includes well placed maps, tables, and illustrations that complement the narrative, as well as 108 pages of endnotes which refer to both primary and secondary sources. An extensive index facilitates further navigation through this comprehensive and at times meandering tome. The author's lively, almost popular, tone and handling of complex themes make the history of the second half of the twentieth century accessible if only because he attempts to discuss familiar problems and developments pertaining to science, technology, disease, and social groups in addition to "mere" international relations. This approach invites, indeed compels, the reader to react to the author's ideological and historiographical predilections. 1
     And what of those predilections? Agreeing with postmodernists, he eschews past "grand narratives," whether triumphalist western-style or Marxist. For Reynolds, "By the 1990s, it was hard to sustain the idea, however flexibly framed, that the dynamic of history is class struggle, from which the eventual outcome will be the triumph of the working class." (3) Nor does the theme of globalization suffice. Rather, for Reynolds, " . . . the striking feature of recent decades has been the dialectical process of greater integration and greater fragmentation . . . . If this book has a grand narrative, therefore, it is deliberately contrapuntal One World Divisible. And that narrative is constructed mainly . . . around what I take to be the central, political mechanism of the dialectic. This is the process of state building." (4) Within this framework, he undertakes excursions into social history, advances in technology, cultural change, demography, and urbanization as "counterpoints" to the political narrative. He does this with mixed results but with disarming humility, going so far as to admit that this is merely the work of a "white, male, middle-aged, English historian." (8) However, that humility has not deflected caustic observations: failure to discuss NSC-68; too much optimism with respect to progress in the developed and developing world; over-generalizations about culture; insufficient attention to AIDS, to the plight of women and to race; or simply that he has attempted to accomplish too much in one book. Nevertheless, for the student of twentieth-century world history the book's usefulness lies not only in its strengths but also in its weaknesses (probably not the author's intention!). This is the work of a conscientious historian, and it does attempt to explore and synthesize new areas of research that remain to be sufficiently integrated in world history narratives. 2
     Reynolds makes no attempt to be definitive. He is keenly aware of the increasing complexity of world history since 1945, and he asks whether explanatory frameworks that have served historians well in the past are useful today. Have we seen "the end of history"? Is Marxism still a useful tool? What time frame should one adopt? How does one integrate "humanity's growing capacity to manipulate the physical world" in our historical narrative? (694) How does one simultaneously discuss globalization and the resilience of the nation-state? Reynolds broaches and pursues these questions with a keen awareness that the nature and intensity of problems and interactions since 1945 have been of a totally different order from those that prevailed at the beginning of the twentieth century. (697) The collapse of communism, for example, is linked to an erosion of political cultures and structures. And what of faith and the various other "isms"? How does the contemporary historian integrate these historical phenomena? Hence Reynolds' theme: "More than ever, this is one world; more than ever, it is divisible." (701) It is divisible not only because of structural transformations, but also because of the almost unlimited intellectual perspectives available to the student of history. Where does one begin? Where does one stand? Reynolds makes a heroic effort to acknowledge these challenges and to offer fresh encouragement to transcend them: "We understand what happened, in the minutiae of daily life or the epics of world affairs, by constructing stories. And as we discern meaning in the momentary, so we are freed, just a little, from the tyranny of time."(702) While the reader and critic may challenge Reynolds' liberal and optimistic "story," he or she must also acknowledge his admirable commitment to give some shape to a period in history that resists integration within more familiar frameworks. 3
     Upper-division college students would find this work helpful if assigned over the course of a semester to allow for the testing of Reynolds' approach and assertions. As such, it would serve as a "provocative" text on world history since 1945. As for possible classroom use, this book invites comparisons (positive and negative) with other attempts to cover similar ground, if over broader time spans and with different emphasis: see, for example, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Paul Johnson, Modern Times; Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History; and J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the Twentieth Century. While there is much to disagree with here on ideological and methodological grounds, Professor Reynolds has dared to venture into the turbulent waters of contemporary world history, and in doing so he has risked. For as he admits at the outset: "Any contemporary historian must accept the risk that he will soon be reading his book with a wry, toothless grin." (2) Where, indeed, is the book that escapes that grin? In this case, the grin should be followed by a smile of gratitude. 4
Elmiro Argento
Douglas College

 
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