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Cataclysms: A History of the Twentieth Century from Europe's Edge.

Cataclysms: A History of the Twentieth Century from Europe's Edge. By Dan Diner. Translated by William Templet with Joel Golb. (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. Pp. 323. $35.00.)

The author of this study offers another in a growing list of postmortem analyses of the late, little lamented, twentieth century. The book is an extended reflection on the course and nature of twentieth-century European history, interspersed with narratives of significant events that illustrate the author's assertions. In the somewhat dense introductory chapter, Dan Diner develops a theoretical framework for understanding the previous century. According to Diner, twentieth-century history unfolded as a "complex intermeshing of long-term and short-term contingencies" (6).

These contingencies are symbolized by "double interpretive axes," with the vertical axis representing universal values and overarching ideologies, intersected by a horizontal axis representing particular circumstances, especially issues of traditional geopolitics and nationalism. This interpretive scheme allows Diner to consider questions of how and why the events of the century occurred. In simple terms, his analyses question whether such "cataclysms" as the revolutions and wars of the period occurred as responses to traditional circumstances--the kind of factors (like balance of power and national interests) that occasioned earlier conflicts in previous centuries--or represented a new force in world politics, a "universal civil war" of values that featured a struggle between the twin Enlightenment values of freedom (Britain and the U.S.) and equality (the Soviet Union). In the course of his meditations, Diner proposes to consider these issues in the context of "Europe's edges," especially eastern Europe (Poland) and the Balkans. For Diner, the interplay of events is best reflected on this geographical periphery.

Diner's theoretical musings are interspersed with historical narratives, focusing on four major developments between 1917 and 1989--the Russian Revolution, the rise of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in Europe between the wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Though his insights are thought-provoking, his interpretive framework breaks down in the course of the narratives. Diner is forced to admit that, with the major exception of the Cold War, most of the events of the twentieth century were not the result of a "universal civil war of values" but the product of traditional political circumstances, especially the influence of nationalism. Even so, he insists on a structural approach to understanding world history, suggesting that individuals (like Hitler and Stalin) had less influence than social, political, and economic conditions. The result is an interesting but flawed book. Diner's theoretical constructs, which he spends so much time explaining in the first chapter, by his own admission do not hold as explanations for events. He would have been better served by extending his narrative analyses (including a fascinating comparison between Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, which posits a qualitative and intentional difference to the detriment of the German regime) and letting the events of the century speak for themselves.

The dense prose style of the English translation also detracts from the accessibility of the work. Established scholars and graduate students of the twentieth century might profit from some of the insights of this book, which is not recommended for general audiences or undergraduates.

Richard J. Janet

Rockhurst University
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Author:Janet, Richard J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:526
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