August 2017

Review: The Twentieth-Century Crisis, Unit 4 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

One of the main problems with Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times is a lack of balance. Unit four of the textbook focuses on the 31-year period from 1914-1945. Within this densely-packed unit, three of the four chapters focus primarily on Europe. The rest of the world, including the United States (surprisingly) is discussed briefly, if at all.

by Lauren Jannette

One of the main problems with Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times is a lack of balance. Unit four of the textbook focuses on the 31-year period from 1914-1945. Within this densely-packed unit, three of the four chapters focus primarily on Europe. The rest of the world, including the United States (surprisingly) is discussed briefly, if at all.

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“The Eyes of Madness” – a soldier suffering form “shell-shock.” Courtesy of Rare Historical Photos.

Chapter 16 on the First World War gives a well-rounded discussion of the causes of the conflict, including how the rigidity of military plans prevented politicians from stopping them once they had been set in motion. The inclusion of women’s work, the psychological damages caused by the new warfare, and the post-war ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe are a welcome addition to the narrative. However, the participation of British forces, both domestic and imperial, are barely discussed at all. The failure to discuss the role played by the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli is a terrible injustice to the sacrifice and memory of those men, especially considering the role they play in Australian and New Zealand national identity. (The Gallipoli battle is also mislabeled in the main chapter as an Allied victory, while in the review section it is noted as a Central Powers victory.) The discussion of the Russian Revolution, which falls outside of the chapter’s 1914-1919 time period, provides readers with a balanced look at the Revolution and the Civil War that followed. However, the opening paragraphs indicate that Rasputin was a major factor in causing the Revolution, and while a factor, he and the unusual circumstances of his death are not worth the detail given. Instead, Spielvogel could have gone into more depth about the “series of military and economic disasters” he mentions. For example, the lack of a strong bourgeois middle-class in Russia, a key factor in shaping the pre- and post-Revolutionary Russian governments and economic system, could have been highlighted.

This textbook overall lacks a balance between historical periods, geographical regions, important people and events, and types of history.

Chapter 17 moves on to discuss the Interwar era (1919-1939). Titled “The West Between the Wars,” much of the West is glanced over in favor of a discussion of Hitler and Nazi Germany, which is given an entire section of the chapter. The chapter opens with a well-rounded discussion of the crises of the 1920s and 30s, from the French invasion of the Ruhr to the Great Depression, and the destabilizing effects they had throughout Europe. The inclusion of the various peace treaties shows the hope Europeans had that there would be no more war. The chapter then juxtaposes these hopes with the rise of dictatorial regimes. Mussolini and Stalin are the key figures, with Franco added in last minute to round out the group. Spielvogel does a nice job of delineating the differences between a fascist and authoritarian government (something of particular importance for today’s students). The next third of the chapter is spent discussing Hitler (with a full-page biography) and the rise of Nazi Germany. While Spielvogel rightly emphasizes that Hitler’s power occurred completely within the bounds of the law, the number of pages dedicated to the Nazis could have been shortened to provide for a more in-depth discussion of the cultural history of the era, which receives a mere four pages at the end of the chapter. This section is the most disappointing of the chapter, as the author seems to relate all the advances made in radio and film solely to the propaganda of the Nazi state. A more interesting topic would have been an examination of the rise of Hollywood and the attempts various European governments made to counter American influence. The artistic, literary, and scientific richness of the era is shortchanged. In particular, the Weimar Republic, whose vibrant avant-garde and cabaret culture gave rise to artists such as Otto Dix and August Sander, is ignored as one of the capitals of the modern artistic and literary movements.

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“The Skat Players” by Otto Dix. Courtesy of The Online Otto Dix Project.

Chapter 18 attempts to make this unit fit the title of “world history.” Focusing on the rise of nationalism around the world, the chapter is divided into regions: the Middle East, Africa and Asia, China, and Latin America. Similar to the previous chapter, a lack of balance favors a discussion of China over all other parts of the “non-Western” world, perhaps in part due to China’s role in US-Soviet relations during the Cold War and its current role as the US’s main trading partner. The opening section does a nice job of highlighting how the implementation of the European-controlled mandate system in the Middle East laid the foundations for many of the problems that exist there today. As a historian of the era, I was encouraged by the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide, considering it has yet to be officially recognized by the United States government. However, the continued romanticization and highlighting of the “dashing British adventurer T.L. Lawrence” is unnecessary and outdated. The perpetuation of the myth that the Ottoman Empire had been in decline since the 1700s, when current historiography has demonstrated otherwise, was incredibly disappointing to see in a work by a historian of Spielvogel’s caliber.[1] The following two sections discuss Africa and Asia. Once again, balance of topics is an issue. While events in China were important for the course of the 20th century, the decolonization movements in Africa and India were just as, if not more, important. While key members of the decolonization movements are discussed, more attention could have been given to the events they took part in and the responses of the European powers. The final section looks at the impact the Great Depression had on the rise of nationalism and authoritarian governments in Latin America, although only Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico are discussed at length. A page on culture is a nice addition, and would have been welcomed in the other sections as well.

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Poster for the film “Lawrence of Arabia” (1963), romanticizing the actions of T.L. Lawrence. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The final chapter in Unit 4 discusses the Second World War. The first two sections concerning the outbreak and course of the war are generally evenly divided between the European and Asian theaters, although Spielvogel’s own research interests are displayed in his focus on Hitler and his plans. Focusing primarily on various military operations, the resistance movements in occupied countries are completely ignored (perhaps in part due to their contentious legacy). In fact, the Dutch and French Resistance, along with General Charles de Gaulle are not discussed at all. Considering his influence in European-American-Soviet relations during and after the war, this is an oversight. The following section of the chapter focuses on the Holocaust and the New Order in Asia. While emphasizing the horrors and atrocities faced by the Jewish, Roma, and Eastern European peoples, the author neglects to mention members of the LGBT community and the mentally ill as victims of the Holocaust. Returning once again to the issue of balance, only a page is reserved to discuss Japanese colonial policies, leaving no room to discuss the devastation faced by the civilian populations of East Asia. The final section which discusses life on the Homefront fails to discuss life in the occupied nations during the war. Spielvogel highlights the plights of Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as well as the racial injustice faced by African Americans participating in the war effort. His discussion of women during the war however, leaves the reader with the impression that Germany and Japan lost the war in part because they refused to allow women to work in factories or fight on the front like the Allied forces did.[4] This emphasizes the difference in governmental and societal views of women and their roles during war between the Axis and Allied powers, perhaps as a means of highlighting the democratic insistence on “equality for all.”

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Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. Courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Likewise, his closing section on “Peace and a New War” gives the impression that it was solely Stalin’s suspicion of the Western powers and his desire for more land in Eastern Europe that were the key factors that led to the beginning of the Cold War. This leaves Truman and Churchill’s legacies untarnished by their own suspicions of Stalin, and makes the Cold War an inevitable consequence of the Second World War.

The period of history from the beginning of the First World War until the end of the Second, is arguably one of the most important periods in modern history. Is it worth 141 pages of a textbook? Absolutely. Is it worth 141 pages compared to the mere 215 pages spent on the period from 1350-1815? No. This textbook overall lacks a balance between historical periods, geographical regions, important people and events, and types of history.

Recommended Readings

Beevor, Anthony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Roberts, Mary Louise. Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Janette Image 5Lauren Jannette completed her BA at Kalamazoo College in International Area Studies and French, with her thesis examining medieval French Crusade literature. Her first MA, completed at Columbia University’s Paris campus, focused on the crisis of French masculinity in 1917 seen through the lens of the trail and execution of the spy Mata Hari. Her second MA at the University of Kent presented a comparative analysis of British and French textbook presentations of the First World War. She is currently researching the intellectual history of the Interwar pacifist movement in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for her PhD dissertation at The George Washington University.

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[1] Howard Eissenstat, “Modernization, Imperial Nationalism, and the Ethnicization of Confessional Identity in the Late Ottoman Empire,” in Nationalizing Empires, ed. Stefan Berger and Alexei Miller (Central European University Press, 2015), 429-60.

1 comment on “Review: The Twentieth-Century Crisis, Unit 4 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Back to School: The Activist History Review Reviews High School History Textbooks – The Activist History Review

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