In The Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm offers a view on what he calls the short twentieth century; 1914 to 1991. The book is a personal as well as global historical, even if a bit euro centric, synthesis that offers a view on 77 years of events in a time so incredibly rich on them. The chapters are written as essays and can easily be read separately, as they individually are about relevant problems in specific periods of time. There are clear tones of Marxism in Hobsbawms writings, and the economical and material aspects are the driving forces in the book. Not the Marxist view on science or politics is hidden away, but very clear.
Probably the most important thesis in the book comes from an economical aspect. For Hobsbawm the international crisis in capitalism during the 20’s and the 30’s is perhaps the most important event in the short twentieth century, and without it communism and fascism would never ever have had the same importance as it was the case. Nor would WW1 or The Cold War have happened. That would have changed history and the world as we know it today. This is just one of the many contra fact observations that Hobsbawm makes, and with them he puts history into a very interesting perspective.
The Age of Extremes is divided chronologically into three parts and starts with a bird perspective over this short twentieth century . The first of the three parts in the book is about the period 1914-1945 – by Hobsbawm called The Age of Catastrophes, wherein the world learned a new word, ‘world war’. WW1 and WW2 changed the world totally, and stopped the progress that had caused so much excitement before 1914.
This first part of the book has a very pessimistic tone. In it the world wars naturally play the biggest role, and from them to the revolutions that changed an already changed world and put up an new order for the world. The economical aspect is perhaps the most important factor in Hobsbawm’s writings, and it is also one of the key elements in the book. The decolonisation also got a hold of this new, rapidly growing world, and that fact changed the world radically.
The second part of the book, The Golden Years 1945-1973, has a whole different optimism than the first part of the book. It begins with a chapter on The Cold War wherein the bipolarity secured a certain order in the world. Then follows The Golden years, and in the period 1945 -1990 a global, social revolution happened that more than anything marked a shift to a new time. The agricultural societies disappeared and were replaced by industrial societies in which the urbanisation climbed rapidly. The cities grew and became bigger junctions and wherein the economical level in the population grew. A cultural revolution followed, and with it big changes for people and their relationships with each other. A new international youth culture was born, culminated in 1968 and became the image of the whole cultural revolution. Left was a society that was so amazingly different than the old.
In the chapter The Third World Hobsbawm offers a view of a world in strong contrast to The West, capital of progress. The decolonisation and the revolutions changed the political map of the world, and new states popped up everywhere, creating a whole new pressure on the world. In the chapter about ‘the real socialism’ Hobsbawm turns it up a notch or two. The October Revolution stands out as one of the most revolutionary happenings throughout the book. The USSR as the example to follow and socialism as the answer to everyone’s questions.
The last part of the book, The Crisis Decades 1973-1991, begins with stating the fact that the crisis that the world was in was not recognised until the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe was complete. The Third World went through a period of revolutions, wars and general instability in a period where the rest of the world lived in relative peace. USA and USSR’s struggle for power created the order of tthe world, andthe third countries were pieces of their puzzle.
The book ends with a look at the future, and at what challenges it holds. When Hobsbawm ended the book, he saw a completely changed world in 1991, as well as new threats in society. These were the national conflicts by small groups such as the IRA, as well as international conflicts between rich and poor nations. He also saw a contrast between the rich world’s lack of man power and the poor world’s overpopulation, as well as the increased growth would create bigger differences between rich and poor.
The ending of the book is very pessimistic and at times unstructured. It is obvious that there is a bigger personal distance to history from Hobsbawm’s perspective the closer to the present that he gets. He ends the book in a time where he saw no order in the world and it worries him. The teachings of Hobsbawm are that the short twentieth century changed the world radically, and that all it’s events are interconnected; that one would not have happened without the other. But the reader is still left with a feeling of having read the tale of a long and interesting life and now only pessimism remains.