So while I’ve long been interested in history, in my younger days that interest didn’t extend into the modern world—I managed to actually major in the subject without taking a single class that went past 1700, which pleased me to no end. But as an elderly person whose own lifetime is increasingly moving into the legitimate purview of history, I’ve become more interested not just in ancient and medieval civilizations, but in the ways modernity has been shaped, toward which end Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 is an illuminating read.
The book’s subtitle has probably clued you in to what it’s about, but yeah: it’s an overview of world history from the tail end of World War I into the Great Depression. If you’re like me from six months ago, you might think of World War I as that stupid pointless war where a bunch of people died for no good reason; after reading Tooze, you’ll have a new appreciation for how the war birthed modernity, changing people’s conceptions of how the world should be run and how societies should be organized, while at the same time, for reasons both frustratingly contingent and seemingly inexorable, setting up the conflicts that would dominate the twentieth century (and continue to resonate into the 21st).
Tooze’s history takes a global perspective, talking about Japan and China (which were more influenced by WW1 and its aftermath than I would have imagined), India, the Middle East, and of course Europe and the United States; and he manages to do that thing I like in histories, where he connects everything with a narrative through-line such that WW1 and the Great Depression no longer seem like disconnected events separated by decades to me, but intimately connected events linked by undeniable causal strings.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book can be dry in places, but I suspect there’s a degree to which that’s inevitable—when you’re talking about yet another international bankers’ conference to settle war debts via treaties, it’s probably impossible not to get into the weeds a bit—and anyway, most of the book is a straightforwardly gripping read. Highly recommended.