on August 26, 2005
Paul Johnson is opinionated and a good writer and this history is very readable. "National Review" named it one of the top 100 books of the century and, although I'm not a political conservative, I found myself in agreement with much of what Johnson says.
"Modern Times" begins with the end of World War I and focuses on the personality of actors on history rather than impersonal trends or philosophies of history. Johnson sums up his own philosophy with a quote from Alexander Pope: "The proper study of mankind is man." His opinion of the 20th century cast of characters is scathing more often than not.
He trashes Woodrow Wilson -- a sound judgment in my opinion -- defends Harding, claims Coolidge was a good President, is lukewarm toward Hoover, considers Roosevelt frivolous and empty-headed, favors Truman, and adores Eisenhower. Churchill is his great hero. The totalitarians -- Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler -- are depicted as venal gangsters. Johnson is unflinchingly anti-Communist throughout, an opinion that proved sound when the rot of the Soviet Union and its satellites became obvious in the late 1980s. (The first edition of this book was published in 1983.) Nehru, Gandhi and many other third world personalities get tossed into the category of lawyer/politicians with little to recommend them as leaders of countries.
Fault can be found with Johnson; minor errors of fact and questionable statements dot the book -- and he rushes breathlessly on without defending many of his opinions. However, if he argued them all out the book would be 10,000 pages long and dull as an airline steak knife. It is perhaps his tendency to be provocative that makes this history interesting -- as so many others are not.
I found particularly informative Johnson's description of how the Cold War started and his view that Hoover and Roosevelt's policies prolonged the Great Depression rather than eased it. Many other interesting gems are hidden in "Modern Times." Read it. If you're a liberal you'll be infuriated now and then, but this is an intelligent and stimulating book about 70 years of the most violent and eventful century in the history of mankind.
on April 22, 2000
Johnson's Modern times is a must read: full of interesting information and reasonings, entertaining, and highly controversial. Since History is told from a conservative perspective in this book, many will find it provocative, maybe even unfair. And, these kind of critics might be correct in some aspects. Yet Johnson's book deserves to be read because it provides very bright ideas which must be taken into account when discussing about the history of the 20th century. For example, it is very interesting Johnson's analysis on why the allies threw the bomb on Japanese cities and what was the real dimension of the tragedy beneath this. Moreover, Johnson helps us understand difficult periods of the century like the rise of the nazi regime and the success of Khomeini in Iran. Finally, though it is true that some won't like the way Johnson treats popular personalities like Gandhi or Freud, He deserves to be recognized for his effort to bring ethical considerations when thinking about the lessons of history. Ah, by the way, this book must be read closely after or before reading Hobsbawm's book on the same subject! (because Hobsbawm provides the left-wing point of view).
on October 20, 2003
I am an historian, with nearly a Ph.D in the subject. I teach history at the community college level. I have 100's of history books, many of the 20th century. Johnson's book is highly moralistic and interpretive, more so than most history books, and frankly, more so than professional historians (which Johnson is not) would prefer. But it is a brilliant interpretation of the 20th century, one with guts. But it's not the popular interpretation because historians are affected by ideology just like everyone else.
There are some tremendous anecdotes in the book, some information that mainstream histories do not, and never will, provide. That, in itself, makes the book unique and worthwhile. Every chapter is rich, full of interesting data, and intelligent interpretation. I don't agree with all of Johnson's interpretations; but he is always provocative and he makes the reader think. That, along with his emphasis on the decline of moral responsibility, is why a number of people don't like the book.
Americans need to read the chapter "America's Suicide Attempt"--the history of the '60s we still don't get. "The Collectivist Seventies" explains a lot to those of us who lived through the malaise of that decade. "Caliban's Kingdoms" and the "Bandung Generation" are masterful exegeses of non-Western history. Again, I don't agree with everything here; but I do appreciate the fact that Johnson provides information and ideas that are never found in mainstream histories produced by professional historians who are writing to gain praise from their peers. They can't write this because, as Johnson argues, the 20th century (including academia) accepted that "God is dead." And to a conservative Catholic (which I'm not, but Johnson is), that propels the entire century. And that's also why this book is reviled in many quarters. Reader, be aware, this is a book that argues, implicity and sometimes not so much so, that atheistic, relativistic ideas underlie most of the barbarities of post World War I 20th century. Given Hitler and Communism--both Darwinian motivated--it's hard to argue against the point.
The book is thick, and even with Johnson's capable prose, not an easy read for a novice. But there's no better explanation, that I've read, of what happened--and why--in the 20th century.
on November 10, 2002
The liberal view of history is so widespread that any deviation is subject to immediate criticism. Johnson goes after modern cultural icons with vigor, examining and reassessing all the way. He has perfected a writing style that is highly readable and entertaining with common components: Broad assumptions, intricate details supporting his idea and unique, incredibly interesting biographies of those that made a difference - known or unknown.
The 20th century IS the collectivist century. Every variant of collectivism from communism, fascism, tribalism, socialism and religious classism has been tried with catastrophic results. The eagerness with which "leaders" (most from academia) experimented on whole populations is truly horrific. Glowing theories always gave way to human suffering. Millions have been sacrificed in the name of collectivism just this century - USSR, China, Germany, Cambodia, Turkey, Africa...
Oddly, speaking ill of this most anti-democratic "theory" is seen as somehow impolite. Johnson records the fight and the fighters (on both sides) of this battle. Naturally the US and Britain emerge with glowing marks - and why not? Those two have saved the world many times. Germany would have won WWI and WWII without US intervention. Europe would be one vast socialist graveyard without the opposition of Truman. Korea, Japan and parts of South America would be "Peoples States" without our help. Relativism has spread to almost all facets of human existence with perhaps the most dangerous one being that all cultures are morally equivalent. This book aptly demonstrates that this has not - and is not - true.
on July 5, 2004
Paul Johnson is an historian, wether Ph.D. or not. He does his homework and researches well his subjects. But he's thankfully free of the cliches of the profession, and so he is brave and bold when it comes to assess the facts he's described. In this extremely useful and refreshing book, Johnson says things most historians are not willing to tell, or tell while blushing. The distinguishable truth of the last century is that the demise of several basic certainties, i.e. the existence of God, the absolute nature of morality, and the value of the inidividual, borught about only death, war, tragedy and the worst and most horrifying massacres of history, performed by the most perverse and distorted political regimes man has ever known. And you don't have to be a religious nut to believe this.
Johnson's history is great to read. It includes illuminating anecdotes and profiles of many of the main characters in the wonderful yet terrible century just finished. We get to peer through the mist of ideology and legend and see what kind of people ruled our world: pure evil people like Lenin (who couldn't stand peasants and workers), Stalin (a crazy whacko with a small soul and a big killing instinct), Hitler (ditto), Mussolini (another lunatic, only also stupid); Mao (a vulgar looney with an incomparable talent to come up with the most idiotic ideas, which only caused hunger and misery), the host of African dictators, which must have made their peoples deplore the day the hated Europeans left, and Latin American morons like Peron, who managed to destroy a first-class economy and transform his country into a poor state (and still they love him and the hooker whom he married).
There are also fascinating portraits of other, imperfect but less evil politicians of the century. I realized I knew absolutely nothing about people like Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. There is the frivolous and unlikable Roosevelt, the corrupt (and also frivolous) Kennedy, etc. Churchill comes up, of course, as an admirable and brave man, always a step ahead everybody else even when he made mistakes, and De Gaulle, an arrogant man but a good statesman.
You will hardly agree with everything Johnson says, but his book is always thought-provoking and interesting. This is and will remain an important book to read.
on October 10, 2004
Modern Time, a work of astounding breadth and clarity, identifies three seminal intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century-Marx, Freud, and Einstein-whose ideas directly and indirectly lead to communism, totalitarianism, and Nazism, three forms of government that rejected personal responsibility and the Judeo-Christian morality of the West. Marx said, according to Johnson, that society shaped people. Freud said our childhood shaped us. Finally, numerous intellectuals used Einstein's theory of relativity, much to Einstein's chagrin, to diminish the achievements of Western Civilization before the twentieth century and to advocate moral relativism as a new pseudo religion. Johnson then shows how this line of thinking lead to the death, enslavement, and impoverishment of billions of people across the world.
The book covers not just the superpowers but the explosion of the third world, with its copycat Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos. Most enlightening of all, the phalanx of intellectuals the wealth of the West made possible actually aided and abetted the corruption of the Soviet Union, Red China, fascist Germany, and all their dreadful imitators (for additional insight on terrible consequence of intellectuals, see Johnson's book, The Intellectuals). Worse, this scourge of our times has attacked every institution that lead the West to rule the world, from Christianity, to free enterprise, to democracy.
While Johnson finished the book more than a decade ago, his insights clarify the world today, from the chaos of the Middle East to never-ending butchery in Africa and juntas of the Western Hemisphere. Unlike far too many modern historians (who all too often merely illustrate Johnson's theme), Johnson makes bold and accurate declarations time and again and provides an avalanche of facts to make his case.
on November 8, 2004
Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" is a masterpiece of History and Literature. As we move into the 21st century it is imperative that we understand the last century. No study of the last hundred years can be complete without reading this scholarly and well-documented survey of the bloodiest century man has known. More than an able historian Paul Johnson is a fabulous writer. His telling of fact reads like the best novels. This indispensable work is the definitive history of the 20th century.
on February 3, 2001
The first thing to remember when reading Johnson is to forget about meaningless ideological terms like "conservative" and "liberal" (especially when used by Americans they come to mean the opposites they originally meant). The one thing that Johnston makes clear in his book is that ideology has been the bane of minkind in the 20th Cen. and the major cause of most man-made calamities. As such Johnson is asking us to return to a non-ideological world bounded by reason and common sense.
The book however is not narrative history writ large; it is more a moral history of the 20th Century with several leading theses which Johnston returns to with ever increasing import and relevance. The greatest of these is that ideology has been the waster of mankind and the destoyer of moral integrity.
The greatest challenge he sets up for those who see the world in ideological opposites is the notion that there is really no functional and moral difference between Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes (at least in what kinds of states they produce) --- all of them in practise have lead to dictatorship, a loss of basic freedoms, and, in their most striking characteristic, mass murder perpetrated by the state. He is most likely right in this assertion and no doubt historians looking back within the next 20 years will probably see the advent of ideological states of the extreme left and right as a symtomatic of the 20th century and make no real distinction between them, functionally they are the same (much in the same way as we now make little distinction between individual barbarian tribes who attacked Rome).
That these ideological excesses were perpetrated by the state because of some notion that the developments in science imbued, coloured these ideologies with the notion of the attainability of absolute truth once the underlying truths of "history" were found, that is another question. It is also one that Johnston comes most close to proving, since it is clear that ideologues with no understanding of such concepts such as natural selection --- Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin --- really believed that there were such things as "superior" forms of government and "superior" races of people. A conclusion that could not be reached by anyone with even rudimentary understanding of Darwin's tracts and the elementary genetic theory only then emerging.
So there is at least as much worship of anti-rationalism in the thought of Stalin (class enemies are everywhere), and Hitler (man finds his ultimate expression only when he submerges himself in the mass of the State) as there is in the notion that the world can be understood in terms of scientific determinism.
The one really strange (frankly wierd in my estimation) is the sometimes emergent thesis that the power of the state to kill and take away rights has been a function of the growth of science and ideology which "disregards the traditional Judeao-Christian notion of individual responsibility."
Although Johnston asserts this from time to time he never really goes beyond to prove it. Among other things he never defines what this notion of "personal responsibility" is, where it comes from and how it manifests itself. If we do not know what it is, it is difficult to know if we have lost it. Also how does it explain the excesses of China and Japan in the 20th Century, two states with no Judeo-Christian tradition (or have they always been barbarian states?). The power of the state to wield total power has been greatly enhanced in the 20th Century, and therefore its power to kill, horrendous societies and mass killings have however been with us before the 20th Century: how would one explain such horrors as the slaughter of the Cathars, of the Crusades, the Mongol invasions, the horrible excesses of the Hundred Years War and the slaughters in Chin Dynasty China? They have also been with us in the present where as in Bosnia and Kosovo individuals from two Judeo-Christian faiths receive absolution of personal responsibility directly from their respective Judeo-Christian faiths!
In all of the cases above, horror and state enforced mayhem either existed in Judeo-Christian societies or existed in areas where Judeo-Christianity never reached. That Johnston does not deal with these issues is I think, an even deeper knowledge that Johnston knows this point, although interesting, is ultimately nothing more than conjecture.
The true brilliance of Johnston is really in the details. His ability to look at different issues in a new light is really amazing. His style is novel, quirky, and always refreshing to read. Whether you agree with him or not he forces you to think: "there is no moral difference between murdering a person because of their class or because of their race" --- statements like this strongly underline his main idea that Racist ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini are really even more disfunctional varients of communism.
After reading Johnston one realises that notions of mutually exclusive ideologies contain within then an underlying logic of increasing state power beyond the reasonable limitations of Parliamentary Democracy -- as such Naziism and Communism are both sides of the same coin --- Jonstone does us a favour by pointing this out for us in cogent, intellectual, and ripping read.
on April 25, 2005
I'm trying to read all of Mr. Johnson's books, because this one was so good. Some are not available. MODERN TIMES is a sweeping history of the 20th century that should be read by students everywhere. Armed with the facts, they'd be less prone to falling for historical lunacy later on.
Johnson writes from a point of view (as do all writers), but his perspective is clear, well reasoned and backed by facts. He is British, and sometimes his national bias shows through, but he lays out a history that squares with the perspective that time allows for. His histories make sense, and more than that, his use of the English language is just a marvel.
Paul Johnson is the only living writer I'd care to meet in person. I love all his books and keep them on my shelf, but this was the one that had the most profound effect on my thinking.
God bless him. I hope he lives to write many more books. Here's one Yank that has learned much from my favorite British cousin.
on May 30, 1999
This is possibly the most interesting historical book around. Even those who are not interested in history will enjoy this book.
The massive scope of this work is impressive. The two areas that remain with me, years after reading this book are,
1. The further reinforcement of the notion of "Man's Inhumanity to Man". That man, when left to his own resources, without social restraint, will behave more beastly than any animal. I like to suppose that we can rise above that...but as this book shows, as societies have moved to be more democratic, ruled not by monarchies but by common man, we have become more barbaric.
2. The utter failure of the communist movement...the misguided beginnings, the continued mistakes, blunders...an elitist group of intellectuals who had no faith in the common man; just how non-communist the communist regime was...and this work was written before the demise of the communist world. How interesting it would have been if this book concluded just a few years later.
This book would be great for anyone who desires to spark the interest of history in those who have no desire to study it....(i.e., history teachers and their bored students)