World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


John C. Corbally, The Twentieth-Century World: 1914 to the Present, State of Modernity. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. xvi + 331. Bibliography and Index. $26.95 (paper).


     John C. Corbally's sweeping survey of twentieth century world history has a cover photo of a crowded Hong Kong apartment block that, stared at too long, produces a vertiginous effect on the viewer.  It is an apt metaphor for the effect the book has on its readers.  This volume book ends a three-part series by Bloomsbury Academic on the history of modernity from the year 1492 to the present. This third volume takes its readers on a mad dash tour of a dizzying history, from the turn of the twentieth century right up to the present.  The ambition and sweep of what Corbally attempts is heroic and admirable, but the book's organization and execution does not match the scale of its goals.

     Organized thematically, rather than chronologically, Corbally seeks to have us experience the last century by focusing on five themes: politics, economics, philosophy, technology and environment.  Theoretically, Corbally claims to use a "Critical Theory' approach (xvii) by looking at how power differentials have shaped our past.  Another assumption that Corbally makes in the introduction is "that we can productively compare humans and societies across time and space."  (xvii).  While certainly that is a central tenet of cross-cultural historical analysis, Corbally takes it too far in the succeeding pages, shoehorning thousands of people, places, and events into a mere 300 pages.  It is an alphabet-soup approach that covers everything from artificial intelligence to Zapatistas and all that is in between at a frenzied pace. 

     The first theme analyzed in Chapter One is politics, and it is the most problematic.  Even though the chapter is organized roughly chronologically from World War One to 9/11, so much ground is covered that the reader is left out of breath when it ends seventy pages later.   Of course, Corbally faces the same challenges of breadth versus depth that all authors of historical surveys face, but this chapter is really lopsided towards the former.  For example, a four-page review of the roots of fascism in the 1930s (38–41), takes the reader from Europe to Japan to Latin America, where we strangely end at the seemingly unrelated Sandinista/Contra conflict.  As a result of trying to cover every form of right-wing authoritarianism, German fascism, which arguably deserves the most coverage, is given short shrift.  Undergraduates deserve a better analysis of German fascism than this: "As impressive as Nazi power appeared, the regime made a virtue of winging it as Hitler and his henchmen spewed maniacal commands on a whim" (39). Such leaps in time and space may leave the undergraduate student with no foundation in world history spinning and challenged to keep track of the thematic thread that connects these sections.

     Luckily, the next four themed chapters do not move at such a breakneck pace.  Chapter Two is a solid introduction to the main economic trends of the last century.  Here, Corbally is on strong ground, providing a good introduction to Keynes, Marx and neo-Liberalism and he ends the chapter with a powerful exploration of the causes and impacts of the 2008 American recession. His strength at explaining complex economic phenomena is on display:  "Economic elites' obsession with tax breaks for the wealthy, combined with low public spending and investment, brought the economy dangerously close to collapse" (136). Chapter Three is a survey of intellectual thought where again the kitchen sink approach is used. It is admirable what Corbally attempts in this chapter: a succinct survey of the main strands of intellectual thought of the last century. But reducing important philosophical ideas to Twitter-sized morsels does the lay reader a disservice.  For example, in just two pages (154–155) over ten philosophers are mentioned and described.  It is hard enough to grapple with the important linguistic ideas put forward by Noam Chomsky, impossibly so when discussing nine other thinkers on the same page. 

     Chapter Four, on technology, is an important area of study for the plugged-in student of the twenty-first century.  The chapter starts in the early twentieth century with a strong review of technological changes that resulted in the bloody battlefields of World War I, as well as an analysis of the role of oil.  Its strength is that it brings the reader right to the present day, when issues of technology and privacy, automation, artificial intelligence, and environmental collapse dominate our headlines.

     The final chapter is a strong review of environmental issues and their links to the dominant political and philosophical ideologies of the last century.  Corbally delivers a timely chapter here with an emphasis on climate change, fracking, dams, soil degradation, and the connection of capitalism with environmental degeneration.  Corbally is encyclopedic in this chapter and hopefully readers will explore more on their own from many of the interesting subjects he touches on, like mercury pollution in Japanese rivers leading to "cat dancing disease," which caused multiple cases of brain damage in children (294) or to the connection he suggests that technological underdevelopment may have been a contributing factor to the rise of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Isis (302).   

     An interesting addition to the book are the four "interludes" interspersed between the five chapters.  These interludes are an attempt to add depth to the important themes of propaganda, capitalism and humans, certainty, and freedom.  These short pieces are mainly successful, and it too bad that the rest of the book was not written in this more analytical style.  The strongest interludes are on propaganda, and capitalism and humans, which seem to be written for this historical moment.  For example, in the first interlude, "Propaganda," Corbally bravely and cogently breaks down American bumbling in the Middle East: "[T]he ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a disaster, creating global violence, more failed states, the deaths of many soldiers, the rise of ISIS and the collapse of both Iraq and Syria." (77).  In addition, students will gain from reading about the concept of gross national happiness (146) in the second interlude, "Capitalism" and Corbally's smart treatment of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Theodor Adorno (248) in his last interlude, "Freedom."  

     The Twentieth Century World is written for a high school and undergraduate audience.  They will have no problem with the prose but may need to employ a spreadsheet to keep all the names and ideas straight.  I think this monograph's best use is not as a stand-alone text but rather as a supplemental resource in a modern world history survey course.  Various sections of this book are quite well done. Corbally is especially strong on economics, the environment, terrorism, and philosophy, and the short thematic interludes provide the depth that is missing in the comprehensive chapters. While reading this book cover to cover could be challenging,  its strength is that it brings readers right to the present, providing a cogent, up-to-date synthesis of twentieth and early twenty-first century world history.

Serge Avery is a social studies teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2019 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use