Heinrich August Winkler is the doyen of modern German history writing. He has behind him a string of distinguished books on the modern age, very few of which have made their way into the English language. This neglect has finally been put right with a splendid translation of his magisterial study of the ‘West’ in the years between 1914 and 1945, first published in Germany in 2011. It is an indication that the British market is a tough nut to crack that the English title is The Age of Catastrophe, as indeed it was, while the original German title translates as ‘History of the West: The Period of World Wars’. ‘Catastrophe’ will certainly sell more copies, but it is surely arguable that the real catastrophe engulfed Eurasia, from Eastern Europe to Japan. A ‘History of the West’ on its own would in the end raise fewer questions.
The first question is, of course, what Winkler understands as the ‘West’. This is never fully addressed in the book, which in fact covers the history of tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, China and Japan as well as the conventional ‘West’,