Liberation or Catastrophe? Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century by Michael Howard - review by Richard Overy

Richard Overy

War and Progress

Liberation or Catastrophe? Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century


Hambledon 213pp £25 order from our bookshop

In this book of essays and lectures, produced over the past fifteen years, Michael Howard reflects on the big questions of a paradoxical century scarred by war and violence on an unprecedented scale yet at the same time indulged with the greatest advances in health, wealth and security (at least for the developed world) in all history. Howard has spent his long and distinguished career pondering the origin and nature of war and few people are more qualified to judge just why war and progress cohabited in such uneasy partnership.

The essays at first glance seem to have much in common with those of that great essayist of the last century, A J P Taylor. They are trenchant and hard-hitting when they need to be; they range widely over the history of the last two hundred years with effortless ease; they are by turn pithy and thought-provoking. But Howard does not have Taylor’s puckish desire to make mischief. There is nothing deliberately provocative or perverse. Howard’s essays are wise where Taylor’s were merely clever.

If the essays have a common theme it is found in Howard’s engagement with the largest question of the past century – why was Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ released in 1914 and why did it prove so hard to cage again once it had tasted blood? Howard explores the unpredicted downside

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