Books and Resources on the 20th Century

resources for studying 20th century common roomThis is by NO MEANS intended to be the final word on the 20th century. I just pulled together my notes from when I was working on pulling together some history texts on the 20th century for high school.  Unfortunately for current use, I worked on this project back somewhere around 2000, or maybe even as recently as 2005, but it wasn’t later than that, so there well may be  resources from the last five to ten years that would be great, I just haven’t seen them.

I probably don’t even have all my notes together in one place. It’s just a starting place. But still, I think it’s a pretty useful starting place.  To answer a question I’ve been asked more than once- (what did we end up using)- I put the titles of the books we used in bold text.
To find these resources, I culled my library shelves and made heavy use of interlibrary loan. I went to a large curriculum fair in Seattle Washington. I went to _every single booth_ that carried anything history related, and I asked what they had for 20th century history. The only two possibilities I found were a textbook book and some study guides from another publisher (more about this below). I also browsed through catalogs and spent money we didn’t really have on books we ended up not really being able to use.

One thing I noticed is that very few of the books were written before 9-11, and that this altered the terrain of the book, so to speak. Imagine sitting down in 1950 to read a book about the first 35 years of the century.  You won’t find the same information highlighted, the same details brought into prominence, sometimes you won’t even find key events mentioned in books published before World War two as you would in books published later.

A book published in 1936 covering events from 1900 to 1935 will look very, very different from one covering the same years but published in 1949.  The second world war added a context that completely (and rightfully) changed the context of understanding events before that war.  There are events that will be seen with better clarity post WW2 than Pre WW2, and there are events that don’t even get put in the pre 9-11 books that we now realize were very important.

So, without further nattering:
I read through these three books on the 20 century, side by side, looking for a ‘spine,’ or primary text:
Paul Johnson’s, Modern Times– which I expected to be my favorite choice for 20th century history for my high school students.
 Martin Gilbert’s concise volume of the history of the 20th century
A Short History of Western Civilization. by John B. & Sullivan, Richard E. Harrison recommended in the very excellent Norms and Nobility– comprehensive, but definitely a textbook (i.e. dry).

While reading and comparing these three, these are the conclusions I drew:
I was dismayed as I read Johnson’s Modern Times, because it was the the one   I’d assumed (for ages)  I’d be using, but I had to revise my ideas about that. It is a fantastic book.   He is very, very strong an analysis, but the problem is,  he is assuming his readers come to the book with a hefty amount of background knowledge.  High school students are unlikely to have that much background knowledge.  In fact, that background knowledge is kind of what I *wanted* our high school text to provide.

For just one example among many, he briefly talks about how Dali, Surrealism, DaDaism, and some other art form I forget, all reflect the age, and reflect the same sort of attitudes that Freud popularized and they did this without actually consulting Freud.  That was an excellent point about the spirit of the age, and the widespread shared cultural assumptions of the age and how they produced similar results in various fields.  However, this is the very first time he’s ever mentioned Dali, surrealism or Dada, and  he never does explain who they are or what they did.
It’s like he is saying something like, oh, “Greckot’s famous art work popularized the views of Freud, although Greckot, Mothle, and Schmeer all approached their work independently.”
This communicates very little to the reader who does not know much about Greckot, Mothle and Schmeer. (don’t rush for your history references. I made those up). Neither, I think, will Johnson’s work communicate much to the student who hasn’t already studied the 20th century. I think that is because this book wasn’t written to the high school student, but for the adult who lived through at least part of the 20th century and already has at least a passing acquaintance with the major players and themes.
I asked my older two girls to pick a chapter, read it and review and they both said pretty much the same thing- they loved his writing, but thought maybe they should try a different chapter because the chapter they read wasn’t one they knew much about or understood the background very well. A case could be made that they maybe *should* know the background material better, but the fact is they didn’t, and if you don’t either, Johnson won’t help enlighten you about the facts. Very little backstory given, except in a few key places, just lots of great analysis of said backstory.  If you’re not already approaching this book with a solid understanding of the historical background, it’s going to be pretty hard to follow. Somebody who could offer more of the backstory could use this in their homeschool. I needed something else.
The Gilbert book is great– but too concise- too much compressed into too little space. I’d love to look at his larger three volume set (900 pages each) but it appears to be OOP. This is, however, the one we’ll be using, with some supplementary books on specific decades. It is a good book, engaging, and it’s amazing that he can keep the interest going with his relentless emphasis on who did what to whom on what date- but it’s still not exactly what I want. I wonder about his longer version, but it’s three volumes long! (updated to add: I used the first book of the unabridged series with my son, and I got fantastic narrations and a pretty solid understanding of what he was reading from him- but to do this, we had to cut out ten other books I’d intended to have him read.  IT’s a great series, has all you need for a good history text, but…. seriously.  To use this, you will need to remove about 800 pages worth of reading from other places in your curriculum if you are using
Johnson’s has all that great detailed analysis that Gilbert misses.  Johnson has the personalities and juicy stuff and almost connecting the dots- he just doesn’t tell you much about the dots. Gilbert gives a full understanding of the dots and why they are there and what they are all about.  A book that offered something like a combination of Gilbert and Johnson would be ideal. If Johnson would just tell a little more of the background- even if he just had a brief, almost encyclopedic entry at each chapter telling what this is all about, it would be perfect.
Then I read a few other books about the 20th century:


Great Lives, World Government by William Jay Jacobs- thumbs firmly down, vomiting, gagging and hurling the book against the wall. Mao Tse-tung is a hero, the Red Guards only overly enthusiastic people who did little more than ‘laugh at their teachers’ and occasionally embarrass them in front of large crowds.  This is marxist propaganda, really.
The Triumph of Liberty, by Jim Powell– I thought this might work well as a book from which I selected excerpts. I think not, mainly because the lay-out is a little too complicated to do that with ease. However- this is one some parents want to consider for our teens. It has definite potential for older children. Link is to audible version, and I really don’t see how they managed that.
The 365 Most Important Events of the Twentieth Century: Paul Baldwin– naw. More of a reference, encyclopedia type entries
Ghosts of the Twentieth Century– In spite of the title, this one looked really neat from the write-up in the library catalog. Supreme disappointment. It’s a comic book in hardcover. Perhaps suitable for second graders. I have a bone to pick with those who write the book descriptions for our library’s catalog.
The United States in the 20th century-David Rubel– this is in timeline format with lots of text. Some people might like it, but it wasn’t for my family. I couldn’t look at it deeply because it’s in a format reminiscent of Usborne- lots of pictures arranged in jumpy patterns (more text than pics, though), and gives me a head-ache.
Growing UP in the People’s Century– Children’s eyewitness accounts of the 20th century, by John D. Clare. Possible supplementary text. It is not America-centric (since it’s published by the BBC), which I thought was a good thing; Mao is not a hero; not too gross(a couple things were hard to stomach, but it wasn’t too bad), no harsh images of cruelly murdered dead people pictured. There is the iconic image of the naked Viet Namese girl whose clothes were napalmed off of her seen fleeing her village with others – but for the most part, there was not too much my sensitive plant child could not handle (again, we’re talking about high school). I wasn’t excited about the handling of the Women’s Right Movement- but I don’t expect to find a mainstream book that will really objectively discuss both the positives and the negatives on this topic, but at least there wasn’t any propaganda about the ‘right’ of mothers to murder their babies.

141 pages, picture heavy, some of the usual modern biases and blind spots, esp at the end-‘will we stop pollution, solve population problems, will the UN gain in influence (because in this book the UN= always good guys)…’

Here is some more in depth information about it,  a description and text transcript of two pages:
Page 22- “The Great War On 28, June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was shot and killed in Sarajevo. It was the event that sparked off the First World War.
In the years leading up to 1914, many people had begun to feel that war was inevitable. Most people were nationalists. Nationalists believed in national pride, power, and empire. They thought that other nations were their enemies.
All over Europe, arms factories turned out weapons. In France, Bleriot’s factory made aeroplanes for the military. Twenty-five million soldiers were trained and kept ‘in reserve’, in case of war.
To try to prevent a war, governments made treaties of alliance with other states. But in 1914, these alliances dragged them into war.
Austro-Hungarian politicians blamed the small country of Serbia for Franz Ferdinand’s death. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia came to Serbia’s help. Germany entered the war to help Austria-Hungar, and attacked Russia’s ally, France. When the German armies went through Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
Everyone was excited. They thought that the war would be glorious, and that it would be over by Christmas. They were terribly wrong.
The Great War became the first world war. Fighting took place all over the world. The war involved 70 million men from 20 countries. Troops from Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and America came to Europe to fight- and die- in a conflict they knew hardly anything about.”

—————— The above text is on the top half of the page. The bottom half is a color coded map of Europe, with a smaller inset of a world map, to give context. The map shows Allied Countries at the start of war, Countries joining the Allies, Central powers at outbreak of war, Countries joining Central Powers, with lines showing the Western Front, the Furthest Russian Advance, and the Cease fire line.
Facing this page is a full page spread with two pictures and two columns containing quotes from people who were children in WWI. There is a large picture at the bottom of the page, black and white, German women waving goodby to their menfolk at a train station in 1914. Everybody is cheerful, waving, wide smiles. There is a smaller inset of a colored Australian recruiting poster saying “Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men, will YOU help us keep that Promise.”
The format for the quotes is typical for the book- gives the person’s name, country of origin, year, a short description, and the quote. These two are:
“TEd Smout Australia, 1914 Ted Smout was 17 years old and still in school when war was declared in 1914. He joined the army for a variety of reasons. (White feathers were the mark of a coward.)”
“In Australia at that time we were part of the British Empire and were very loyal to Britain, and we felt it was our war… Apart from which, if you stayed a year or two longer, you’d have got a white feather from the girls! “No, it was the thing to do.”
Karl von Clemm Germany, 1914

Karl von Clemm lists some of the confused reasons which led a young man to go to war:
“All over the world there are young fellows who say: ‘The war’s just an adventure, and it’s our country’- and it’s patriotism, and partly to get medals- it’s a mix. “And it’s wonderful because you get away from family and all of a sudden you’re on your own at 18 or 19 or 20, which is great.”
Some pages have more text, some much less. There are many pictures on every page, including posters, post cards, magazine covers, etc. of the time.
BJU has a textbook on the 20th century and I did look at this- it’s useful as a reference book, but it’s dry, choppy, and typically textbookish (also it was written for fifth graders.)
A Basic History of the United States, by Clarence B. Carson. Writes from a classically liberal, which is to say conservative, constitutional, and slightly libertarian point of view- somewhat dry, and obviously, this is only suitable if all you are interested in is American history. The 20th century is covered in part of volume 4 and volumes 5 and 6.

The Century that Was : Reflections on the last one hundred years“, edited with an introduction by James Cross Giblin- I only glanced at this, but it appears to be commentary more than history, so I didn’t glance further.
The Hakim books (History of US)- I don’t like these at all.  I find them trivial, choppy, and prone to giving students the impression they’ve learned about history when they are actually pretty shallow and very biased. And certainly not for high school.


I went to that homeschooling bookfair mentioned above where I looked at and discarded two programs (sorry, I think I remember which two, but since this was so long ago I can no longer remember with certainty which two so it would not be right for me to say). I bought some study guides by James P. STobaugh, D. Min, For Such a Time As This Ministries. There are things I liked about this as a resource, but it wasn’t intended to stand on its own, and I think it requires more direct teaching involvement than I was looking for. In many ways, I think this may be similar to Michelle Miller’s approach, except he doesn’t recommend many specific books. He gives an overview, a timeline, some short biographical articles, and some great questions to ask as you study the period or cultural event. The way he separated the topics up means this would be a pricey (and confusing) program to use to cover all of the 20th century, but you could pick one of the guides to study one aspect of the 20th century in greater depth. At the time, he had a separate guide on the Civil Rights movement, one on the Roaring TWenties, one on the Black experience from post civil war to the 20’s, then the 20’s to now (three of his children are black).

Questions he suggests the student ask about historical figures- Do these historical figures use the Bible as the primary objective guiding force of their lives? Is there any absolute force/truth that guides their actions? Do they act as if there are eternal consequences for their actions? Do they seek to please a higher power or their own desires? and so on.
His study guides (at the time) were only 10.00 each, or you bought five and got one free. That’s what I did. He has since completely revised his materials and I don’t see the study guides on his website.  I see books, which look interesting, but I’ve never seen them for myself, so I can’t give an opinion on them.


When I talk about bias and lack of balance, this is the kind of thing I mean:
I can agree that the Viet Nam war was a great mistake and a mess.  But still, I would have liked something that included something from the other side- like the fact that Walter Cronkite stood up in front of the television cameras and flatly lied about the Tet Offensive. I can find six hundred page books at Amazon about that, but I wanted something more succinct.

The UN: Yes, it’s solved many problems, helped with others, done some good.  And it’s also guilty of stealing funds, improperly policing and monitoring its own people, letting them get off scotfree from raping and pillaging, and it’s participated in programs that sterilized people against their will and without their knowledge.

I’d have been more inclined to trust the research chops of a text that would have told the truth about the lockstep doublespeak and deliberate blindness of the Progressive movement in the thirties, which would, for example, have informed students about Walter Duranty who received the Pulitzer Prize in the 1930s for standing up and telling lies about Stalin’s policies, for saying that everything was fine, even while millions were dying of starvation as a direct result of Stalin’s policies and he knew it perfectly well.

I know it was entirely too much to expect, but I’d have liked something about the reprehensible history of Planned Parenthood in this last century (which continues today). George Grant’s Grand Illusions is online, I think, and it’s a good, readable book, very passionate, very well documented.


Supplemental Texts:
Only Yesterday, by Frederick Allen– limited to the twenties,  interesting, seemed somewhat trivial and occasionally prurient at times- but these are quibbles against the value in getting a sense and genuine flavor of the times.
For older students and Moms interested in the middle East today: What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis. The HG checked it out from the library, and I snatched it. Terrific.
Also Randy Alcorn’s Safely Homea book about the church in China, fiction, but informative and helpful where based on real events in China and within the underground churches in China (odd theology of Heaven, in my opinion, but this mainly shows up at the end). Sad, but happy in the way Lewis’ Last Battle is happy, if you know what I mean. I sobbed through the last four chapters or so. I know this book didn’t appeal to everybody- but the key, I think, is not to read it as theology or history but as an account of underground churches in China.
And, if you want more on WWI, for a mature, sensible, well grounded student who can stand a lot of grief and if you do not object to reading about the pacifist line of thinking that not unnaturally sprung up in response to the horribly senseless loss of life in WWI, the HG suggests Testament of Youth- which none of us will read with her. There is also a video series based on this book- which none of us will watch with her.

Hiroshima by John Hersey- short, powerful real life accounts of seven or so specific real people living in Hiroshima and how they dealt with the bombing.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s journals: Bring me a Unicorn: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1922-1928 by Anne Morrow Lindbergh; collection of her letters and diary entries from about 1928 to 1938 or so – lovely, lovely, lovely. Well written, interesting glimpse into the Lindbergh furor and how exciting the thought of flight was to a demoralized generation)- all of her journals. Mothers who read at least will be moved by them, and several of my girls enjoyed them.

The Men Behind Hitler: A German Warning to the World, by Bernhard Schreiber : A history of eugenics, looks very readable, very good, very chilling, connects planned parenthood to the eugenics movement today- and yes, we do still have such a movement.
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (China’s cultural revolution, 1966-1976); definite keeper. Wonderful, wonderful very human book.

Red China Blues: biographical and honest account of an enthusiastic Marxist reporter, Canadian born of Chinese parentage, who went back to China in the heart of the Maoist movement, and how what she saw forced her to change her mind.

WitnessEverybody needs to read this.  That is all.

The Diary of Anne Frank: Everybody knows what this book is about.

The HIding Place: Inspiring story of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, who hid Jews during WW2 and mostly died for it.

Some of Us Survived- a book about the Armenian genocide in WWI

The Endless Steppe– a book set in WWII, about the removal of a Polish (I think) Jewish family to Siberia

Somerset Maugham: Because I like for my students to read some well written fiction of the age they are studying in history, and because I like his writing, I looked for one of his novels to use, but didn’t like The Razor’s Edge, Ashenden was interesting, perhaps a little lightweight, Of Human Bondage was too big, The Moon and Sixpence had moral problems. I did like his Writer’s Notebook, though.  Possibly his contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, would be a fun read for the time period. I especially enjoyed Decline and Fall– it’s witty, tart, and pretty much on target with its insight into 20th century shallowness.

Also lightweight but intriguing reading, with insights into the times: Helen MacInnes’s classic 1950 espionage books such as Neither Five Nor Three or While Still We Live
– a story of the Nazi invasion of Poland, and the work of the Polish underground (She lived in Poland for a time and her husband was a British Diplomat. I’ve read that one of her books was so accurate in regard to practices of the Polish underground, that there was an investigation into the possibility of leaks- but I can’t remember which title that is) and Rest and Be Thankful are some of my favorites (I’ve blogged about these before here and here).

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer, is still the best chronicle of the horror of Nazi Germany and has never gone out of print to my knowledge- and it is very long.

For post 9-11 reading, Between War and Peace : Lessons from Afghanistan to Iraq, looks interesting, and even better- 34 of the 39 essays are actually online, free, at National Review.

I spent a lot of time looking for contemporary literature for the 20th century and found the pursuit generally unrewarding. I really struggled with the 20th century literature. I found the history depressing, discouraging reading, as was much of the fiction written in the period as well, and I couldn’t understand why it all seemed to suddenly become so dark and ominous. Then I remembered that somewhere I read an analogy that for centuries Christians have basically stood with one foot in a boat (the world) and one foot on the beach (Christianity), and this was comfortable, and not really even much of a problem because the world of Western Civilization was so closely moored to Christian values that it didn’t really make a big difference, at least externally.

But in the 20th century, the boat was unmoored, shifting away, and people standing with one foot in each are going to be doing the splits. When that boat started shifting, Christianity was largely unprepared, I think, and so there is a dearth of literature for this time period that meets my goals of a combination of excellent, excellent literary style, good, believable, real character development, virtue, and worthy reading. (note: I believe I am indebted to Bill Pride and his book Flirting With the Devil for the image of the unmoored boat with western civ standing with one boat on the pier and one in the boat).

The next problem is that girl-boy thing- not romance, but the shift in thinking about books and gender- and I’m not talking bout this decade’s obsession with celebrating mental illness and self-deformation as yay, diversity. This (the 20th C.) is the century when we decided that men and boys really don’t read unless there’s swearing, naked bosums, and a bottle of booze in the drawer. Plentiful explosions and dismembered body parts may substitute for any of the above. I really think the majority of the best literature of the 20th century was mostly written in the first thirty years of it (with a few notable exceptions). Men are assumed to be illiterate and it shows (and becomes a self-fulfilling thing).

I had difficulty with finding well written material that didn’t shock my socks off or bathe me in vile and vulgar crudity. The writing itself dwindled into soundbytes, short, choppy syntax, simplified vocabulary to the point of modern literature for adults reading much like George and Martha easy reader books, and that was the good stuff. The last hundred years have seen a decline in the field of literature like no other century as far as I can tell. The notable exceptions? We’d already read most of them.

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow and others were a welcome discovery.

World Magazine offered a list (compiled by readers) on their blog a while back- it might be a helpful place to search.

A hopeful trend started in a certain subset of Sci-Fi and Speculative Lit- it’s been called The Human Wave, and you can scroll down for some of the guidelines here. They work for regular fiction, too.

Again- this is not intended to be comprehensive, the final word, or even a significant authority in your life. These are some of the books I read and considered and wrote notes about in, approximately, 2002. Others may have been published since then or maybe I missed some you’d love or hated your faves, or turned my thumbs up at some you’d hate. It’s just a start.

Updated: In the comments, Sherry mentioned three books she was thinking about using, but hadn’t seen. I had seen (and rejected) two of them, but that discussion reminded me of two more I did like and use. Here’s a summary of the stuff in the comments:

Our Century In Pictures by Peter Jennings- biased, shallow, also American rather than world history. The conclusion of New York reviewer Gary Wills was, ” We are probably being unfair if we judge this as a book. It is a TV show that has wandered off the screen where it belonged.”
The following excerpts were taken from this site:

…don’t mistake the length for depth. The chapter “New Morning: 1981-1989” recycles many of the old shibboleths often heard from the media about the “decade of greed,” degrading the Reagan years as a time of naivete, instead of recognizing the true pride and patriotism with which many remember it.
Cynicism rains on the parade of Reagan’s “Morning in America” as the authors proclaim: “In fact, it would be hard to imagine a time more devoted to historical revisionism than this decade…in America, in particular, feelings of nostalgia for less complicated times ran so high it felt occasionally as if the society had been transplanted to the grounds of an elaborate theme park where a tidied-up, even cinematic, version of the past could be lived out in comfort.”
To make their point, the authors crib some of the worst diatribes from 1980s newscasts and cast them as history. “Finally, with the deepening of the chasm separating America’s rich and poor, the arrival of AIDS and a drug epidemic in the inner cities, the soaring deficits encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s ambitious defense spending, and the insider trading scandals that brought down two of Wall Street’s most outrageous billionaires, it was hard not to feel that the nation was just pretending to be in better times, distracted by the fizz and bubble of its new wealth, tolerating the worst kinds of ethical and moral abuse, pushing aside bad news or, worse, delaying its full impact for future generations.”
Whew. That mouthful makes you yearn for the Depression by comparison.
Of course, when the authors come to the Clinton years, they found economic optimists were no longer living in Disneyland: “By the late nineties the nation seemed to have arrived at an economic Eden.”
Here’s another:

The reader should perhaps bring to these books a certain wariness toward permitting celebrity TV anchors to organize our history for us. Making connections among the welter of images they televise for us nightly isn’t exactly their strong suit.

This is one of the ones I bought and then got rid of as soon as I finished it.
What Everyone Should Know about the Twentieth Century by Axelrod and Phillips– if this is back in print, I am glad. It wasn’t available for a while, and when it was oop it was grotesquely overpriced. That said- it’s good, but really just good enough in a sea of mediocre, not terrific. You still have to ignore his bias (see his take on the Oklahoma bombings for an example) or point it out.
Susan Wise Bauer’s 20th century history book, The Modern Age-, while for younger readers than I was looking for, is prett well done. I like it the best of her history books- but again, it’s good mainly because it’s better than the rest in a sea of mediocre.  My opinion is that her writing, when she is writing for children, is not nearly as sparkling and living as I would prefer.
Ah- here’s the one with newspaper stuff that I liked: 20th Century Day by DayThis was published by DK, and their books are usually too busy for me, but a dear friend picked mine up for me at a Sams’ club for 15.00 years ago (Dear Friend, did I ever pay you back???????)- but I think it’s oop again. However, you can get what looks like a software version. Not nearly so nice as curling up on the couch together and looking through the century’s headlines, IMO.

But, again- these are just the titles I read- and not even a comprehensive list of those (my notes are scattered).

One more suggestion- for a life-giving, human read for a teen studying the 20th century, a sort of anti-dote for the death and despair, I strongly, strongly recommend A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker. It’s not a book for studying the history of the 20th century, but it is a book for some lovely syntheses of how to look at the 21st century and how to view the world around us as we are moving forward.

This entry was posted in Books, history, homeschooling. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Amazon: Buy our Kindle Books

  • Search Amazon

    Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

  • Brainy Fridays Recommends:

  • Search: