Jason Wolfe, Dan Diner’s “Cataclysms”: Application and Function

Dan Diner. Cataclysms: A History of the Twentieth Century from Europe’s Edge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 368 PP. Cloth $35.00. ISBN: 9780299223502.

Unknown, “An Anti-Communist Comic Book Warns of "The Red Iceberg",” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/661.
Unknown, “An Anti-Communist Comic Book Warns of “The Red Iceberg”,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/661.

The final chapter of Cataclysms, “Dualisms: Decolonization and the Cold War,” addresses Dan Diner’s “universal civil war” as it expanded geographically after 1945, becoming the Cold War. The section begins with a return to the “Eastern Question” that beleaguered the geopolitical order since the turn of the century. Greece, the former Ottoman Empire, and assorted Balkan nations became theaters to explore how Diner’s universal civil war would play out, much of which was done according to the rules of the Truman Doctrine (200, 210 ff.). One notes the expansion of Diner’s western gaze at this point as he argues that the United States assumed the leadership of “liberal democracy” from Britain after the Second World War, as the latter dissolved its empire (199-200). The realities of the rise of the United States as a world power are, of course, much more complicated and varied, but that aside, the author’s binary framework fits the narrative sufficiently for post-war Europe.

Diner then moves to East and Southeast Asia, examining how the “civil war” influenced conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, while also introducing the rise of communist China. In the Korean War, Diner places much Soviet agency behind Chinese decisions to intervene against American “imperialism” in the region (226). He follows this discussion of Korea with a synopsis of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam as an attempt to manage the political ramifications in much of the crumbling French Empire. American eagerness to hinder the spread of communism (here and elsewhere) is without question linked to most conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century.

Moving from Southeast Asia to Africa, Diner situates the start of Algerian independence from France after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (236). In the realms of contingency and inevitability, so often mentioned in this narrative, this correlation is a bit of a stretch and diminishes the agency of Algerian nationalists who were aware of global events, but in no way inclined to seek independence based on French success or failure in Indochina. Diner views these conflicts through the lens of decolonization, though he might have strengthened his case by probing links to the self-determinism proclaimed at the Paris Peace Conference and reinforced later in the Atlantic Charter. Missing are detailed discussions of Angola, Cuba, Iran, Egypt, or the Non-Aligned Movement which represented an effort to transcend a binary system of geopolitics, a system critical to Diner’s “universal civil war.”

Although Diner treats 1939-45 as an anomaly in the greater ideological conflict, what if there was a transformative moment in that period that changed the foundations of each side? Were the two sides still “liberal democracy” versus “actual equality”? Maybe they are better understood as industrialized capitalism versus industrialized anti-capitalism, with each wearing the old ideological banners to justify their respective geopolitical affairs. Near the conclusion of Chapter Five, readers get a sense that Diner acknowledges change as events transpired in ways that do not fit perfectly into his framework (248-9).

In this book, Diner gives us a good example of how the past can help us understand the dangers we may face in the present. As I read the first few pages of Chapter Four, I jotted down: “What is the role of human immigration and forced migration in understanding ethnic violence?” Recent events in Calais, France and Munich, Germany demonstrate that some of the issues Diner lays out in Cataclysms have modern parallels albeit with different circumstances. What about the exodus of Syrians fleeing their own civil war? What of the Kurds’ struggle in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq? How might any of these examples play out in Diner’s framework of a “universal civil war,” especially as so many of these situations are intermingled with the United States’ foreign policy? Some would argue that current conflicts resemble the proxy wars detailed in Diner’s concluding chapter – the two poles battling in remote locations under the guise of “helping” one faction or another in a pursuit of either “liberty” or “equality.” Except now, maybe those are not the right terms. Russia is not the Soviet Union, despite what some detractors may think, but it is a world power trying to ensure the return of a binary system with itself as one of the hegemonic forces (though I argue for three to include China). It is understandable why some scholars are vocalizing concerns, not that “history is repeating itself,” but that dangerous similarities are afoot. As scholars, witnesses, voters, and humans, we must not lose sight of the human toll that the “universal civil war” exacts on those displaced in the process.

Overall, Cataclysms is a thought-provoking read. Some of the chapters require one to be rooted in existing literature to benefit from Diner’s argument. Those unfamiliar with interwar Europe may give the author too much credence in his eloquent analysis. Cataclysms is not meant to be a comprehensive account of 20th-century European history and would not serve as such in the classroom.  It is not rooted in primary research but is rather a synthetic and theoretical musing on the role European powers played in producing so much destruction during the twentieth century. Diner is an experienced and knowledgeable scholar who has sifted through much archival and secondary materials over his career, and that is demonstrated clearly in this monograph. My only complaint is the strong reliance on binary comparison: though it makes analysis easier and serves as a pedagogical tool, it oversimplifies the realities of the historical record. Regardless of any reservations, Cataclysms offers sound historical accounts with modern implications. This work would be well-suited for a graduate seminar, especially for comparative purposes. Everything about Cataclysms and its impact reinforces what Diner himself has observed, that “History is an open process.” (5) It takes a community of scholars to research and debate the past, enabling us as a whole to elucidate and convey the narrative of history. Without discussion among professionals, thJason Wolfeere would be no growth or true expansion of our understanding of the past. To conclude, three maxims: perspective is key; we’re not experts in everything; and, continue the discussion.


Jason M. Wolfe is an Instructor of History and Coordinator of Dual Enrollment at Louisiana State University.  His research has taken him to Germany, South Africa, and Namibia in addition to special collections in the United States. His manuscript, “God’s Children without a Nation: German Missionaries, Settlers, and Africans in Southwest Africa, 1915-1960” examines what is modern-day Namibia through the lens of German evangelists from the Rhenish Missionary Society, specifically their role in shaping cultural, religious, and political developments in what became a League of Nations mandate.

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