WHETHER IT was really "the year our world began" can be debated; 1945 might better fit that description. Nonetheless, as William Klingaman shows in this long, immensely readable book, 1919 was certainly a year of fateful and dramatic events. Klingaman offers a swirling, kaleidoscopic account of hunger, revolution and repression in defeated Germany; civil war and Allied intervention in revolutionary Russia; the Versailles peace conference; the Red Scare and strikes and the Black Sox scandal in the United States; and everywhere the struggle between cynical and grasping politics and the worldwide thirst for a saner and more just society after the disillusioning bloodbath of World War I.

There are some gaps in the story. The May Fourth Movement in China, in particular, from which flowed a revolutionary upheaval that is still being played out in China today, deserves much more than the single and somewhat misleading sentence it is given. Still, Klingaman skillfully arranges a great deal of fascinating material, spiced by telling quotes (among them the remark by France's iconoclastic Premier Clemenceau on Woodrow Wilson's idealistic peace program: "God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.") and a wealth of vivid and evocative detail, giving life to the events in these pages. From many possible examples, here is a passage on the postwar winter in Berlin:

"The Palais de Danse was filled every night with smartly dressed patrons drinking expensive champagne and dancing under the great colored lights; the sound of rifles crackled in the slums nearby; packets of money were thrown upon illegal roulette tables; half-frozen workers who could not obtain coal for their homes huddled around the public fires that blazed in huge square braziers in the Unter den Linden; the icy winds blew in from Russia; and arc lamps shone brilliantly upon long stretches of ice on the Lietzensee and Deer Park, throwing grotesque shadows from the skaters who glided to the sounds of music until late into the night."

IN CELEBRATING the bicentennial of the American Constitution, it is easy to forget that the task of establishing the American republic did not end with the successful conclusion of the Constitutional Convention 200 years ago this month. Instead, after writing the constitution, the Founding Fathers then had to make it work -- perhaps an even more impressive achievement.

This biography of James Madison illustrates the point. Having been a leading participant in the Philadelphia convention, Madison then played a major role in American political life for the next three decades. Campaigning for ratification of the new constitution, he co-authored the series of essays that became known as The Federalist Papers, which remain to this day one of the most eloquent expressions of America's guiding ideas. Rutland quotes one of Madison's memorable passages: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

As a member of the First Congress, Madison was the chief sponsor of the Bill of Rights. Subsequently, after eight years as Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state, he served two terms as president, facing among other challenges the War of 1812 -- which, though not brilliantly conducted, strengthened the national identity of the new American republic.

Robert Rutland's relatively brief biography suffers from some wooden writing, and it focuses so narrowly on the public record of Madison's life that little context is provided for the ideas and events of the period. Yet, Rutland succeeds in portraying the array of problems facing the new republic -- and reminds us that as with all parents, the Founding Fathers' achievement was not only the birth of the American republic, but its growth into a strong and healthy maturity.

THERE ARE TWO types of Holocaust literature, asserts the author of this study. One consists of works written "as witness, or in commemoration, or as a somber warning to future generations"; the other applies "the modes of discourse, the scholarly techniques, and the kinds of analyses used for all other historical issues." In this book, Michael R. Marrus, a historian at the University of Toronto, concentrates on the second type. He attempts to survey what historians have discovered about the facts of the Holocaust, and particularly issues that are still in dispute more than four decades after the event. Was the Nazis' "final solution" premeditated or did it evolve amid the convulsions of war? What were the roles of citizens and authorities in the occupied countries? What was the extent and nature of Jewish resistance? Could the Allies have saved some of the victims?

On these and other questions, Marrus offers lucid and sensible discussion of the evidence as it has been gathered by Holocaust scholars. His book thus serves both as a guide to Holocaust literature and a useful, well-reasoned examination of the event itself.

While persuading us that scholarly research still has much to teach on the subject, however, Marrus's study also leaves one with a sense that it will forever defy complete understanding. Nearly all personal memoirs of the Holocaust, Marrus notes, "seem to despair, in one way or another, of the task to which they are nevertheless committed -- to communicate across an abyss of experience, to portray a universe that is unspeakable, yet of which they feel a necessity to speak." Historians, however diligent and skillful in digging out more facts, face the same abyss. Their craft may continue to solve some of the Holocaust's puzzles, but at the heart of their subject something hidden and ultimately unknowable remains: the dark, terrible mystery of an evil so immense that all humanity is diminished just by knowing that it could happen -- and did.

THIS COLLECTION of essays and reviews by America's preeminent Sinologist is loosely grouped around the theme of Chinese-American relations -- particularly as they reflect (and are affected by) American perceptions and stereotypes of the Chinese and their culture. Some of the articles appear as originally published; some have been revised. The earliest appeared in 1971, the year of "ping-pong diplomacy"; the most recent was published in 1985. They thus span the entire period of Sino-American rapprochement, from the Nixon administration's early overtures to today's virtual strategic alliance between the two former adversaries.

Fairbank's consistent aim in these essays is to remind Americans not to impose their own "moralistic stereotypes" on China, which must instead be viewed in light of its own history, traditions and social circumstances. In trying to show the Chinese on their own terms, however, Fairbank at times comes perilously close to being an apologist for totalitarian repression.

About Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, for example, after making the astonishing and utterly untrue assertion that most American journalists and other observers "got no inkling and reported no news" of that event or its cruelty, Fairbank mildly observes that the Cultural Revolution "had a bad press outside China"; elsewhere, he remarks that the Chinese political system is "still deficient in our sort of civil liberties."

In fact, while the Chinese view of individual rights may not be identical to ours, a desire for greater democracy has been evident whenever political conditions permitted its expression-as in the Democracy Wall interlude in 1978-79 (barely mentioned in these essays) and in the student demonstrations that erupted in Chinese cities late in 1986.

Despite moments of political blindness, however, Fairbank's essays still contain a good deal of useful material relating China's contemporary turmoil to its long and eventful past. As Fairbank writes, "Chinese history underlies the revolution, and Americans who would understand it must understand Chinese history first."

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia."