Dark Continent

by Mark Mazower

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The bloody geopolitical history of twentieth-century Europe is the subject of Mark Mazower's Dark Continent. He traces the battle for supremacy between liberal democracy, fascism, and communism in Europe during the devastating period from 1914–50. These struggles for power resulted in two world wars, multiple instances of genocide, and sixty million dead.

Mazower, emphasizing the contingency of history, suggests that the triumph of liberal democracy and constitutional government was in no way guaranteed by European history, which seems prophetic in light of Europe's current period of instability and the resurgence of nationalist and fascist tendencies on the continent.

Mazower attributes the appeal of Nazi efficiency to both the fragility of liberal democracy and the Depression-era failure of capitalism to prevent the fracturing of post-Versailles Europe. He explains the unsettling degree to which fascist directives on racial cleansing and eugenics were accepted by a number of Europeans, since they were already a common feature of public policy there (as well as in the US).

In discussing the defeat of fascism and the later failure of communism, Mazower notes that the subject nations of both systems fundamentally depended on the enslavement and exploitation of their own populations in much the same way as they did their non-European colonies in the previous century. Witnessing the omnipresent violence such oppression required, he says, finally became as intolerable to those living under such systems as it did to foreigners whose lives it threatened.

The largely peaceful and prosperous Europe which has arisen in the post–World War II period (as well as the general desire to return to the intimacy of domestic life) may owe more, Mazower believes, to a deep revulsion toward the preceding decades of violence and a willingness to reconcile with recent enemies than it owes to a belief in the ability of politics to resolve current problems. Mazower doesn't deny that, until very recently, this period of peace has been a Pax Americana, which is regarded with some ambivalence on the part of Europeans—but generally with greater acceptance. As with the rise of Euro-nationalism, we'll see if this will remain so.

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