Dark Continent Summary
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.
In the opening scene of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), the unnamed narrator, who introduces the tale, reflects as he looks from the deck of a ship at the Thames River outside London that for centuries the river had borne “all the men of whom the nation is proud,” warriors and explorers who
had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land. . . . What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
From London, he says, the British Empire has spread light into the dark world of India, Asia, and the Middle East. His reverie is disturbed, however, when Marlow, the hero of Conrad’s story, reminds him that “this also”—the narrator’s beloved Great Britain—has been “one of the dark places on the earth.”
Marlow’s journey into the African jungle to meet the notorious Mr. Kurtz is a story not only about African darkness but also about the dark stain of European colonialism. His treks from London to Belgium and then to the remote recesses of the Congo reveal to him (and to Conrad’s readers) that, while maintaining the façade of extending civilization and culture to the benighted peoples of the Third World, Europeans had ravaged the resources of other continents, in the process destroying the lives of the ethnic peoples who stood between them and the wealth of less sophisticated nations.
Although not a work of fiction, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century has much in common with Conrad’s novel. The book is a historical and political analysis of the effects of Europeans’ colonial mentality exhibited not in some...
(The entire section is 2,231 words.)