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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881

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 far-away region but on European soil. Well versed in his subject, Mazower combines sound knowledge of economics and politics with exceptional historical insight to produce a provocative study of the struggles that have shaped and reshaped the political landscape of the continent during the twentieth century. He posits the sobering thesis that the seemingly endless state of war among ethnic groups and nations, including the two global conflicts, that characterized life in Europe during the twentieth century has its roots in the ideology of colonialism that still underpins many of the political and economic practices of modern European nations.

What is even more striking and controversial about Mazower’s work is his thesis that, contrary to received opinion, democracy is not the highest or naturally preferred method of political organization. Further, he posits, it was certainly not predestined to be the form of government for European states, even when empires were falling and nations reorganizing after the debacle of World War I. In fact, the democratic reforms implemented to replace kings and autocrats who had ruled before the worldwide conflagration were often ill-conceived and ill-managed. In their efforts to be certain that the state was not seen as controlling the lives of its citizens, new leaders throughout Europe worked hard to create the façade of individual liberty that at times proved counterproductive to effective government. Too frequently, Mazower notes, these democratic leaders found themselves incapable of holding together shaky alliances among political parties driven toward partisan objectives.

Seen against this backdrop, the emergence of fascist and communist leaders with plans for state control of resources was inevitable and understandable. To citizens tired out by the war and disillusioned with early attempts at democracy, men like Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and even Adolf Hitler offered hope for real stability. How that stability was achieved was not of paramount concern to citizens whose principal wish was to be left alone. Consequently, the brutality fascist leaders exhibited in dealing with opponents or minority groups was accepted as the cost of providing stable national borders, sound economies, and improved lifestyles for the majority. Far from being an anomaly, Hitler was simply a politician who overstepped the bounds of propriety in dealing with the perceived ills in his country. He was able to lull the German people into accepting his rather high- handed methods of dealing with dissent because he secured for them a level of prosperity that had seemed to be lost forever under the ineffectual ministers who led the country in the first decade after World War I. Only too late did the populace begin to realize that their führer was leading them back into war—a war they were doomed to lose, because their country did not have the economic resources to compete with the world superpowers, who were still in a position to benefit from the empires they had ruled for a century or more.

The work of fascists like Hitler and Mussolini and lesser lights in Eastern European nations may be reprehensible, Mazower admits, but it is at least comprehensible. What these dictators were doing was little different from what their predecessors in England, France, Russia, and even Belgium had done for the past half century:

Fascist empire-building marked the culmination of the process of European imperial expansion that began in the 1870s. Mussolini and Hitler accepted the basic geopolitical tenets of nineteenth- century imperialism, while jettisoning its liberalism.

Of course, the excesses of brutality, sometimes not well known within the borders of countries ruled by these tyrants and often only dimly discerned by many outsiders, could not be tolerated by leaders in countries such as the United States and England, most of whom had embraced the notion of Wilsonian liberalism. With men such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill leading the Allies, World War II became

something far more profound than a series of military engagements and diplomatic negotiations; it was a struggle for the social and political future of the continent itself.

As a consequence, the political systems that emerged in Western Europe were not the same as the fledgling democracies that had been stamped out by the Axis powers. Mazower makes it clear that the “rebirth of democracy” in European nations after World War II was no simple return to 1919; on the contrary, what emerged after 1945 was profoundly altered as a result of the region’s memories both of war and of the pre-war democratic crisis. The role of parliament, the nature of political parties and of politics itself all emerged transformed from the struggle with fascism.

Although Mazower comes down hard on fascist governments, he is less strident in his denunciation of communism. He devotes little attention to the initial efforts of Lenin to consolidate power for the Bolsheviks and eliminate his competitors. He has more to say about Stalin, although criticisms of Stalin’s bloodthirsty purges and the paranoia that drove him to confine millions of his own fellow Russians to camps in Siberia are notably mild. Mazower seems more intent on condemning the West for its willing acquiescence to communist rule in Eastern Europe after the defeat of Hitler’s forces. Communism flourished there, Mazower asserts, largely because Western governments and the populace at large in Western democracies “never seriously challenged the communist hold over the region. In fact,” Mazower continues, “given the West’s basic acquiescence—right through the 1980s—in the Cold War division of Europe, it is hard to criticize East Europeans for their lack of more vigorous opposition.”

Mazower is not even willing to credit policies of Western governments during the Cold War with helping to undermine communism. Neither the conciliatory efforts of some U.S., French, or British administrations nor the hard-line policies of others lie at the root of communism’s collapse in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Communism finally failed, Mazower claims, because the notion of empire as an ideology undergirding national action had finally run its course. “The long age of empire, begun by Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth century, came to an end in the middle of our own.” The last vestige of a Renaissance idea of a nation-state’s leaders imposing their will on both their own people and those of far-flung colonies could no longer be sustained in a world where communications, travel, and international trade had finally linked all nations into a curious brotherhood; at the end of the century, national chauvinism had to be balanced by acceptance of differences among a country’s geographical neighbors and trading partners.

Nevertheless, Mazower does not intend to represent his assessment of the emergence of democracy as the dominant form of government among the world’s nations as evidence of a rosy future. He is quick to cite the struggles of Balkan nations and others in Eastern Europe during the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s as signs that the replacements for communist, totalitarian states are not necessarily fated to be benevolent democracies. Instead, the removal of restraints imposed by Marxist ideology has opened the way for the reemergence of what might be called tribal responses to festering political and ethnic conflicts. In fact, he notes, even in Western European nations, the absence of an external threat such as the Soviet Union has given majority groups within nations more time to reclaim what they see as traditional rights over interlopers in their homelands. Mazower’s assessment of the future of minorities in European countries at the close of the twentieth century is sobering. “Overall,” he asserts, “the character of European attitudes toward ethnic minorities is becoming clearer. . . . and assimilation as a goal has had its day,” and immigrant communities “remain excluded from full citizenship rights” even in countries such as the United Kingdom. The effort to “stabilize the current situation” in Eastern Europe, where ethnic differences lie behind more than a decade of fighting in the Balkans and other countries once behind the Iron Curtain, “through a twin policy of assimilation’ and barriers to further immigration is doomed to fail.”

As one might expect, anyone posing a theory of history as controversial as Mazower’s is bound to evoke strong response. Liberal historians may find themselves agreeing with Charles King, who writes in RUSI Journal that this is a “thoughtful and thought-provoking” book, and with Richard Gott, who claims in The New Statesman that Dark Continent is “a more honest European history” than most written before it. Some, however, leaning toward more conservative views of government’s role in shaping human lives, may echo the criticisms of Alfred Sherman, theSpectator reviewer, who first blames with faint praise this account which “is valuable for newcomers on the scene” but which degenerates into the strident rhetoric of “student union politics” in condemning contemporary efforts of European governments to limit the growth of a pan- European society. Perhaps the presence of controversy in early reviews is appropriate for a book that challenges conventional wisdom about the political and economic forces that have shaped the century Mazower describes as Europe’s most tumultuous and destructive. Attempts such as his to uncover the root causes of global unrest may help Europe, and the world at large, to avoid repeating the errors of the past.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (December 15, 1998): 723.

Choice 36 (June, 1999): 1858.

Commentary 108 (July, 1999): 92.

History Today 49 (May, 1999): 55.

International Affairs 75 (January, 1999): 161.

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 122.

Publishers Weekly 245 (December 21, 1998): 45.

New Statesman 127 (August 21, 1998): 45.

The New Yorker 74 (January 25, 1999): 93.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1998, p. 4.

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