(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)