Dark Continent

by Mark Mazower

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Concentrating on twentieth-century European history, Mark Mazower reaches further back to set the stage for his analysis of the major social and political conflicts that afflicted the continent. Mazower insists that Europe is at least as dark as any other continent and that the same ill-conceived policies and their application in Europe itself has not differed that greatly from imperialist practices abroad.

One of Mazower’s main points is that extremism is not a complete aberration but grows out of related social and political currents. Efforts to explain phenomena such as Nazism as arising out of nothing will not help prevent future crises. Neither can they be set aside as the products of individual pathology.

Ideologies matter, not so much as guides to history but as vehicles for belief and political action. If the dogmas of the past no longer hold us in their grip, this does not mean they were merely grand deceptions from the start.... After 1945, fascism was explained away as a political pathology by which insane dictators led bewitched, hypnotized populations to their doom. Yet the wounds of the continent cannot be dismissed as the work of a few madmen....

Mazower urges us to confront the reality of a multi-ethnic Europe which never really retreated under the onslaught of nationalism in the early- to mid-twentieth century. He spends considerable time laying out the multi-ethnic landscape of Europe at the time the nineteenth-century empires were either disintegrating from internal pressures or challenged by incursions from more powerful neighbors. As new, individual nations were created from within those crumbling behemoths, the ethnic groups within them did not necessarily embrace their inclusion in such an entity. Among various strategies to sell inclusion, the nation might try

to win acceptance by offering the possibility of assimilation into the ruling national group, but their intrusion into traditional society, their insistence upon standardization of language and promptly paid taxes often had the undesired effect of creating a backlash and encouraging counter-nationalism.

Looking at the century’s end, Mazower discusses the break-up of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. Arguing that even experienced political scientists failed to see this coming, he suggests that their analyses were looking at the wrong factors. The decline of that empire was as predictable as that of any of its predecessors.

The almost universal failure to predict the collapse of communism drove a large nail into the coffin of Western political science.... The collapse of the Soviet Union was fast, unexpected, and peaceful, and it swept across the region as a whole.... Freedom was the outcome; desire for it was not necessarily the cause.

Another controversial position that the author takes is to challenge what he sees as Europeans’ self-congratulatory tendencies. A stance of exceptionalism, positing an inherent European superiority from which recent problems are merely “slips” is neither realistic nor helpful, he argues. This applies as well to the idea of a unified Europe in which conflicts are minor, temporary setbacks. He senses desperation in such theories.

If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves and if they can accept a more modest place in the world, then they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and the dissension which will be as much their future as their past.

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