Originally published in 1998, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent was in its day widely lauded for opening up alternative vistas to the grand narrative of twentieth century European historiography. Here Mazower presents us with a towering overview of the history of Europe during the 20th century, whose central theme seems to be that Europe both politically and conceptually is an ongoing seam of conflict, be this ideological, political, cultural, or economic. Europe, in Mazower’s view, is change, however as the title of the book suggests, this is not always for the best.
In covering the history of the century in Europe Mazower divides the work into 11 chapters which it is necessary to detail in full to give the reader an idea of the scope of the work: the first deals with the rise and fall of democracies. The second on empires, nations and minorities discusses nationalism and politics in interwar Europe. The third entitled healthy bodies, sick bodies is a debate on the roles of racism, masculinity and eugenics and how they played a role in Europe’s impending crises. The fourth deals with the crisis of capitalism and how it fed off other crisis to propel Europe towards alternative ideologies. The fifth with Hitlers new order and how Nazism was en vogue in the West prior to the war. The sixth is a discussion on the welfare state in the west and the modernisation of the Soviet bloc. The seventh discusses the failings of the peace after the second world war. The eight sees a debate on the efforts to rebuild Europe after the war. Chapter nine discusses the transformative nature of European economic growth after the war, on both sides of the Iron curtain. Ten discusses the social contract in crisis after the economic crises of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The final chapter discusses the fall of communism and European capability to deal with the changes.
What can probably be inferred from the above is that this juxtaposition and veritable broad canvas of history bequeaths the book its real downfall- ambition. There is far too much history in Europe in the 20th century for one to cover it all in detail in such a small book. This has led to many things being excluded which would have made for a much more compelling or complete reading. For example, in discussing the collapse of the Soviet Union there is no mention of the Helsinki Final Act of 1977, something widely regarded as being the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe. Compounding this is the long duree of historical events which due the thematic organisation of chapters leads to a to-ing and fro-ing back and forth along the path of European history. Finally the work, largely details events from the interwar period until its time of publishing, thus it largely ignores the first two decades of the century. This latter point is a shame as Mazower on many occasions has an eye for the long term movement of history, as he notes the Second World War was a child of nearly a century of political and social movement in Europe that had been pent up under great pressure. By going back to 1900 he may have been able to elucidate on this point further.
As a work of history in its own right Dark Continent is dichotomous in nature and throughout the work there are numerous juxtapositions between numerous dyads; progressive and regressive politics, Stalinism and Fascism, Hitler and Mussolini, Capitalism and Communism and so on. As can be imagined 20th century Europe offers ample opportunity for such an approach. This approach is admirable as it speaks of a quest for impartiality, it also underlines the pretext of the work, that Europe, whilst having the capacity for good is not the exemplar of moral virtue. However the title is somewhat misleading, despite the nefariousness of Europe in this period, Mazower himself demonstrates, there is plenty of scope for taking positives away from the epoch, this is a point worth noting, not because it excuses the sins of the past but because working off the title one might be expected to confront a work on the holocaust or on matters of such nature, where as the work is much more broad than this.
Returning to positives; in chapters five and seven, Mazower builds a compelling argument which in many ways prefigures one of the key themes of Tony Judt’s later opus Postwar , which is that through ethnic redistribution of Europe, Stalin and Hitler through their demographic policies- Hitler through extermination, Stalin through relocation and extermination, may have inadvertently initiated the period of peace in Europe that has lasted since the of the second world war. This is an interesting idea but again through the lack of space is dealt with sparingly. Having said that it is imperative to note that this book is not by any means bereft of detail, for there are numerous details and anecdotes that help locate the work in the real world. One of the most enjoyable for me was the reference to the Irish constitution of 1937 as a marker of entrenched conservatism that was found in post first world war emergent states.
Reading almost twenty years after publication is interesting in the sense that the book is clearly a product of its environment (that being the immediate post-Cold War world) and is heavily leaden in this sense, however, this is not to detract from the work. Whilst it is not perfect it is excellently written and presented and in many ways in underscores the long nature of some of the discord in modern European society. To elaborate on this, Mazower analyses the roles of economic liberalism in Europe with an eye on its relationship with immigration and with social strife. With hindsight, he is observing the groundwork for much of the discord in Europe today. What is interesting about this is that at no point in this discussion does he prophesize on Europe’s future travails. He is instead making a link between European state-level economic policies that were designed to attract immigrants in order to fuel economic growth and the fuelling of xenophobia in Europe. This is particularly interesting given the rise of the extreme right since the financial crisis of 2008.
This book is in many ways emblematic of the Europe it is trying to represent; it has many flaws and has tried to do many things some good and some not so much and it has posed as many questions as it answers. But like Europe, this is a book I would heartily recommend to everyone.