Book Review: Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century


    Mazower, Mark, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Mark Mazower's Dark Continent is a comprehensive, fresh and incisive analysis of the movements and events, which shaped contemporary Europe. From the end of the First World War until the end of the wars of succession in former Yugoslavia, Mazower accomplishes the truly formidable task of compressing pivotal political, social and economic issues into an immensely readable work. He offers a potentially controversial look at the tenacity of democracy in Europe, the attraction of Fascism and nationalism in the interwar period, the role of eugenics and racism in European society, the relationship between capitalism and communism, and the future of the European Union. As a watershed text on twentieth-century European history, Dark Continent provides key context and provocative ideas by which to consider theories or histories of modern nationalism.

Mazower immediately explodes the notion that democracy is organic and ineradicable in Europe (3), and goes on to detail its failures in the period between the World Wars and its postwar revival in the West as a corollary of the success of capitalism and relative freedom from ideologies: “Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics.” (404) The popular notion that the totalitarian ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century were historical flukes or irrational anomalies is devastated here as Mazower dissects the resounding failure of liberalism and laissez- faire capitalism, which made these ideologies' promise of involvement and a take-charge attitude broadly appealing (26). The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are placed in the context of the culmination and end of imperialism (48). A sizeable portion of the book is devoted to the great watershed of the Second World War (79), and the resounding military-ideological defeat of Fascism, which did more for the renewed popularity of democratic tendencies in the West than any potential effort on the part of the Allies (143).

Postwar East-West rivalry is described as “a dialectic of suspicion” (218) continued even after 1989: “Western indifference is matched by Eastern irresponsibility.” (401) Mazower turns a critical eye on frequently romanticized views of the fall of Communism, attributing it to a loss of credibility due to economic failure (374) and the continuing process of decolonization (382) rather than an upsurge of nationalist ideology (378-9). He also charts capitalism's occasionally rocky postwar path and ultimate triumph linked to the dissipation of faith in politics and increased desire for individual comfort over social revolution (306), enshrined in the institution of the modern welfare state. If Mazower supports capitalist, Western values and shows a slight pro-British bias, it is largely due to the historically proven durability of these practices and principles.

Finally, the author offers pertinent criticism of the European Union and its insistence on a unified identity when the continent is continually beset by differences and - admittedly localized - conflict. Pointing out ethnic and gender inequality as solid trends despite advances made by respective interest groups, he casts doubt on the possibility of true multicultural tolerance despite the survival of cultures, customs and nation-states. The EU may be the only viable option for the foreseeable future, but Mazower sagely states that its significance will be economic rather than political or cultural, and must be placed in the context of global economy and shifting centers of world power (408-10).

Mazower is not writing on nationalism per se, but nationalism is treated in the context of European history. A thought-provoking book in terms of modern European historiography, Dark Continent also challenges assumptions about interwar and post-Communist nationalism, eugenics and the decline of nationalism in Western Europe.