In my opinion, the book supports that narrative quite well rather than discrediting it. It is just not as revisionist as the author and its reviewers seem to think it is. It is a fantastic piece of historical writing though. By telling the entire history of the century, the author avoids falling into the easy periodization that most other histories follow. Nothing important happened in the "low, dishonest decades" in between, and if you want to know about the wars check out some History Channel documentaries.
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There was every hope that its politics, arts, and sciences would spread universally. Instead, a protracted struggle occurred as the historic states of the continent were obliged to defend themselves against German and Russian expansionism and its avatars, Nazism and Communism. If it had not been for the steadfast support of America, these states and their democracies would have been overwhelmed. The experience has left Europe today exhausted, offering little in the way of a political model even to its own populations.
This story of decline and fall is the theme of Dark Continent by Mark Mazower, a young British historian and the author of a previous book about the German occupation of Greece. Mazower is nothing if not ambitious.
He has read widely in several languages, his reach is exceedingly long, and he is a strong writer, capable of providing arresting details and no less arresting observations. But as a historian, he has a peculiar sense of reality. Indeed, history to him is less about human beings with wills of their own than it is a dialectic of ideas.
Dark Continent is essentially an exposition of those ideas, and of the thesis that supposedly explains them. Under the banner of each idea, political superstructures in 20th-century Europe attempted to grapple with the one true and abiding social issue: namely, the proper relationship between the individual and the collective. Of the three, Mazower believes that Communism came the closest to a satisfactory solution, not only in theory but even in practice.
After World War I, he writes, there was no agreed-upon or viable definition of democracy in Europe. To some, democracy was synonymous with the nation; but that allowed the exclusion and persecution of minorities. To others, democracy was a synonym for capitalism; but that meant inequality and injustice. Still others maintained that, since all nations ought to be deciding their fate for themselves as decreed by President Woodrow Wilson, imperial powers like Britain and France were immoral and hypocritical, with no right to consider themselves democracies at all.
But in any case, Mazower contends, the ranks of those ostensibly seeking to lay the foundations of the democratic state had been filled from the beginning with crackpots and social engineers of one kind or another; or with eugenicists promoting the national and racial stock; or with theorists of the gold standard, trade protectionism, and the like. Unfortunately, this state was to be based strictly on race.
Since, according to Nazi doctrine, there was no universal morality or law, there was no reason to refrain from dealing with minorities ruthlessly. Of course, by making enemies and victims of all the peoples whom they could not include in their collective, Nazism destroyed everyone, and in the end the Germans too. But then there was Communism. Historians of Russia generally depict Bolshevism either as a mutation of czarism—that is, a cruel modern version of an ancestral despotism—or as a monstrous system of its own.
For Mazower, it was indeed a new system, but far from monstrous. Moreover, in the Soviet Union a solution had at last been found to the troublesome question of nationalities and minorities.
Mass murder and deportations had by now homogenized the population of almost every nation-state. But in the democracies of the West, the same old idea-mongers were at their wonted tasks. But this was a culturally bastardized and materially Americanized creation, a welfare state that promoted prosperity in a spiritual void and pushed Europe aimlessly from crisis to crisis. In the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, by contrast, the conquering Soviets urbanized and modernized society.
Had the party modernized to deal with globalization, it would still be in power. In short, although Mazower in general finds not much to boast about in 20th-century Europe, certain aspects of the story are brighter than others. Democracy, on paper the most hopeful system, fell victim everywhere to incompetent and corrupt leaders, and in the end, as a national project, came to nothing.
As for Nazism, its fatal flaw was race theory. When it came to the remaking of society in a truly hopeful direction, only Communism could be said to pass muster. In the old days, apologists for Communism used to set the terms of argument to suit themselves, ignoring or distorting whatever did not fit their purpose. Mazower is much more sophisticated, but essentially no different.
There is, for instance, no effort made in Dark Continent to assess the character of Lenin or Stalin—or, for that matter, of Hitler. Goebbels and Himmler are dealt with in a few scattered references, Beria merits a single parenthesis, Trotsky is omitted altogether.
There is no account of the Moscow show trials or of terror as an instrument of Soviet policy. Although Soviet and Nazi mass murder is of course acknowledged, not a single witness or survivor has been allowed a voice.
Nor is there any mention of the fact that not a single one of those responsible for the Gulag has been brought to trial. The list of selective omissions only grows. No mention of the Muslim Basmachis and others in different Soviet republics who fought to the death for their independence, and lost.
No mention of the calculated destruction of free Poland during and after the war. No mention of Jan Masaryk, thrown out of the window in Prague for dissenting from the Soviet takeover of his country. Nothing about the Brezhnev doctrine, or about the Helsinki accords; no mention of a single Soviet dissident, not even Solzhenitsyn.
No proper assessment of Gorbachev or of the choices he made; no analysis of Russian or other nationalisms; no mention of Yeltsin. Above all, no acknowledgment of the millions who took to the streets only ten short years ago in horror and refutation of Communism in theory and practice and in celebration of its collapse. In a downbeat and perfunctory epilogue, Mazower invites Europeans to come to terms with the latest governing idea to come alive in their continent: the European Union.
Nominally democratic, this new creation lacks supporting democratic institutions or practices. The countries subscribing to it, distinct in language, religion, law, and historical experience, have little to guide them in their adventure into the unknown except the previous collective experiments with which, in this century, the continent has been hounded near to death.
Or so Mazower leaves it.
Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century
Just a few months away from the year , historians are infected with their very own peculiar form of millenium bug, feverishly impelled to jump the chronological gun and produce a retrospective evaluation of the entire twentieth century in the grim hope that nothing too radical will occur in to overtake their premature rush to fin-de-siecle judgement. At the time of reviewing, Mark Mazower looks as though he is going to escape the nemesis Lying in wait for all contemporary historians who dare to bring their accounts fully up to date. His chronological cut-off point in reality lies around May , the date of the Labour Party triumph in the most recent British general election. For instance, there is greater concern with such countries as Sweden, Belgium and Holland than one has come to expect in synoptic histories of Europe.
Dark Continent by Mark Mazower