Dark Continent is, ostensibly, an account of European History from the aftermath of the First World War to around the conclusion of the Yugoslav wars in the mid-1990s, likely the point when Mark Mazower began to write the book. This time period is roughly the same as Eric Hobsbawm's `Short Twentieth Century', indeed, this book can be compared in scope to The Age of Extremes. Mazower's Thesis, if we are to sum up such a wide ranging book in one sentence, is that up to the Second World War and to an extent after it, Europe was a troubled, violent and in many ways fairly awful place. It is this somewhat controversial argument which makes Dark Continent more interesting than the basic historical analysis of a textbook or introductory text. The author, as an academic rather than a lay writer has a reputation and professional position at stake whilst advancing the argument that he puts forward in the book. I make this point because despite the rigorous nature of Mazower's approach the book remains very readable. I will return to this later but it is important to make some remarks about the way the author has chosen to treat his subject.
It is, as a whole, somewhat more than just a basic historical analysis of the period for European countries and also in some ways less than a full exploration of the whole time period. There are several reasons for this. On the former point, it is important to note that Dark Continent is almost entirely a corporate History of Europe. By this, I mean that it is the History of Europe as we know it now and of the way that different countries and regions have acted across the century to bring about major geopolitical changes. Mazower wastes no time in trying to define Europe (apart from briefly in the epilogue) and includes in his study all countries that are either generally accepted as European or have had a major effect on the continent-most importantly the USA which is an almost constant player in the narrative. He explains ideas and movements present at various points in the century from the debate about the exportability of Democracy to Eastern Europe to a convincing defence of the intentions of some pre-war Eugenicists. He criticises both extremes of the political spectrum throughout the book, as you would expect, but does not mount any absolute defence of Liberal Democracy and he highlights many of its failings.
On the latter point, there are a lot of topics `missing' or sidelined from this book which you would expect to find in a general history of the period. Military history is absent apart from when where it fits in with other points. In achieving the `Corporate History' Mazower leaves out (or only briefly mentions) many important events in individual countries. For example, the Holocaust is limited to the equivalent of two or three pages, the Spanish Civil War is absent and barely a single action in the Second World is included. The post-1947 world is confined to little more than the last third of the book, which is surprising when there is so little focus on the Second World War itself. A reader with little knowledge of the history of Twentieth Century Europe would struggle with this book as it mostly jumps straight to analysing the impact of events and actors rather explaining the background. This approach is perhaps unavoidable to cover as much ground as this book does, but the unspoken expectation of prior knowledge is somewhat at odds with the popular feel of the text. The selective inclusion of aspects in the book is not a clear problem with the overall piece but for the fact that Mazower does not set out his approach clearly at the start. Mazower powerfully explains his views on the course of European History but he fails to establish how he intends to do this which would have been helpful for this type of text.
The book's preface has a convincing introduction to how Europe's woes were established. It says 'Amid the ruins of the ancien régime...politicians promised the masses...a fairer society and a state of their own.' It goes on to say that "three rival ideologies-liberal democracy, communism and fascism-saw [themselves] destined to remake society...the unremitting struggle between them to define modern Europe lasted for most of this century." These are the strands of thought which the book plots, though, of course, fascism declines in 1945.
The author powerfully implicates nearly all countries to some extent in the darker aspects of the narrative, attempting to show that the moves and ideas which led to the rise of the Nazis were not limited to a few people or to one country. The Nazi "new order" is covered in some considerable detail including the Holocaust's background. Details of Nazi repression and the destruction of the Jews though are few as Mazower instead studies Hitler's political and social vision as applied to Europe. He could be accused here of attempting to explain the Holocaust in too rational a way and of giving too high praise to Nazi economic policies which were successful only with the assistance of slave Labour. He has much positive to say about Albert Speer which is perhaps fair on a personal level as Speer was later showed remorse for his actions during the war. However the author is, in my opinion, guilty of not displaying the Nazi wrongs as particularly different from the rest of the 20th century's barbarism. There is an age old argument about whether we can fit the Nazis onto a conventional scale of good and bad or success and failure but his association of European Anthropological ideas from figures such as Arthur Keith with Nazi racism is certainly controversial. Mazower is though on stronger ground when highlighting the terrors of Stalinism.
Trying to mirror the physical split in Europe, the development, struggles and in one case decline of the "people's democracies" of Eastern Europe and the history of Western Europe are dealt with in two separate chapters for each side of the Iron curtain. This does clash with the earlier feel of the book but is really rather good in focusing in on the way the Soviets controlled their satellite states. Mazower's explanations of the difference between the revolutionary "Heroes" who ruled Soviet territories until the 1950s (and in some cases later) and the more bureaucratic later rulers is a strong section and a compelling account of the changing USSR. This latter section of the book starts to become slightly tied down in economic and social statistics as the narrative begins to focus the varying successes and failures of East and West.
As I have said, the Author commendably tackles the Horrors of all parts of the political spectrum, excusing no side of guilt in the century's wrongs. However, he reserves special condemnation for the policies of Margaret Thatcher which he sees as destructive and unfair. He devotes a whole section to Thatcher and monetarism giving it more wording than almost any other event or scheme. Though many would see his criticisms as fair, his attack is vitriolic and arguably, highly partisan. He emphasises the rise in inequality in Britain and liberally quotes Ian Gilmour, one of Thatcher's biggest critics and hardly an independent commentator on several occasions. Added to this, the last chronological event in the book is the election of Tony Blair which Mazower claims showed that Thatcher's 'Neo-Liberalism was dead even in its homeland.' Most controversially he attacks Thatcherism for its bad example to post-soviet Eastern Europe. I think the whole treatment of this issue moves too far from unbiased historical enquiry to be justified.
A major point to make in reviewing this book is how readable and accessible it is. Despite my concerns about the clash of popular tone and requirement of knowledge of the topics in hand, the author has done a tremendous job in making serious history something to be enjoyed as well as studied. Whilst Dark Continent is not up to the academic rigour of some texts it is relatively well referenced and issues are explored in a methodical way, staying away from the chronological focus of many popular historical texts. This underlines the achievement of a making this book a good read when so often academic quality is a byword for dry prose.
To conclude, Dark Continent is a hugely enjoyable book with a challenging and controversial thesis. It generally convinces the reader of the rightness of its case throughout, though its extraordinary breadth leaves plenty of areas to be discussed and opposed. The book is refreshing in its defiance of precedent about what should be included in the book and the incorporation of much detail about social conditions and action. The two main points that I have picked out for criticism are firstly, the confusion surrounding the book's scope and aim and secondly, the length and tone of the treatment of Thatcherite Neo-Liberalism. These caveats, though, do not stop me from recommending this book as both an academic contribution and as compelling read.