on 8 October 2009
As a 58 year old Briton I learned a long time ago that the cartoon-style version of European History we were taught at school was nonsense. Representing Nazism as just collective madness or Stalin's tyranny as the product of "brain-washing" never made sense. Many of the ruling ideas of the early 20th c were followed through in all their brutal logic by those regimes.
Fantasies of racial superiority were just as popular in Britain, France and (especially) the USA. Sub-Darwinian ideas that conflict was necessary to maintain the blood-line and that poor or sub-normal people should be prevented from breeding were widespread throughout the Western world. Intellectuals of left, right and liberal tendencies were in love with dreams of the "march of progress" and historical predestination. Jews were widely despised and national purity conflicted with the problem of minorities.
Such a continent was full of dark possibilities which Mark Mazower deftly shows shaped the last century. We were not civilised by the flowering of our better nature but by exhaustion, the threat of atomic war and the partitioning of Europe by the victors of WW2.
Yet, at the end this book tastes of realism and not hopelessness. The fact that such lucid hindsight is possible and that all the fantasies of nationalism, liberalism and socialism have been found wanting suggests that Europe might find a humbler way of living with itself and the wider world.
"Dark Continent" is packed with enlightening quotations and allusions. The endnotes are comprehensive. Good value in terms of money and reading time.
on 21 June 2004
In this fascinating history, author Mark Mazower traces this history of Europe from the end of the First World War, through to when the book was written in 1998. This is not a list of dates and battles, but so much more than that. The author traces the evolution of Europe's thought, and as such culture. It begins with the 1920s' embrace of democracy and the rise of the minorities issue, continues with the 1930s' rejection of democracy, the rise and fall of the extreme Right in the 1940s, the evolution of the two halves of divided Europe, and on to Europe's post-Communist development.
I have read many, many history books; most being the standard list of names and dates, battles and elections. But every once in a while I encounter a fascinating book that goes into depth explaining how things developed and why. This book is definitely one of the latter. I especially enjoyed the inter-war period, which explained so much that was unclear to me; things like the development of the race issue, and the reasons behind the ethnic troubles that rocked so many middle and eastern European countries in that era.
This book gave me a lot of food for thought. If you like a book that makes you think, then I highly recommend that you get this one. It is a fascinating and highly informative look at post World War One Europe.
on 11 December 1999
This is an excellent short history of Europe in the C20, which reminds us that the current general commitment to democracy in the continent is a relatively recent phenomenon. The book is particuarly strong on the failure of liberal capitalism and "narrow" parliamentary democracy in the inter-war period. I liked the prominence given to regions (Eastern and Central Europe) which, from a British perspective, are often neglected. While I felt the treatment of the boom years of the 50s and 60s was also excellent, my only complaint is that the final passages about the 80s and 90s (collapse of Communism and former Yugoslavia) feel like something of an afterthought and that not enough is done to make connections between these events and the broad themes set out earlier in the book. But vg nevertheless.
on 13 November 2001
This is an excellent book, well worth the time. On the other hand, it is not a good introduction to 20th C. European history, it is too polemical (my copy has a blurb recommending it as survey reading for undergraduates, something which it definitely is not - the ideal reader should already have a good idea of European history before tackling this).
I nearly took a star off (or even two stars off) for the sentence in chapter 8 which attempts to allocate (at least part of) the blame for the Stalinisation of postwar eastern Europe to the west.
He generally seems to go easy on the excesses of communism, and Stalinism in particular: yes, there is plenty of condemnation, but also a slight impression of omelettes and broken eggs.
The discussion of the post-war west degenerates into a rant in places, where the first half of the book is a much more considered and convincing polemic. Something a little less intemperate would have made a more effective point.
It is difficult to say for certain in a book that attempts to cover so much in 400 pages, but I get the impression that Mazower's grasp of economics and economic history is not on par with his social or political history (that omelette again).
The analytic epilogue is weak.
Good points: the (resolutely pessimistic) argument for most of its course is well argued and provoking.
The discussion of the fall of communism, if isolated from the discussion of the West that came before is very good.
The central argument, which ties up with an analysis of the disaster of the collapse of Yugoslavia (where Mazower is on home ground) as the last working out of WWI is elegant and provoking.
on 9 June 2000
Mazower's book, looking at the 20th Century in Europe, is a great read. Giving fascinating insights into the development of democracy and the threats that have menaced as well as moulded it into what we see today. The only criticism that I can level at the book is that, after holding my attention vividly throughout the period up to the mid 1970s with his factual style, Mazower's political prejudices get the better of him when discussing the right-wing in the 80s and 90s. If you can get over this minor aberration in his approach then this book will reward you greatly. A must read for anyone interested in politics or recent history.
This is a marvellous book, well written, rich in insight, scholarly and judicious in its assessments - mostly (it is true that he indulges in some editorialising in some of the later chapters, as some readers have pointed out). It covers a lot of ground, the collapse of Versailles settlement, the inter-war crisis, Hitler's attempt to construct a new order in Europe, Western Europe's revival after 1945 and the eventual collapse of Communism in 1989. Nowhere incidentally does he define what Europe actually is. That is not the point. The point is to show Europe for much of the 20th Century was not democracy' s natural home and its eventual triumph in the 1980s was anything but assured. There might have been alternative outcomes.
He shows in the interwar years especially that the seductive appeal of ideologies like fascism and Stalinism was rooted in the perception that they appeared to work. Stalin modernised the USSR and the Nazis conquered unemployment while liberal democracy lurched haplessly from crisis to crisis. Stalin and Hitler seemed to be the waves of the future. Or so people thought and believed. When Keynes turned down an appeal to rebut the Nazis' proposed New Economic Order in 1940, he declined, on the grounds that he found much in it to admire: `if Funk's plan is to be taken at face value, it is excellent and just what we ourselves ought to be thinking of doing ...' (p. 189). Keynes was no Nazi of course but he realised that liberal democracy's enemies knew where its weaknesses lay, and that Nazism posed a political as well a military challenge. Liberal democracy's revival after World War II was in part due to its meeting the totalitarian challenge by rewriting the social contract to include social as well as individual rights.
It is especially good in its analysis of various intellectual currents in Europe during the 20th Century, showing that the distinction between `totalitarian' and `liberal' ideas was not cut and dried, and that ideas like eugenics crossed ideological lines. Having said this, underlying values and principles were not identical. There were differences in kind as well as degree. To take the example of racism: `In few countries was biological racism as central to the definition of nation as it became in interwar Germany. References to la stirpe (race) in Italy, or to the health of the race in Britain were usually vague ways of talking about historical communities, with little impact on policy. Italian eugenicists were ... in favour of racial mixing, which they believed led to `hybrid vigour', while the British were more concerned about differential birth rates between classes ... Racial prejudice and anti-Semitism were omnipresent ... [and] the Third Reich spawned imitators ... but none of this ... could be compared in extent or intensity with what was happening in Nazi Germany (p. 102). Similar observations are made in respect to ideas of European unity and the welfare state.
Western, communist and Nazi regimes all devised various kinds of welfare states, but the values and purposes animating them differed. Beveridge coined the term `welfare state' in contradistinction to the Nazis' `warfare state' for this very purpose - there was a difference between providing social services for individual flourishing and providing them for the purpose of raising healthy cannon-fodder. These distinctions are important and worth bearing in mind when some commentators band around terms like `liberal fascism.'
Democracy and capitalism saw off fascism and communism. But, as mentioned, there was nothing foreordained about this. Chance played a role. Some developments were unforeseen: the revival of Western Europe after the Second World War, West Germany's economic miracle, the collapse of Communism, the reunification of Germany: as with the recent upheavals in the Arab world, these developments took contemporaries by surprise. Historical developments seem to frequently defy expectations. But political agency played its part. In the aftermath of World War 2, democracy and capitalism were revived on the basis of a renewed social contract, underpinned by the welfare state, an experiment that has largely proved successful and durable. This was very much the outcome of deliberate state action. If the nation state can be blamed for much of the carnage of the first half-century of Europe's history, then it can also take much of the credit for many of the achievements of the second half of Europe's century.
After 1945, the siren calls of Nazism and fascism fell silent. Communism emerged as the principal alternative route to democratic-capitalist modernity. To some extent, the new communist order was welcomed at least in some quarters in Eastern Europe, at least at the beginning. These regimes, despite the use of terror and repression, and their adoption of Stalinist model of industrialisation, did advance Eastern Europe toward modernity. But capitalism and democracy proved itself more flexible and adaptable to social and technological change while the party-state/ command economies did not, ultimately resorting to borrowing from western banks to prop themselves up. We now know that it was to no avail. But again, communism did not have to end the way it did. It could have gone out with a bang and not a whimper.
Mazower reminds us that ideology and ideas really do matter. If you want to understand the past, then you need to understand that people saw things differently to the way we do. Europe, especially in the first half of the 20th Century, was a different country. They thought differently then and they did things differently, too. And they might have fashioned the future very differently to the way things actually turned out. This book makes for sobering and thought-provoking reading.
on 6 August 2010
I recently purchased this for my course at University, and it is fantastic! It is very compelling! Mark is offering a different approach to European history to the one which is most commonly accepted. The main thrust of the book is that the 20C should not be viewed as a period of Liberal hegemony, with a few 'blips' along the way, rather, the 20C should be interpreted through the struggle of Liberalism, Communism and Fascism. Mark observes that Liberalism's current dominance is a accident of history, rather than the 'end game' or 'the end of history' (Francis Fukuyama), and that throughout the 20C the population of Europe has not been sympathetic to Liberal democracy, and has (more often that most Europeans would admit) been emphatic towards the ideologies of the Right.
It makes for startling reading, and can occasionally shock. For example, a common iconoclastic argument throughout the first half of the book, is that it is naive to claim that Hitler 'hookwinked' that people of Germany, rather that he merely pushed the pre existing tendencies of the Right to their logical (if you can use that word) conclusion; the groundwork for an authoritarian racial government was already in place, Hitler simply continued preparing this groundwork and created the edifice of Nazi Germany upon it.
I hope all of the books on my reading list are this compelling.
on 2 November 2010
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.
on 23 May 2002
this book does lead you to wanting to know and find out more, including economic theories and practices. and yes, it is on the undergraduate reading list.......
the difficulties expressed by some of the reviews in regard to the last 20 years is a problem of these matters being viewed as contempory rather than historical, as they are so very recent. we may need to be further on in time before recent events can be analysed as easily as events at the beginning of last century
on 8 September 2009
This is an excellent book with substantial footnotes. It provides great insights into this unexamined aspect of European history with fascinating facts and insights. I found it engrossing and enlightening.
I was disappointed when we moved into 'my history' - post WW2-war period, particularly when we enter the 60s to the present. The footnotes dry up and we essentially have a standard left wing take on modern British history with the usual shibboleths freely vented and predicatable. As it moves to the present it does not have the insights we saw earlier - andd does not seem to take congnizance of the sensitive awareness displayed earlier, particularly in the interwar period. It becomes more journalistic and less balanced with a reliance of the usual quotations used as an explanation of some position. Essentially, we have opinion and the change in tone is quite striking.