Commentary Magazine


Dark Continent by Mark Mazower

Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century
by Mark Mazower
Knopf. 512 pp. $30.00

At the start of this century, Europe was the center of the world’s civilization. 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.

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According to this thesis, democracy, Nazism, and Communism are not as distinct—or in such rivalry—as we might think. 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.

With zeal, Mazower deconstructs democracy, or “bourgeois” democracy as he invariably puts it. 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.

The consequence of this conceptual weakness was that, by the end of the 20′s, the new nations that had emerged after the Versailles peace treaties came to be ruled not by democratic governments but by authoritarian or nonparliamentary regimes. 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. It was thus all but predetermined that “democracy” would find its concrete expression in the evil of capitalism or imperialism or nationalism; in one or another or all of these it had virtually strangled itself to death by the time the Depression came along to put paid to an era.

Nazism, Mazower argues, was itself another form of European imperialism, fitting into European history “far more comfortably than most people like to admit.” But at least it had at its heart a genuine social vision, namely, the welfare state. 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. As long as the program was carried out according to Nazi norms—that is, according to the two “intimately connected” norms of Aryan welfare at home and warfare with all others abroad—even genocide was not out of place; nor was it, in the event, shocking to most Germans. 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. On the contrary, it represented a real effort “to tackle the problems of mass politics, of industrialization and social order.”

As cities and factories arose in Soviet Russia, Mazower writes, the individual found himself in a collective with “an image of energy” with which he could identify. Moreover, in the Soviet Union a solution had at last been found to the troublesome question of nationalities and minorities. Here was a federal union, genuine and benign, in which Ukrainians, for example, could “contrast the violent police repression they faced against their culture in Poland with the situation in the Soviet republic, at least until the famine of the early 1930′s, and perhaps after that.”

Stalinism, to be sure, “meant terror and repression.” But it also meant, Mazower continues, “upward mobility and exciting new life chances.” Nor, “in the final analysis,” could Stalinist terror be “separated from the ultimate justification for the party’s existence—its role in the transformation of society.” That this was a necessary and desirable transformation, Mazower leaves no doubt.

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If this was the situation prior to World War II, after 1945 Europe had another chance to remake itself. 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. Their tortuous and inconsistent attempts to create a viable collective identity now issued in the form of the “democratic” welfare state. 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. Today, with capitalism having “wiped out” (Mazower’s term) the European working class, social progress has “lost its charm” as a collective project; and as for true democratic individualism, that too is hard to find.

In the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, by contrast, the conquering Soviets urbanized and modernized society. Although Communism did create its own ruling class in those countries, it “was a lot less elitist than any previous kind of ruling system.” At least, by relying on local elites, the Soviets with their “pragmatic character” managed to accommodate East European nationalism (“if not without difficulty”) while also admittedly embarking on a policy of “conservative consolidation behind the Iron Curtain.”

True, the whole edifice eventually collapsed. But that, in Mazower’s ingenious explanation, is because Communism had achieved its original aims, having successfully offered “an example of how to tackle the economic difficulties of modern society.” Instead of formulating newer and higher aims in tune with the changing times, Communist leaders made the mistake of resting on their laurels. 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.

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What is one to say about all this? 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 acknowledgement that the Ukrainian famine of the 1930′s, in which millions perished, was deliberately induced. No mention of the Muslim Basmachis and others in different Soviet republics who fought to the death for their independence, and lost. No mention, in Mazower’s narrative of the postwar years, of the transformation of Nazi camps in Eastern Europe into Soviet camps, or of the massive Soviet recruitment of Nazi policemen and officials. 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 Masaryk’s colleague Eduard Benes, or about Alexander Dubcek, who in 1968 tried once again to free Czechoslovakia from the yoke of Moscow. 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. A mishmash of brightly repainted borrowings from Hitler’s New Order and Communism is now projecting old disorders into the future—and this, in the absence of proper Communism, is what the Europeans are to make do with.

Or so Mazower leaves it. Sooner or later, surely, the will and character and free choices of many millions of very diverse individuals will weigh more heavily in history’s balance than this ugly and inhuman scenario based on a wildly distorted reading of the past.

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About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).