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Review of Mark Mazower (1998), Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century

J. Bradford DeLong

December 2000

Mark Mazower (1998), _Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century_ (New York: Knopf: 0679438092).

For some time now I have been looking for a book that I can recommend to make the point that Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was a horrible, alien place--that people did not think like we do today, that blood and gore were welcomed by many, that it is only by sheer dumb luck that Europe today is (mostly) peaceful and (mostly) rich. We could well and easily be facing today not the Europe we know, but a Hitlerite or Stalinist alternative.

I have found it: Mark Mazower (1998), _Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century_ (New York: Knopf: 0679438092).

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness baited its readers into thinking the heart of darkness was to be found in the jungles of central Africa. It then switched and revealed that the heart of darkness was the heart of the European colonial administrator, mercenary, and mass murderer "Mr. Kurtz." In a similar fashion, Mark Mazower's "dark continent" is not Africa. It is Europe. Europe is the continent inhabited in the twentieth century by the most bloodthirsty humans ever. It was the Europeans of the first half of the twentieth century slaughtered a larger proportion of their fellows than anyone else, anywhere, anytime.

The appetizer was World War I, which "mobilized sixty-five million... killed over eight million... left another twenty-one million wounded" (p. ix). The salad course was the Russian Civil War, the terror-famine of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, and the great purges of the 1930s. And the main course was World War II: more than forty million dead, more than half of them civilians, including twenty million citizens of the Soviet Union (including three million captured Soviet soldiers starved to death in the first year after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union), six million Jews, six million Poles--the categories overlap--five million Germans, and so on down to 600,000 Frenchmen, 400,000 Britons, and 300,000 Americans (in the European Theater of Operations). Dessert came in the form of the bloody postwar expulsions of populations and Stalin's final round of purges.

The driving forces behind Europe's holocausts were ideological. Ideas were in the saddle and rode mankind.

Some historians have interpreted Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and their servants as garden-variety dictators: just authoritarian politicians who scrambled to the top and then twisted and turned, using ideology as a tool in the service of maintaining power. Such historians are wrong. Stalin could have held power and tasted the delights of authority and luxury whether or not he had abolished private property in land and in the process killed his subjects by the millions. Indeed, it is hard to see how any of Stalin's politico-economic policies made his country stronger or his rule more secure. Hitler could have grown old as the victorious, adored, cunning Fuehrer of Germany who had broken the shackles of the Versailles Treaty and made Germany the strongest power in Europe. Only his ideology--his belief that the German Race had to exterminate the Slavic peoples to the east and occupy their land--led him to the attack on Russia that became his doom. Both were impelled by pure ideology onto suicidal or near-suicidal paths.

The appalling death tolls in Europe in the twentieth century were the result of a brutal three-cornered struggle between three different ideologies--liberal democracy, communism, and fascism--each of which "saw itself destined to remake society, the continent, and the world in a New Order... to define modern Europe" (page x). Yet--and this is one of the very few places where Mazower's book falls down on the job--in the end what was decisive was not what happened in Europe but what happened beyond Europe. In the end it was the New World that stepped in to restore the balance of the Old. Liberal democracy rules today not because it proved better able to win hearts and minds (or to grab people by the balls) within Europe, but because of its extraordinary success in America.

For within Europe liberal democracy lost.

By the late 1930s it was clear that, in Europe at least, liberal democracy had lost. The international order that the League of Nations was supposed to provide had collapsed. Hitler's New Order looked like Europe's future. From the fascist perspective, the liberal worship of individual liberties was a dead end that endangered the racial welfare of the collectivity. From the fascist perspective, liberalism's worship of peace and international law hobbled human progress, which depended on Darwinian struggle and rule by racial superiors. As Mussolini put it: "Fascism rejects... the conventional lie of political equality, the spirit of collective irresponsibility and the myth of happiness and indefinite progress" (page 15). And fascism proved remarkably popular--especially when full employment in Germany in the late-1930s posed a sharp contrast to Great Depression-ridden Britain and France.

Moreover, by the 1930s it was also clear that communism was a snare and a trap, not a road to utopia. Mazower stresses that even in December 1919 Lenin saw "both terror and the Cheka [as] ... indispensable" tools to maintain the permanent dictatorship of the proletariat. And "... 'dictatorship' [Lenin wrote] ...means nothing more or less than authority untrammeled... absolutely unrestricted... based directly on force" (page 12). Soviet communism did not become anti-democratic with Stalin. More puzzling, perhaps, is the strength of the Soviet regime. Perhaps as early as the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, perhaps as early as the suppression of the Kronstadt Mutiny, certainly after the 1928 trial of foreign engineers, "technical experts, managers, and party bosses worked under the threat of arbitrary punishment" (page 124). The terror did not strike peasants who wanted to keep their cows and factory workers who grumbled at work discipline alone, but the regime's own technical, professional, and administrative elite. Yet the regime remained, at some level, effective--as World War II showed. Mazower guesses that this was because although "Stalinism... meant terror and repression, [it meant] also upward mobility and exciting new life chances which compared strikingly with the relatively static and hierarchical structure of Tsarist society..." (page 124).

In Mazower's view, liberal democracy's collapse was the result of its focus on process rather than on results. Liberals, in Mazower's view, "assume[d] mistakenly that a deep rooted social crisis could be solved by offering 'the people' constitutional liberties..." (page 11). Both Lenin and Mussolini (and Hitler) knew better: in interwar Europe many--most--were glad to trade their constutional liberties away for peace, land, bread, order, and the breaking of the Versailles Treaty.

One of Mazower's strongest points is his clear view of Hitler. He writes that "to imagine that Hitler was merely following in, say, Bismarck's footsteps was profoundly to misunderstand the man and his view of the world. Bismarck thought in terms of great power politics, Hitler of racial triumph.... Hitler made it clear that restoring the frontiers of 1914 was certainly not his aim. He was after further Lebensraum for the German people" (page 69). And Mazower tries to make us recognize how close, in some ways, Hitler's belief that Germany's destiny depended on the demographic replacement of Slavs by Germans in the Ukraine and elsewhere was to the broad current of European opinion. For "in an age of empire and social darwinism, notions of racial hierarchy were ubiquitous." And the "German anthropologists who shaped SS racial policy in eastern Europe during the Second World War had begun their careers with scholarly articles on 'race mixing' in pre-1914 colonial Africa and Asia, where their concerns were shared by French and British colleagues..." (page 100).

Mazower argues against one of the most bizarre developments in history in recent years--the emergence of a school of British historians who see as Britain's chief foe in 1939 not Hitler but Roosevelt, who argue that Germany is dominant in Europe today anyway, and that had the avoidable Anglo-German war been avoided that Britain would have preserved its empire and its leading international role.

Mazower--correctly--calls this nonsense, for Hitler was not "as A.J.P. Taylor once famously implied, just another politician." And "the Second World War did not start because of diplomatic misunderstanding or confusion, nor even because of Hitler's deceit or duplicity. Rather it started because--very late in the day--Hitler's opponents realized they were faced with a 'clash of worlds'" (page 74). And today's Germany of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is not the Germany of Adolf Hitler. Today's Germany " buoyed up by the resilience of its postwar democratic experience and the historical failure of communism and fascism. Its lack of militarism reflects the memory of five million German war dead; its lack of expansionism, the disappearance of German minorities in the East as a primary concern of foreign police, and the collapse of the darwinist views of international relations which held sway... between the eras of romantic nationalism and the Third Reich..." (page 389).

But the end of World War II did not bring sweetness and light to all of Europe. Stalin had every reason to rule with a soft hand in Eastern Europe. As Molotov was later to reminisce, it was "...

to our benefit to stay allied with America." Yet the pattern in Eastern Europe after World War II was not that of the Popular Front but of the Terror: "...armies of slave labourers used on such high-profile construction projects as the Danube-Black Sea canal.... fantastic targets... [i]n Bulgaria there were 100,000 slave labourers compared with an industrial workforce of 361,000... 'to fight mercilessly against the enemies of the working people'... meant attacking the workforce itself" (page 271). Post-WWII Eastern Europe looks good only by contrast with the Nazi era or with the Soviet Union itself.

By contrast, west of the Iron Curtain things went very, very well indeed after World War II. U.S. participation was essential for victory--the U.S. provided the manpower for the western front and the transport and logistic materiel essential for the Soviet Union to supply its offensives on the eastern front. And U.S. involvement in western Europe after the war--the "solid economic, political, and military commitment... the US made... was instrumental in making the recovery... successful.... What Marshall Plan funds did do was ease foreign-exchange bottlenecks, providing scarce dollars, and allowing growth to continue..." (page 294). Post-WWII western European liberal democracy was different from the pre-WWII animal: the memory of classical liberalism's failure "...provoke[d] a reassessment of the balance between public and private power in the modern economy, paving the way for the great post-war boom" (page 137).

The result was an extremely favorable constellation of economic and political institutions favorable for growth and for substantive equality: post-WWII western European social democracy. The strength of this institutional constellation is underlined by its resistance to even the sharpest politico-ideological attacks. Mazower marvels at the "...
clear evidence of the failure of Thatcherism to effect any far reaching rollback of state economic activity. Public expenditure as a percentage of GDP was 42.5 percent in 1977/8, and 41.7 percent ten years later; this hardly looked like rollback on a revolutionary scale..." (page 333).

Yet perhaps the Beast of interwar Europe is only sleeping, not dead.

Mazower looks at Austria, where "the Freedom Party under Joerg Haider's leadership rose on the back of the immigration issue." What was their cause? That "'Vienna must not become Chicago'... a curiously 1930s view of America, which bore out how little attitudes on race had changed across much of Europe in half a century..." (page 348). The Darknesses that shrouded Europe for much of the twentieth century have been blown away. But only a naive optimist would claim to know that they--or their siblings--will not return.

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