The Dork Continent Book Review
Upon hearing the title of the book, one might assume that it will focus on the decolonization of Africa. Africa is known as the “dark continent” because it remained a mystery to European explorers for an extensive amount of time. Instead, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, focuses on Europe in the 20th century, as the title notes, and provides a historical and political analysis of the modern European state from the end of the First World War up until the time of publishing the book in 1988.
Mazower, a young British author and historian, has taught at the University of Sussex and Princeton, and is a prize-winning author for his book Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944. The principal thesis of Dark Continent is that the victorious reign of democracy in Europe was not predestined, but emerged significantly from the endless struggle between ethnic groups and nations, as well as three rival theologies- Nazism, Communism, and Democracy.
Mazower’s thesis suggests that democracy is not the essential preferred method of political organization, even when empires were falling and nations reorganizing after the devastation of World War I. Of the three ideologies, Mazower concludes that Communism was the closest to being satisfactory in both theory and practice. The book begins with the discussion of the rise and fall of democracy. The struggle between the three ideologies was at the core of European twentieth century history.
Preceding the the first World War, Europe only had three republics; by the end of 1918 there were thirteen. Even so, democracy was unable to secure itself during inter-war years. Liberalism was “short-lived” and “democratic values disappeared as political polarization brought much of Europe to the verge of civil war. Mazower notes that in 1930, Weimar’s Chancellor Hermann Muller warned that “a democracy without democrats is an internal and external danger”; but the founders of post-war constitutionalism had not given much thought to the matter.
For many conservatives, the problem with democracy was simply due to “the power it gave the masses in the supposed incompatibility of democracy and authority. ” The conservatives also feared that democracy “placed too much stress on rights and not enough on duties. ” According to Mazower, the collapse of liberal democracy was the result of its focus on process rather than on results. In Mazower’s view, Russian liberals “assume mistakenly that a deep rooted social crisis could be solved by offering ‘the people’ constitutional liberties”(23).
The consequence was that, at the end of the 20s was that the new nations that came about after the Versailles peace treaties came to be ruled by authoritarian regimes rather than democratic governments. The emergence of fascist and communist leaders with policies regarding state control of resources was unavoidable. For the citizens that were tired of the war and failed attempts of democracy, men like Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, and Mussolini provided new hope for a stabilization in Europe.
The pursuits of fascists like Hitler and Mussolini and the lesser in Eastern European nations may be reprehensible, Mazower admits, but it is at least comprehensible. What these dictators were doing was little different from what their predecessors in England, France, Russia, and even Belgium had done for the past half century: culminating European imperial expansion that began in the 1870s. By the late 1930s, it was evident that liberal democracy had lost its reign in Europe. Hitler’s New Order appeared to be Europe’s future. Mazower argues that even in December 1919 Lenin saw that “both terror and the Cheka [are] … ndispensable” tools to maintain the permanent dictatorship of the bourgeois. Furthermore, “the scientific term ‘dictatorship’, means nothing more or less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever and based directly on force” (page 24). With that said, Mazower notes that “communism turned out to be the last, and perhaps highest stage of imperialism. Mazower does an exceptional job at giving his view of Hitler. I found this to be a successful way of supporting his thesis. What I found to be odd was the way he described the works of Hitler.
I would assume that he would clearly show his disapproval of the matter, rather he seems to approach the issue lightly. Mazower makes an attempt to make us see that Hitler’s belief that Germany’s destiny depended on the geographic replacement of Slavs in Ukraine. Moreover, Mazower suggests that “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 Hitler’s opponents realized they were faced with “a clash of two worlds”-Berlin and London(82).
What I did like about the book was the fact that Mazower explained the cause of communism’s fall really well. I was a bit confused before of exactly what events sparked the fall, but I was surely aware and understood fully after reading this thoughtful book. As mentioned before, I found that Mazower seemed to praise Hitler’s actions, suggesting that he was not part of the cause for World War II, but puts the blame on Hitler’s opponents. It makes me question what side of the field Mazower is playing. Nevertheless, the book was a great read and provided an exuberant amount of historical background in Europe.