Book Review – Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century
Acta Historiae, March 2003.

Christopher Adam

For Europe the twentieth century has been one of visions of grandeur, ravages of brutal warfare and eventual political decline on the world stage. Historian Mark Mazower, in his book Dark Continent, traces the twentieth century history of a continent that he sees to be driven (and sometimes mesmerized) by competing ideologies. Mazower identifies three world views—fascism, communism and liberal democracy—each of which attempted to shake the very foundations of European society and recreate the continent in its image. The political elite saw their earthly salvation at different times within the framework of a thousand year old Reich, Marxist-Leninist internationalism based on class solidarity, and in an ever more integrated European Community in the case of Europe west of the Berlin Wall.

Mazower follows a chronological approach in his work as he examines how the continent that boasted its cultural superiority world-wide was able to slip into destruction at the hands of widespread ideological convictions. In the case of fascism, for example, Mazower notes that it often enjoyed a significant degree of popularity throughout the continent’s population and thus was not simply imposed ‘from above.’ What all of the three dominant beliefs had in common was the notion that they could unite the nations in a utopic vision of the future—a future that at once meant an end to conflict and end to history.

Dark Continent is a highly readable account of Europe over the past hundred years. To the author’s credit, he successfully offers an inclusive history where smaller countries and states of Eastern Europe are featured in his work rather than being relegated to a mere footnote. Nevertheless, Mazower’s insistence of a continent driven primarily—and possibly exclusively—by ideological considerations is certainly highly debatable. When then is zealous faith replaced by economics or pragmatic politics?

The strength of Mark Mazower’s work is in its insistence that the ‘end of history’ is not upon us after the triumph of capitalism, and that despite the attempts of political and cultural figures to claim otherwise, the history of contemporary Europe is not an inevitable forward march, nor a happy progression towards contemporary liberal democracy.