Europe's Twentieth Century
By Mark Mazower
Driving east from Paris a couple of weeks ago, my family and I stopped at Verdun to see the vast killing fields of World War I. Next day, farther east, we explored a bombed section of the old Maginot Line, France's fabled fortifications that failed to thwart Germany's invasion in the spring of 1940. The death toll in Europe's first half of this century, from wars and state-sponsored killing, reached 60 million. And yet here we were, at the end of the same century, gliding across the Rhine into Germany, not stopping for border checks or customs. Simple as crossing from Ohio to Kentucky.
Now that Western Europe has buried ancient rivalries and built a half-century of peace--and forged a Continental currency--is the bloody first half of this century relevant anymore? Are Europeans simply democrats who lost their way for a few decades? Those are the questions raised in Mark Mazower's Dark Continent. And as you might imagine from the title, this historian at Britain's University of Sussex finds plenty of darkness in Europe's soul. Unfortunately, he ultimately seems to get overwhelmed by the dark details and to lose his focus.
Nevertheless, he starts the book with two provocative points. First, Adolf Hitler, often viewed as a madman who hijacked a nation, was in fact a politician who appealed to longstanding European racist and antidemocratic values, ones that can still be seen at work in the former Yugoslavia. Second, democracy in most parts of Europe has shallow roots and a history of failure. In fact, until the Pax Americana that followed World War II, only a handful of European countries, most of them small, had democratic traditions.
To see just how fragile Europe's democracy has been, Mazower takes us back to 1919. In retrospect, it was a brief shining moment--one with chilling parallels to our own post-cold-war era. Following the Versailles Treaty, a host of new republics sprang up from Lithuania to Bulgaria. The new League of Nations vowed to oversee this nation-building, and Western powers and investors lined up to offer support.
Things deteriorated rapidly. Just like today, Western largesse was more talk than action. And many of these states found themselves at odds with minorities: Czechs discriminated against ethnic Germans, Greece deported more than 1 million Muslims to Turkey, and Turkey oversaw the killing of perhaps 1 million Armenians. Meanwhile, as economies sank into the Great Depression, politicians were likely to blame troubles on Jews.
European democracy was feeble to start with, Mazower writes. And the Depression buried it--not only in the East but also in much of the West. After this failure of democratic capitalism, many politicians welcomed the more vigorous "New Order" rising in Germany. Indeed, Mazower says that it was only Hitler's excesses--from death camps and the reintroduction of slavery to a lost war--that turned Europeans once again toward democracy. "European hearts and minds were not so much won by the Allies as lost by Hitler," he writes.
Call me simplistic. But as I read his impressive chapters on the interwar era, I expected Mazower to make the case that in a coming recession, nationalist demagogues could rise again and tear down Europe's carefully crafted union. Why else grab our attention with the foreboding Dark Continent title? But instead, the historian leads us on a long-winded ramble through the century, where he seems to lose sight of his thesis. Toward the end, he brushes off the threats to peace from a broken-down Russia or a Germany still marked by the last war. Europe, he maintains, has not yet forgotten the ordeals of this century and won't risk repeating them until the memories fade.
So, where now for Europe? This small chunk of land dominated world history for nearly half a millennium, from Columbus' first voyage to the Battle of Stalingrad. Europe's vigor, Mazower argues, has been rooted in utopian ideologies, each of them, whether Christianity, universal communism, global democracy, or a Thousand-Year Reich, presenting its own vision as an End of History. These ideologies pushed Europeans into countless frays, convulsing it and much of the world.
If Europe is to be a growing force in the 21st century, its next mission is clear as an Alpine pond. It must lasso the East into its orbit, just as Napoleon and Hitler tried to do, but by using free markets this time instead of armies. Only by incorporating that region can Europe spread its wealth and grow--while at the same time reducing the risks of new dictatorships and wars. Trouble is, says Mazower, such action requires fervent commitment to a utopian ideology, something he sees as lacking today in Europe.
Not surprisingly, Dark Continent finds grounds for pessimism. The author describes apolitical people, much like their cousins across the Atlantic but less sure of their place in the world. He quotes a Belgian diplomat who jokingly calls Europe "an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm."
But if Europe's worm status as a military power prevents it from acting decisively in the former Yugoslavia, it also lessens chances of another Verdun. Indeed, even by Mazower's reckoning, Europe concludes the century as an economic giant largely at peace. There are worse ways to begin a new millennium.