Dark Continent; Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower. Vintage, 2000 paper. (752)
Mark Mazower has received much praise for his Dark Continent. He argues there and in this book that European fascism in the interwar period is a continuation of the authoritarian regimes of the nineteenth century and not alien to European traditions. Thus National Socialism cannot be explained solely by the party and its leader’s insanity. Moreover post-war European political economy has many of the same intentions as the National Socialist regime in Germany. Had Adolf Hitler not chosen to divert the German economy to war production in the late 1930s, the economic consequences of his corporatism might have resembled the prosperity of post-war Germany and Europe.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had created 25,000,000 citizens living in states in which they were a minority. The largest two minorities were Germans and Jews. It was assumed that the League of Nations would be able to guard Europe’s ethnic complexity; hence there was no necessity for an exchange of populations. But ethnic conflict remained a continuing challenge to the League. Unlike America, Europe had no tradition of the ‘melting-pot.’
This minority problem was particularly acute in Eastern Europe. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended the Great War on the eastern front had established a “Pax Germania.” That was overturned by the Russian revolution in 1917 and the Versailles treaty, which created relatively weak buffer states between Russia and Germany with uncertain futures.
The success of Mazower’s book is that it explains interwar developments that have often been considered inexplicable. For example, the British policy of ‘appeasement’ which we are always told only encouraged Adolf Hitler’s ambitions. The alternative to appeasement, it is commonly argued, would have been opposition, and that had been ruled out because Britain was unprepared. Mazower suggests, rather, that Chamberlain was “blinkered” by the traditional anti-Bolshevism of the British Conservative Party. National Socialism, many Brits believed, was an understandable reaction to the rise of Bolshevism. Sooner or later the two dictators would clash, sparing Britain another land war. Or so they hoped.
Both the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany were in the process of creating a new social order. However Russia believed in the future of the industrial state and had little regard for the welfare of its agricultural classes. Hitler wanted to turn Germans into peasants, not industrial workers. Both economies were evolving in an interwar backdrop of population decline, unemployment and political extremism.
Mazower does a remarkable job of making post-World War II Europe interesting. One can sense in the Dark Continent the declining interest of historians in the Cold War. The conflict between the two world powers that emerged from the rubble did not, fortunately, result in military confrontation. Rather the Cold War, according to Mazower, brought stability to post-war Europe. There was an acceptance of the status quo, post-1945, despite the rhetoric.
Mazower speaks of continuity but he fashions Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and her years as Britain’s Prime Minister as a bolt out of the blue. She set about dismantling social democracy in Britain while it was being rebuilt on the Continent. She sold off state-owned enterprises when Continentals were comfortable with theirs. Hers was an authoritarian form of neo-liberalism, both strengthening the role of the state in, for example, regulating labor relations, but also weakening Britain’s industrial sector. During her decade Britain lost over a million factory jobs. She looked with disfavor on the post-colonial migration of colonials to Britain. Her legacy is rarely celebrated these days.
Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who occupied the White House in those same years, have often been given credit – have taken credit – for the unexpected collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Rather than Anglo-American bluster, it was the result of the prolonged old age of the political economy of Stalinism that lasted for three decades after his death in 1953, and well beyond its usefulness.
Meanwhile in Eastern Europe “goulash consumerism,” the importation of consumer goods from the West, mollified the public and propped up the “little Stalins.” Occasionally the Russians had to lend a helping hand, for example suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. But ultimately Russia lacked the will to continue these interventions.
The real victor in 1989 and the Soviet zone in Eastern Europe was not the Anglo-Americans, nor the European Union. Rather it was European capitalism, but a capitalism willing to accept the welfare state and recognize its continuity with Europe’s twentieth century.