Beginning in the 1920s, the first four chapters of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent describe a Europe traumatized by the First World War and caught in the thrall of a “bourgeois triumph”, heralded by the collapse of Europe’s great empires and their replacement with a “belt of democracies” stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans, each equipped with a constitution enumerating the liberal principles and rights of its citizens and leaders with the express aim of rationalizing governance and reducing politics to the management of institutions responsible for protecting and cultivating the welfare of ordinary citizens (4, 5). The first four chapters of Mazower’s book explain how European dreams of a pacified continent organized around a liberal democratic consensus collapsed in the face of widespread nationalism and economic crisis.
According to Mazower, the rise of national self-determination served as one of the first indications of the liberal democratic vision’s incapacity to maintain peace in Europe. “[The Treaty of] Versailles had given sixty million people a state of their own, but it turned another twenty-five million into minorities,” says Mazower. This development would then create a situation in which young nation states turned into cultural battlefields for majorities and minorities who refused to recognize each other as members of the same society. The creation of parliamentary democracies that favored strong legislatures over executive power could only aggravate this state of affairs (42). The Great Depression also drove Europeans to look for alternatives to liberal democracy. In the face of a worldwide economic crisis, economic nationalism –not free market capitalism- as adopted by Italy and the Third Reich, reduced unemployment and increased the people’s confidence in both the nation and the economy (115).
While these factors do provide adequate explanations for the failure of liberal democracy in Europe, Mazower proves most instructive when countering the misconception that fascism installed itself in Europe as an ideological aberration. Instead, it arose as a natural response to conditions and attitudes already well established in Europe at the time. In some cases, liberals even looked to fascism as a solution to economic and social troubles in their countries. Mazower makes his general survey of European history more accessible to undergraduates through succinct descriptions of specific situations that demonstrate his points. In one such case, Mazower turns to Italy as an example of the ideological fluidity between liberalism and fascism, explaining how Mussolini’s rise to power depended upon the support of three other political parties, including the Liberals, who, along with many members of the police, the Civil service, and the Court saw in fascism a last line of defense against socialism (14-15). The most disturbing portion of Mazower’s exploration of the fascistic elements germinating in Interwar Europe comes when Mazower reveals that liberals also shared a proclivity for eugenics and other theories of racial and social “hygiene”. We learn, for instance, that Weimar Germany, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries passed laws allowing for voluntary sterilization while implementing welfare programs to encourage “valuable” births over the expansion of “inferior” social groups (97).
Dark Continent will help any student searching for a concise analysis of fascism’s rise to power in Interwar Europe. Using a wide variety of secondary sources including academic journals based in the countries studied and primary sources including newspapers, pamphlets, and philosophical texts like Spengler’s Man and Technics, Mazower condenses an extraordinary amount of information normally unavailable to the average reader into a relatively small number of pages. This proves helpful for both students looking for a digest of secondary literature on the period and those searching for primary texts that reveal the concerns and interests of European thinkers writing at a particular stage in the Interwar period. Were I to make recommendations for the book’s improvement, I might suggest adding a description of how colonialism reinforced scientific racism and acted as the precursor to the genocidal tactics employed by fascists before and during World War II. However, this would surely exceed the scope of Mazower’s first four chapters. For more information on this particular subject, I recommend Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate the Brutes.