The opening four chapters of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent provide a thoroughly informative analysis of early twentieth-century European governments that manages to be both balanced and provocative. By recounting the social, political, and economic climates of the continent’s constituent nations leading up to, during, and between the two world wars, Mazower examines the conditions that led to the establishment of Europe’s dominant governmental systems. The underlying thesis of these chapters is that democracy was not, as many historiographers have claimed, a foregone conclusion for Europe. Conversely, Mazower argues that the competing fascist and socialist efforts also vying for primacy during the interwar period seemed at times to be equally if not more viable options.
The author paints a portrait of Europe as a continent fraught with the challenge of establishing proficient governments. Beginning with the example of the Russian revolution, “liberalism’s first wartime triumph…and most frightening defeat,” Mazower categorically breaks down his period of interest, emphasizing a different perspective in each chapter (Mazower, 11). Chapter one discusses political theory primarily in terms of Europe’s endeavors with constitutional liberalism. Chapter two then focuses this scope to a geopolitical evaluation of the emergence of nationalism, flowing eloquently into chapter three’s analysis of the collective ideological shift toward socialist policies after World War I. Chapter four concludes this quartet with a survey of the role of economics in this period, particularly with regard to the various successes and failures of capitalism in dealing with postwar reconstruction.
Although these chapters do not provide comprehensive historiographical information on the subject matter, Mazower’s four-fronted approach does create a unique portrait of Europe’s “inter-war experiment with democracy” that would be an excellent introduction for a historical neophyte or a refreshing new perspective for a seasoned professional. The author expounds on his thesis by referencing a variety of historical sources (e.g. newspaper headlines, popular pamphlets, and relevant speeches) and contemporary commentaries (e.g. academic journal articles and historical books), including a number of translations from texts published in pertinent European languages (e.g. French, German, etc.) (Mazower, 5). While this thorough research lends credibility and color to the prose, the distribution of elements such as direct quotations and statistics is somewhat unbalanced at times, making some passages difficult to absorb in just one reading and leaving others lacking in support. Despite this, the ends (in this case, the first four chapters as a whole) justify the means; readers will lift their heads from these sometimes challenging pages stimulated and informed, but never bored.
Collectively, Dark Continent’s first four chapters establish Mazower’s distinctive interpretation of Europe’s attempts to settle into a stable state of government during the interwar period. They also simultaneously set the stage for the discussion of later chronological events such as the phenomenon of Nazism and the establishment of peace after World War II in subsequent chapters. Mazower’s synthesis of a large body of information into a tight and intellectually challenging work makes Dark Continent a worthwhile read appropriate for undergraduates, enthusiasts, and researchers alike.