Critical Summary of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent

Dark Continent by Mark Mazower is a historical text which covers the interwar period of Europe in a unique way. The first four chapters each focus on a different aspect of interwar Europe: the decline of democracy, nationalism and the effects it has on minority groups, health and social welfare as a means of control over populations, and the economies of nations. Mazower’s geopolitical coverage of Europe is large; he touches upon other countries in Europe that are usually neglected. Mazower’s interpretation of these historical events is also unique. He ties his interpretation into his themes of decline, fall, and social struggles in Europe to his thesis that Communism, Nazism, and democracy are more related than the reader may have originally thought. Through these views of the forms of governments and the main social struggle of the era, Mazower helps the reader gain a greater understanding of interwar Europe.

Starting with the first chapter and continuing through the next three, Mazower repeatedly points out the primary social struggle present throughout all countries and political parties: the strained relationship between the individual and the population as a whole. This is especially apparent in chapter three, when Mazower expands on the welfare state and social welfare. The welfare was not for the good of the individual; it was for the good of the country as a whole (89). This was constant throughout all countries in Europe. Another historian, Hoffman, reaffirms this idea in his historical writing, Cultivating the Masses. Hoffman, like Mazower, writes about a country’s concern for its productivity level, as it is directly correlated to the creation of social welfare for its people.

In Mazower’ interpretation of history, he views Communism as a favorable political solution. He touches upon the positives of Communism, explaining the basic goals of tackling corruption and social injustice. This interpretation sheds a positive light on Communism, which the reader may not have expected. He believes that the Soviet Union dealt with the issue of minorities and nationalism the best out of all of the governments. The Soviet Union was able to win over the minorities in the country by offering them involvement in the government (50). This united the country in a way in which no other country in Europe was able to do.

Mazower also examines the growth of Nazism in Europe, especially Germany. Nazism grew from citizens’ hatred of communism. This is apparent from many SS members’ own testimonies, including Hitler’s bodyguard, Rochus Misch. Like many members of the Nazi Party, he stated that he joined the SS because it was a “counterweight to the threat of the left,” and that it was for anti-communist goals. Yet Nazism was a form of imperialism that fits into history better than many believe it should (74). It did have a focus on social welfare; however that focus was then manipulated to benefit a minority of Germans, the Aryan race.

The most discussed form of government, which failed quite often, was democracy. In interwar Europe, there was not a universally agreed upon definition of democracy (5). This directly lead to the development of “democratic governments” which were no more than totalitarian or militant, non-parliamentary regimes. This can be seen in post-World War I Germany when a Constitutional provision, Article 48, was created in order to suspend the Constitution under specific conditions. This article was inevitably abused by then-Chancellor, Hitler, and although he was democratically elected, it is obvious that this abuse was not one of good faith and democratic idealism (33). From democracy, Nazism was born.  On the other hand, in other countries’ democracies, there was great distrust of the executive branch of government (19). Mazower does a good job of linking, comparing, and contrasting each individual European country’s form of democracy with the others.

From Mazower’s descriptions alone, the reader can see that these three forms of governments had similar goals. These three governments grew from and were related to each other; one cannot exist without the others. Each was constantly evolving, rising and falling with the changing climate of worldwide political trends. This leads to a greater understanding of the political structure, and conflict, in interwar Europe.

Overall, Mazower’s Dark Continent is a great text for an undergraduate history course. It intelligently follows the rise and fall of vastly different political ideologies in Europe, while also following the social struggles stemming from each. It does so without confusing the reader with irrelevant details, employing the use of brevity through text. It goes without saying that Mazower provides the reader with an extensive overview of the interwar period and successfully supports his thesis.