Critical Summary: Mazower, Chapters 1-4

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.


Battleship Potemkin and Mazower

Watching Battleship Potemkin confronted me with the raw power of a political film with no three dimensional characters. Each individual possesses individuality only inasmuch as they represent a certain aspect of a cause or argument. The child shot by the czarist soldiers and crushed by the stampeding crowd careening down the steps facing the Odessa harbor matters because of the innocence he comes to embody in the face of czarist barbarity. The same goes for the film’s protagonist, the sailor and revolutionary Vakulinchuk, whose life, death, and words all act to symbolize the fundamental goodness of the communist cause, the heroism of its leaders, so unwilling to submit to fear in the face of their totalitarian enemy that their martyrdom suffices to drive crowds into a revolutionary frenzy.

The men and women move as crowds, but we do not for a second imagine that they lack individuality; it simply does not matter. Here I find myself reminded of Prince Lvov’s declaration of March 1917, on the subject of the Russian people’s role in the European democratic movement, cited by Mark Mazower in the first chapter of Dark Continent. “The soul of the Russian people,” he proclaims, “turned out by its very nature to be a universal democratic soul…prepared not only to merge with the democracy of the whole world, but to stand at the head of it and lead it along the path of human progress…” While the rebellious citizens and sailors of Battelship Potemkin do not stand for the Social Liberalism advocated by Levov, their bristling mass of clenched fists represents something similar: the helm of a movement in the name of human liberation.

The attack of the Cossacks left the strongest impression on me of all the scenes. It reminded me of Mazower’s section on the failure of Russian liberalism.  Unlike the liberals, Russia’s rural peasants and urban working class wanted peace and a higher standard of living, neither of which the liberals offered. “In the factories, in the countryside, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared”. Nothing indicates this state of affairs better than the facelessness of the Cossacks in Battleship Potemkin. As the shock troops of czarism, they stand for nothing, save the brutality of power. Nothing denotes impotence better than repression.

Comparison of Chapter One from “Dark Continent” and the Film “October” [Revised]


‘Dark Continent” was written by Mark Mazower in 1998, about interwar Europe. “October: 10 Days that Shook the World” is a 1928 Russian movie commemorating the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. After giving a brief introduction about Russia in World War One, the February Revolution, and the provisional government that ensued, it goes on to show the conditions under the new government, the heroism of the Bolsheviks and finally the popular victory of Lenin, communism and the proletariat. However, while watching the movie, one must remember that it was a piece of propaganda designed to promote the communist government, and hence is biased towards the communist ‘victors’.

In an initial scene, the movie depicts the early enthusiasm that greeted the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the provisional government, which promised the people a greater say in the political running of the country. However, this enthusiasm soon fades as the War continues and people are seen to be starving as the rationing of bread drops from a pound a person to a quarter pound in a matter of seconds on-screen. This disillusionment with forms of post-war democracy is reflected in the writings of Mazower, who says that early liberal [i.e. pro-democracy] policy makers in Europe did not seem to realize that the people primarily needed security of life and land, rather than the immediate ability to determine their long-term political fate (p.11). In comparison, the right and left wing politicians promoted the idea of ‘bread, land and peace’, which can clearly be seen in several scenes in the movie, notably when Lenin returns to Russia.

However, the scene when the peaceful proletarian rioters are attacked by the upper class aristocrats, who were enjoying ‘leisurely’ activities at the time, stinks of propaganda and the advocacy of the working-class communist government, who are coincidently in power in 1928. Mazower confirms that this attack by democrats on the normal people is absurd when he says that they mostly lost power because they lost touch with the people (p.27), not because they attacked them in the street.

Another, slightly subtler, form of propaganda arrives in the scene when the Bolsheviks are deciding whether to stage a revolution or not. Trotsky initially states they should wait, which is followed by an impassioned speech by Lenin stating that to wait is tantamount to giving up any chance at a revolution. At the end of the scene the Bolsheviks take a vote (subtly hinting again that everything in the state is done to the peoples’ wishes) and completely decide on supporting Lenin. This scene was most probably worked in to gain support for Stalin’s eventual decision to exile Trotsky, and to confirm his rightful position of head of the Soviet Union. Another subtle put down is when the movie refuses to acknowledge that Trotsky was in charge of the Red Guard and was largely responsible for the successful capture of Petrograd (p.11).

While “October” may have certain historical discrepancies, it is a useful movie to understand both the timeline of 1917 Russia and the evolution of mass propaganda in an interwar European dictatorship during the early age of film.