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Mark Mazower's 'Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century'

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 28, 1999: 

Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $30)

Someone once asked Mohandes Ghandi what he thought of Western civilization. The frail little man -- whose nonviolent ideas and practices offer perhaps the best hope for the future of our species -- responded by saying that he thought it would be a good idea.

It's been a grizzly century in the heartland of Western civilization. Eight million people died in World War I, 40 million in World War II. Ethnic strife and extermination, new modes of quashing dissent and frighteningly creative forms of oppressive totalitarianism were all the products of advanced European civilization, leading many to believe that there was little hope for this dark continent.

Mazower's book shows how the two main 20th century competitors of classical liberal democracy -- communism and fascism -- far from being anomalies, appealed to real desires and needs in broad segments of the European populace. Communism endured longest because it was an inclusive system that responded to Europe's desire for economic and social stability, even in the face of the terrors of Stalinism. Fascism also enjoyed broad support because it stirred up ethnic prejudices that have always simmered beneath the surface of European life.

Both fascism and communism blossomed in the space between the two world wars when forced liberalization of economies led to dramatic drops in standards of living and heightened ethnic tensions. It was a mess which the League of Nations was incapable of cleaning up and eventually led to the worst slaughter humanity has ever seen.

There was a promising side to the nightmare, though. Following World War II, Europe finally exhausted its desire to perpetuate ethnic and class strife. Democracy matured in the West. In the second half of the century, various European nations developed systems of democratic government which many view as superior to their American model. In these new systems, racial and class tension, crime, political repression and wage inequality have been largely subdued.

Since 1989, countries in Eastern Europe have struggled to catch up, with varying degrees of success. With the end of colonialism and the expansion of world markets, Europe will probably never regain the global hegemony it enjoyed in past centuries, but the movement to unify Europe gives the world hope that the massacres in the first half of this century will not recur any time in the near future. Democracy and liberalism, for now at least, seem to have triumphed.

Mazower, a Reader in History at the University of Sussex, has written a book which is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Europe sank so deeply into the muck and eventually pulled itself back up again. Dark Continent is also an exploration of the darker elements lurking beneath every society, including our own -- the tension between a civilized acceptance of diversity and a xenophobic fear of everyone who looks different and voices different opinions.

The ethnic conflicts in the Balkans during this decade raise all the old phantoms. Europe, despite recent rhetoric, is a land of diverse peoples who for millennia have found it extremely difficult to coexist.

Much of the ugliness of Americanization is encroaching on the continent, and many Europeans don't like it. Yet for whatever reason, they keep buying jeans and movies and burgers just like their American counterparts. Consequently, there are more McDonald's, more malls, more of the alienation and divisiveness that comes with living in a hyper- consumerist society. Also, as Western Europe becomes richer, it becomes more diverse, with an influx of economic refugees from third world countries seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. One would hope, given its checkered past, that Europe will be capable of dealing with its expanding pluralism.

Now that the Soviet Union has been dismantled, Eastern Europe has an opportunity to take part in some of the joys and sorrows of capitalism and democracy. Despite occasional alarmist outcries from pundits, there doesn't seem to be much cause to believe that the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans will spread across Europe. Ideology no longer reigns supreme in the Old Country, and there is a well-founded hope that Europe will live through the 21st century in relative peace. We can all thank God for that.

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