Vol. 20 No. 18 · 17 September 1998

Can Europeans really find no way of living together in democracies other than living apart?

Timothy Garton Ash

2168 words
Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century 
by Mark Mazower.
Penguin, 496 pp., £20, March 1998, 0 7139 9159 3
Show More
Show More

Back in the now remote summer of 1990, when we were still celebrating the birth of a ‘new Europe’, a book was published simultaneously in several European languages. Written by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle and entitled, in the English edition, Europe: A History of Its Peoples, it is a classic example of the Whig interpretation of European history, a historical supplement to Jacques Delors. Already on page 21, Duroselle finds it ‘possible to discern in Europe’s history a general if halting growth in compassion, humanity and equality’. Discussing several different ways of viewing the post-1945 history of Europe, he writes: ‘one may, finally, see this phase of history in a European light’ – by implication, all other lights are somehow un-European – ‘and observe how many objective factors have combined with creative acts of will to make possible the first step towards a united Europe.’

Mark Mazower’s splendid new book is a kind of anti-Duroselle. It tells ‘a story of narrow squeaks and unexpected twists, not inevitable victories and forward marches’. It argues that each of the three great ideologies competing for the loyalties of Europeans in the 20th century – liberal democracy, Communism and Fascism – had a real chance of success. The triumph of liberal democracy was not predestined. Like Norman Davies in his monumental Europe: A History, Mazower gives ample space to Central and Eastern Europe, redressing the balance of countless conventional histories. Above all, as its deliciously subversive title suggests, this is the story of a ‘dark continent’.

Wondering where exactly that Victorian imperialists’ phrase for Africa came from, I turned to my grandfather’s edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: ‘Dark Continent (The). Africa, the land of the dark race or darkies.’ This entry is itself an illustration of what Mazower means, for the European racist assumption was that ‘darkies’ would naturally behave darkly, savagely, barbarously, while Europeans would do so only if infected by the spirit of the natives, as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In fact, what Europeans have done to each other in this century matches the worst atrocities on any other continent. (And it is happening again – or do we imagine that the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo aren’t really Europeans?) Mazower reminds us of the record of total war, totalitarian persecution, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide – all done by Europeans to Europeans. In Europe as a whole, some 60 million people were killed by state-sponsored violence in the first half of this century. In East Central Europe alone, in the single decade 1938-48, 46 million people were displaced from their homes.

Why does Mazower’s book take this kind of turn? Partly, no doubt, because he is British, nurtured in a sceptical, empirical intellectual tradition, suspicious of all claims for the existence of a single ‘true’ Europe, ‘l’Europe européenne’, as opposed to some false, un-European Europe. Partly perhaps, because he is a Balkanist. Many years spent working on the Nazi occupation of Greece, the subject of his last book, may have encouraged him in this dim view. But there is also the fact that this book appears in 1998, whereas Duroselle’s appeared in 1990. The last eight years have seen the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia and the return of ethnic conflicts and minority problems that many in Western Europe believed we had put behind us. So where Duroselle and others still celebrated the quiet progress of federalism, Mazower notes in a matter-of-fact way ‘the collapse of federalism after 1989’ – of federalism, that is, in multi-ethnic states. This also gives an edge to his account of wartime schemes for a Europe of federations: a British-Dutch Commonwealth, the United States of Fennoscandia, Czechopolska – and a Balkan Union.

Though they run throughout the book, these are not his only topics. Mazower tackles the twin problems of selection and synthesis in a bold way. Rather than attempt to tell the whole story, he offers us, within a broad chronological framework, what is really a series of interpretative essays on major themes, ranging from ‘empires, nations, minorities’ and ‘the crisis of capitalism’ (both interwar) to ‘the social contract in crisis’ (Western Europe and Thatcherism) and ‘the collapse of Communism’. This assumes a fair degree of prior knowledge. If you want to know the major events of World War One or World War Two you will not find them here. Sometimes, the preference for thematic analysis over chronological narrative means that important connections get lost or blurred. For example, since German unification comes in the Eastern (‘collapse of Communism’) chapter and the project of European Monetary Union in the Western one (‘social contract in crisis’), you wouldn’t know that there was any relationship between them. In fact, the more evidence we have, the clearer it becomes that there was a very significant link.

Every approach has its cost, though, and the pay-off here is considerable. Each chapter is coherent and strongly argued. Mazower is not afraid of sweeping statements that recall A.J.P. Taylor: ‘the Soviet Union was the Habsburg Empire’s real heir, just as Hitler’s New Order was its ultimate rejection.’ Or: ‘Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics.’ However, there is almost always a nuanced, balancing acknowledgment, often missing in Taylor’s work, of the other side of the coin. Mazower also succeeds brilliantly in combining broad analysis with significant detail. One minute he is soaring high above the landscape, the next he has swooped on a rabbit or snake, which is then held up – usually bleeding – for our contemplation. Thus a passage about ethnic cleansing is illustrated by what a Turkish gendarme told a Danish Red Cross nurse in July 1915: ‘First we kill the Armenians, then the Greeks, then the Kurds.’ Western admiration for the Soviet achievement is illustrated by the London Underground station of Gants Hill, a tribute to the Moscow Metro. A point about the decline of the traditional family elicits the passing observation that ‘by 1981 even Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners felt it necessary to advise upper-class hostesses how to deal with “live-in lovers”.’

Inevitably, there are mistakes. The ice-breaking Polish elections of 1989 were in June, not July. (The first round of the elections was on the day of the Tiananmen massacre, 4 June.) Poland had not, as Mazower writes, been threatened with civil war. Nor is it really true to say that 80 per cent of the Czech economy was in ‘private hands’ within five years of 1990. Inevitably, too, there are omissions. There is much more on the horrors of Nazism and Fascism than on those of Communism. In fact, Mazower’s treatment of Stalinism sits rather oddly in the chapter on ‘the crisis of capitalism’. When he writes of ‘the dazzling Soviet achievement’ of the Thirties, it is not clear whether he is being ironic, means it seriously, or is merely reporting the undoubted appeal Soviet Communism had for outsiders. He has a blind spot for religion. The name of Pope John Paul II does not even appear in the Index. The effect is to reduce his account of the end of Communism to a story of the triumph of Western consumer capitalism.

Given his emphasis on Europe’s darkness, Mazower might occasionally have paused to evoke moments of light. After all, three political generations of Europeans have been shaped by extraordinary, intense interludes of hope. For the generation now leaving the commanding heights of European politics, that of Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors, it was the 1948 Hague Congress, young French and Germans symbolically lifting the frontier barriers between France and Germany, and the glimmerings of a new, united Europe. These experiences were formative, and their legacy is still defining the Europe in which we live – up to and including European Monetary Union.

Then there was 1968. Mazower has a brief, rather dismissive discussion of ’68, quoting Sunil Khilnani’s nice observation that it was ‘an interpretation in search of an event’. But the fact is that ’68 shaped the most distinctive, instantly recognisable generation of Europeans since the class of ’48. And many ’68ers now have a prominent role in European politics, media and intellectual life. Finally, there is the class of ’89: perhaps less distinctive – so far – than those of ’68 or ’48, and less clearly defined in Western Europe, but nonetheless a generation marked by a moment of shared hope. The history of Europe is the history of Europeans, and the subjective experience of these three political generations will influence the course of that history well into the next century.

Revisionism is always inclined to exaggerate but Mazower’s is well-founded and responsible. He does not argue that Europe is the dark continent. The definite article is deliberately lacking. Every continent has its own impressive catalogue of inhumanity. But he effectively undoes the elision, so characteristic of the Kohl-Delors class of ’48, of prescriptive and descriptive versions of ‘Europe’. (‘We should be more optimistic about the past,’ I once heard a historian say.) And he tries to identify the distinctive forms of 20th-century European darkness.

His analysis is complex, but one of his core arguments is that, in the course of the century, Europeans have failed to find a way in which different ethnic groups can live peacefully together in stable, liberal democratic states. The trouble arose when the multinational, authoritarian empires collapsed in the First World War, and again when the multinational, totalitarian Communist states collapsed in 1989-91. In many ways Mazower sees post-1991 as marking a return to the dilemmas of post-1919. The problem, however, is not just the legacy of empires and dictatorships: it has to do with democracy itself. Both the domestic constitution-makers and the international community struggle to reconcile the rights and aspirations of minorities with rule by the majority. But Europeans have failed to work out how to do this when the minority is large and of a different nationality. On the last page of Dark Continent Mazower remarks of a book on post-Communist constitution-making that it is ‘full of echoes of the past’. Equally, he finds echoes of the present in the attempt by the League of Nations to guarantee the rights of minorities in the newly independent states of post-1919 Eastern Europe, and he quotes one interwar observer: ‘every protected minority will ultimately find its Henlein.’

Mazower sees the nation-state as alive and kicking. ‘It is now clear,’ he writes, ‘that the nation-state has flourished in Europe right through the century, surviving the Nazis, and the Cold War too.’ Beyond that, he argues – at least by implication – that the precondition of a democratic and durable state is a well-established and large majority of citizens speaking the same language. This, of course, is not an original theoretical insight. One finds it fully formed in Mill’s reflections On Representative Government. But far from deducing the historical lesson from the principle, Mazower induces the principle from the history.

In practice, his conclusions for much of Europe are not so dark. Most of the continent has its ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation behind it. The multi-coloured patchwork ethnic map of Central Europe has been consolidated, in the course of the murderous century Mazower describes, into fewer, more solid patches of relative ethnic homogeneity. As Ernest Gellner observed, the picture has gone ‘from Kokoschka to Modigliani’. But Mazower’s conclusions are grim indeed for those parts of the Balkans, such as Macedonia, which still have the Kokoschka ethnic mix. And what of the Baltic states and other parts of the former Soviet Union, with their large Russian minorities? Can Europeans really find no way of living together in democracies other than living apart? And what does this imply for the growing immigrant minorities in established West European nations?

It is the historian’s job to confront us with these questions: we can hardly expect him to find the answers. Mazower’s closing remarks are surprisingly upbeat: ‘Compared with other historical epochs and other parts of the world today, the inhabitants of the continent enjoy a remarkable combination of individual liberty, social solidarity and peace.’ Well, the majority, anyway. ‘If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves,’ he suggests, ‘and if they can accept a more modest place in the world, then they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and the dissension which will be as much their future as their past.’

Mazower may, uncharacteristically, have missed a final area of darkness here. For that ‘desperate desire to find a single workable definition’, combined with Europe’s superpower aspirations, the emotional idealism of the ’48ers and trade-offs between the national interests of France and Germany, have resulted in the extraordinary attempt to celebrate the end of ‘Europe’s 20th century’ by combining democratic nation-states into a single economic and monetary union. There is a more than even chance that what was meant to unite will end up dividing. Had Mazower waited a few more years, until after the end of the calendar century, things might have looked darker even where he now sees light.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 20 No. 20 · 15 October 1998

Timothy Garton Ash’s review of Dark Continent by Mark Mazower (LRB, 17 September) evokes a wry smile from this Serb. Reviewer and reviewed agree that the post-Communist failure of multi-ethnic states ‘has to do with democracy itself’. No mention here that the great and the good of Europe instinctively sided with ‘democratic’ Croats and Slovenes against ‘Communist’ Serbs; that they proceeded to cheer on the break-up of multi-ethnic and multi national Yugoslavia and yet became wedded to a mini-Yugoslavia called Bosnia. The peoples of Bosnia were expected to accomplish, in a flash, a giant leap from an explicitly multinational administrative unit to a sovereign multi-ethnic citizens’ state. It never crossed the minds of these outsiders that the integrity of Bosnia may have been conditional on it remaining part of a greater multinational whole.

Then there is the statement that domestic constitution-makers ‘have failed to work out’ how to ‘reconcile the rights and aspirations of minorities with rule by the majority’ when that minority is large and of a different nationality. Indeed, but the obvious recent example of this failure goes unmentioned: namely, Croatia, which, as it happens, was godfathered by the European Community. Zagreb wanted to leave Yugoslavia with all of bi-national Croatia including the Krajina Serb lands, but not through the constitutional procedure of negotiations. These would have been based on the federal Constitution whose first sentence referred to the right of secession for the six constituent nations (those whose only home was within Yugoslavia), not for federal units nor minorities such as the Kosovo Albanians. The federal Constitution reflected the fact that the original Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was a coming together of nations not states. Secession was clearly meant to be a matter of give and take. Zagreb suggested confederation, which would have amounted to unilateral secession in stages, but prevaricated on this in any case and later sparked off full-scale war by first demoting the status of its Serbs from a constituent nation to a minority (imagine Ottawa doing the same to its French Canadians) and then seceding in the wake of mono-national Slovenia.

When the EC stepped in, it should have advised Croatia to negotiate its departure in good faith. Instead, it decreed in superpower fashion that Yugoslavia’s Constitution was null and void, and that each of the federal units would have the right to secede on the basis of a crude winner-take-all referendum. It was a destabilising pre cedent: unilateral secessionists are handsomely rewarded at the expense of unionists; internal boundaries matter, constitutions don’t. Worse still, the EC had laid down the law but was unwilling to enforce it, protracting the ethnic strife which subsequently engulfed tri-national Bosnia. The results speak for themselves: an ethnically pure Croatia, Bosnia under indefinite Nato occupation and the Serbs more determined than ever to retain Kosovo.

Misha Simic

Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998

Timothy Garton Ash asks (LRB, 17 September): ‘Can Europeans really find no way of living together in democracies other than living apart?’ This is surely too negative. We offer Südtirol in Northern Italy as an example of ‘living together’, and this despite an unpromising historical background. At the end of World War One it was separated by caprice from the rest of Tirol, of which it had been an integral part for over five hundred years, and handed over to Italy. Mussolini then embarked on a programme of Italianisation, importing industry and Italians from the South and forbidding the local population to speak German; towns were given Italian names and an attempt was made to do the same with the people.

Hitler confirmed the Italian status of Südtirol and offered the German speakers the opportunity of relocation to Germany, and in case too many declined the offer, the Fascists suggested that those who remained would be shipped to the South of Italy. This ethnic cleansing was only halted by the outbreak of World War Two. At the end of the war the Allies confirmed Südtirol’s Italian status, adding safeguards for the German speakers, but the ensuing period had its troubles, including a muted German terrorist campaign when the Italian Government reneged on these safeguards, and an Italian backlash when it was felt that placatory measures had gone too far.

Despite some ‘old guard’ opposition to integration, there are few areas of life today where German and Italian speakers do not mix freely and amicably. Mixed marriages are increasing and in restaurants and bars it is common to find groups in animated conversation, moving between German and Italian as the mood or subject takes them.

Michael and Denise Hope
Merano, Südtirol

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences