In January 1918 Europe ceased to be the centre of the world." So ends A. J. P. Taylor's synopsis of The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, first published in 1954. That struggle is interpreted mainly as an exercise in the balance of power. Taylor famously subordinated ideology to contingency. But he had green fingers, as he said, for the writing and rewriting of history. The conclusion of his book is the prospectus for another. "Europe was dwarfed by two world powers, the Soviet Union and the United States - implacable though often unconscious rivals. This was more than a rivalry of power; it was a rivalry of idealisms. Both dreamt of 'One World', in which the conflict of states had ceased to exist. Universal revolution on the one side and the Fourteen Points on the other presented Utopian programmes for achieving permanent peace. Ever since the defeat of the French revolution, Europe had conducted its affairs merely by adjusting the claims of sovereign states against each other as they arose. In 1914 Germany had felt strong enough to challenge this system and had aimed to substitute her hegemony over the rest. Europe was to find unity as Greater Germany - the only way in which the continent could become a world power, capable of withstanding the other two. Though Germany was defeated by a narrow margin, the legacy of her attempt was Bolshevism and US intervention in Europe. A new balance of power, if it were achieved, would be worldwide; it would not be a matter of European frontiers. Europe was superseded; and in January 1918 there began a competition between communism and liberal democracy that has lasted to the present day."
They are few who can walk with Taylor. One is Mark Mazower. Dark Continent is The Struggle for Mastery in Europe for a new generation. If it is consciously a book of its time, it is also a cut above the rest. Most conspicuously, it is intellectually daring. Mazower's project is urgent and important. It might be described as rethinking what it is to be European, in historical perspective.
Dark Continent's intellectual distinction comes from its synthesis of ideology and contingency. Mazower takes as his text Hannah Arendt's admonition that "we can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load that by itself time will bury in oblivion". He analyses the European century as a continuing struggle between three rival political ideologies or new orders - liberalism, communism and fascism - a struggle in which the outcome was and is uncertain. "What all ideologies have in common is that they like to present their own utopia as an end to history - whether in the form of universal communism, global democracy or a Thousand Year Reich. They share what Ignazio Silone once described as 'the widespread virtue that identifies history with the winning side'. They read the present back into the past, and assume - for instance - that democracy must be deeply rooted in Europe's soil simply because the cold war turned out as it did. Today a different kind of history is needed - less useful as a political instrument but bringing us closer to past realities - which sees the present as just one possible outcome of our predecessors' struggles and uncertainties. After all, democracy reigned supreme in Europe as the first world war ended, but was virtually moribund two decades later. And if 1989 marked democracy's victory over communism, it was a victory that could not have come about without communism's earlier comprehensive and shattering defeat of national socialism in the war. It was thus not preordained that democracy should win over fascism and communism, just as it remains to be seen what kind of democracy Europe is able and willing to build."
Thus the Mazower thesis. It is presented with rigour and vigour in equal parts. If history is philosophy teaching by example, then Dark Continent would certainly qualify. The author reads adventurously in four languages, it would appear, and deploys the results with zest and discrimination. Gramsci's prison notebooks find their place, as do Hitler's: the intellectual and the corporal. The philosophers field Schmitt, Oakeshott, Gentile (in Italian); the novelists Musil, Andri+c, Roth (in German).
There is a well-stocked mind at work here, and it shows. As Roth took leave to inquire: "Why then do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilisation and manners to different continents? Why not to Europe itself?" Mazower threads his way through the century in a series of finely crafted, interlocking essays. He is particularly interesting (and expert) on the wider implications of the second world war, the Nazi New Order, and the sadistic sociology of the Final Solution - and the historical ironies of the out-turn. For him, the war was both crux and crucible. "As both Hitler and Stalin were aware, the second world war involved something far more than a series of military engagements and diplomatic negotiations; it was a struggle for the social and political future of the continent itself. And such was the shock of being subjected to a regime of unprecedented and unremitting violence that in the space of eight years a sea-change took place in Europeans' political and social attitudes, and they rediscovered the virtues of democracy." Mazower believes that the Germans succeeded in losing and is especially cogent on the links between the race and class and ethnic wars and the more straightforwardly military conflict. His conclusion is apropos: "National socialism started out claiming to be creating a new order in Europe, but as racial ideology prevailed over economic rationality, the extreme violence implicit in this project became clearer. 'Gingerbread and whippings' was how Goebbels summed up their policy, but there was not enough of the former and too much of the latter. The 'Great Living Space of the European family of nations' promised life to the Germans, an uncertain and precarious existence to most Europeans and extermination to the Jews. 'If Europe can't exist without us,' wrote Goebbels in his pro-European phase, 'then neither can we survive without Europe.' This turned out to be true. The Germans threw away their chance to dominate the continent after 1940, and their defeat led to their own catastrophe. Himmler's original vision came to pass - the Germans were henceforth concentrated inside Germany - but it is doubtful whether he would have regarded the way this came about as a triumph."
Mazower's conception of the collapse of the Soviet Union is equally arresting. "Murder or suicide? Revolution or retreat? The same questions that are often asked of the ending of British rule in India, or of the Dutch in Indonesia, can be posed in the case of 1989 too. This is not by chance: communism's demise formed part of the broader canvas of European decolonisation. I One way to look at Soviet rule in eastern Europe is simply as an anachronism, a relic of past modes of rule no longer suited to the modern world. I The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism, and Europe as a whole now faces the task that western Europe has confronted since the 1930s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two. I But the end of the cold war means that there is no longer an opponent against whom democrats can define what they stand for in pursuit of this goal. The old political signposts have been uprooted, leaving most people without a clear sense of direction."
Who are the barbarians now? Mazower's concluding pages are streaked with sobriety. Humility and humanity jostle in the wings. "A self-belief rooted in Christianity, capitalism, the Enlightenment and massive technological superiority encouraged Europeans to see themselves over a long period as a civilisational model for the globe. Their trust in Europe's world mission was already evident in the 17th and 18th centuries and reached its apogee in the era of imperialism. Hitler was in many ways its culminating figure and through the Nazi New Order came closer to its realisation than anyone else. Now that the cold war has ended, Europe is once more undivided, and this makes its loss of belief in the pre-eminence of its civilisation and values all the more obvious. Many of the newly freed states of the former Soviet empire cannot wait to join 'Europe'. Yet what that 'Europe' is, and where it stands in the world, seem less and less clear."
Dark Continent is a tour de force. Formidable and uncomfortable as it is, Mazower's profound rethinking will surely have effect. Now the ideas are controversial. Soon they may be commonplace. There are worse fates.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
Dark Continent: Europe's 20th Century
Author - Mark Mazower
ISBN - 0 713 99159 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 469