A couple of years ago I was rummaging through one of those Little Free Libraries/public bookcases you find in so many neighborhoods when I came across a copy of Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Happy to come across a book I’d been wanting to read, I eagerly helped myself.
Dark Continent is more than just a history of Europe in the 20th century. It’s also a deep dive into how and why democracy waxed and waned across the Continent during the 75 or so years following the end of World War I.
By the War’s end the great European land-based empires had collapsed and spawned a host of successor states across Central and Eastern Europe including the Balkans. In the beginning almost all were parliamentary democracies, complete with competing political parties representing constituencies across the spectrum. But by the eve of the Second World War democracy in Europe was a rare commodity. Authoritarian regimes were the norm be they the USSR, Germany, Italy or Spain. Even newly independent states like Hungary and Poland, while not overtly Fascist or Communist were run by hard-right strongmen. According to Mazower these fledgling democracies inherited parliamentary traditions and structures evolved from years of battling autocratic monarchs. With parliaments powerful but cumbersome and prone to deadlock, and presidents and prime ministers unable to govern effectively they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges facing the states of interwar Europe: the Great Depression, sizable communities of ethnic minorities complicating the notion of a unified nation sate, specter of Communist takeover from home or abroad and newfound power of mass organizations of populist or reactionary nature to affect political change.
Complicating all of this was the decline of birthrates across the Continent beginning around the turn of the century. Although the killing ended with the cessation of hostilities a generation of young men had been slaughtered and would not be returning home to raise families. Therefore, unlike the period following World War II there was no baby boom and populations in the former belligerents either plateaued or continued to decline. Leaders and policy makers in countries across Europe feared a demographic implosion would prevent them from sustaining the standing armies and industrial output needed to compete against their rivals. Prefiguring today’s rising anti-immigrants sentiment in Europe and America many in interwar Europe thought it only a matter of time before they were swamped by their more populous neighbors either through immigration or military invasion.
Just 20 years after the last colossal European war another would engulf the Continent. While the democracies of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, it was the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Russia’s successor state the USSR that shoulder the blame for restarting hostilities. According to Mazower the reasons are rooted in each of the three authoritarian states’ ruling ideology: German Nazis saw race as the only legitimate institution and the most Central and Eastern Europe states as artificial and illegitimate created by the Treaty of Versailles; Italy’s Fascists yearned for the glory days of the Roman Empire and coveted the lands of North Africa and the Balkans; Stalin and his fellow Soviets saw the modern state as a capitalist construct meant to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and the sooner the USSR’s armies conquered its rivals, the sooner it could help spread the dictatorship of the proletariat.
By 1945 Germany’s dreams of colonizing Europe and Italy’s attempts to resurrect the Roman Empire lay in ruins. Five years of war, occupation, and genocide left the Continent impoverished and in shambles. Within five years an “Iron Curtain” had descended upon Europe, dividing the the Continent between two rival blocs. The West was home to an alliance of more or less democratic nations, allied with the United States and opposed to Communist expansion. To the East lie a collection of Soviet-imposed authoritarian states, collectively isolated and inward-looking. The dynamics of the stark division and the tensions it spawned would dictate European politics, foreign and domestic for the next 70 years.
In the West, once the cities and factories were rebuilt the region entered an unprecedented era of economic growth. With industrialization growing at a breakneck pace the ensuing labor shortages forced many countries to import workers from abroad. At first workers from Europe’s periphery like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Communist outlier Yugoslavia migrated to the factories of West Germany, France and the like. Later, the call for workers went answered in more distant lands including Turkey, North Africa, and in the case of the United Kingdom the Caribbean and South Asia. Giving the Western economies a much needed boost, it would create long term questions over the nature of citizenship and limits of multiculturalism.
This time, in the West anyway, democracy did not wither up and die in the decades following WWII as it did after the previous world war. Learning from their past mistakes and traumatized by the horrors of authoritarian rule and foreign occupation constitutions were rewritten or retooled to prevent parliamentary gridlock. Structural changes were enacted to protect human rights and promote functioning and responsible governments. In hopes of preventing another Great Depression governments took a more active role in economic planning and enlarged the social safety net. (Ironically, both measures were first introduced by the authoritarian states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR.) A movement to foster closer political and economic cooperation among European nations would eventually give birth to the European Common Market and later European Union. (Again ironically, according to Mazower eerily similar to a concept floated by Nazi Minister of Industry and Production Adolf Speer.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain things weren’t so rosy. After Stalin’s death the reigns of power did loosed somewhat, but those in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed few of the civil and economic liberties enjoyed by those in the West. Forced industrialization promoted almost full employment, but wages were relatively low and desirable consumer goods scarce. Attempts to reform the systems from within were crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. In hopes of propping up their failing economies Communist leaders in places like Hungary and Poland borrowed heavily from the West. In Romania, efforts to pay off these mounting debts led to crippling austerity measures resulting in a rapid plunge in living standards.
The 1970s and the decade following it would bring new challenges to Europe, both East and West. The oil shocks that bookended the 1970s spawned simultaneous inflation and economic stagnation, long believed impossible according to the rules of classical economics. Quickly dubbed “stagflation” the nations of Western Europe saw their economies contract and state coffers weaken and with it the ability to support social safety nets. Worse yet, European industries faced greater competition from East Asia in an array of product lines including automobiles and consumer electronics. In some countries the unemployed and underemployed cast unfriendly eyes towards local guest workers with nervous governments like West Germany’s offering to help repatriate them.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the Eastern Bloc, the once mighty colossus of the USSR began to stagnate and teeter. Unable to reform a doomed system, make it economically competitive and politically relevant on a global stage without inadvertently causing its demise Gorbachev’s USSR finally collapsed. During the last year or so of its death spiral, one by one the captive nations of Eastern Europe shed their authoritarian regimes, long since seen as illegitimate, incompetent and oppressive.
Dark Continent covers a lot of ground. Mazower’s prose can be a bit dense but he’s one hell of a researcher. A challenging read perhaps, but nevertheless informative. He’s left me with a deeper understanding of modern European history and a desire to learn more.