Magazine article The Spectator

Penguin Man in Hard Covers

Magazine article The Spectator

Penguin Man in Hard Covers

Article excerpt

DARK CONTINENT by Mark Mazower

Allen Lane/Penguin, 20, pp. 496

The historian's job is to dispel myths, but he is not immune to capture by them. Mark Mazower's bold attempt to write the history of 20th-century Europe begins by implicitly dispelling current myths, but ends in thrall to others. The most dangerous are those which are not made fully explicit (or 'explicated', as the Americans say). Europe and democracy go together automatically, like fish and chips; remove the constraints of Nazism, fascism or communism, the myth runs, and European civilisation will come into its own, guided by its own internal logic. Mazower is at his best when he describes the economic, political and national chaos that was interwar Europe.

President Truman said, `The only new data are the history you don't know.' It is worth reminding us that the seeds of the second world war were sown before the ink was dry on the treaties which wound up the first. Unviable multinational states were created; the economic disruption caused by the Great War was perpetuated by the very measures chosen to overcome it. Economic theories derived from free trade and the gold standard clashed with and cancelled out `national-economy' and autarkic measures beloved of the traditional Right and State-socialist measures beloved of the Left.

Few statesmen or politicians, churchmen and media were willing to face the realities and implications of German revanchisme. Mazower's strictures on Chamberlain and his associates are valid but spare Labour pacifism and support for appeasement. The author draws a veil over Rapallo, by which Stalin ensured that the German armed forces would escape their Versailles curbs and be ready to challenge the Entente by the mid-Thirties, and over Stalin's role in helping Hitler electorally in 1928 and 1933. He is unable to confront the NaziSoviet pact, which was not an aberration but a continuation of Rapallo, i.e. collaboration with the Germans in dismantling Versailles.

In spite of shortcomings, this part of the book is valuable for newcomers to the scene; but as it moves to the present and to the author's prescriptions it becomes less so. In the first place, Penguin man cannot be satisfied to tell the story, but must emote, preach and prescribe.

I am sorry to be so critical; one would like to see the best in a work. But to write a 20th-century history of Europe, no less, would require near genius, which includes infinite capacity for taking pains, and would take a lifetime. …

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