The thesis of Bernard Wasserstein’s huge new history of modern Europe is all there in the title. Two themes underlie this grandest of narratives: on the one hand, the astonishing advance of European science, technology and culture, accompanied by a great boom in living standards, life expectations and imaginative horizons; on the other, the appalling depths of sadism and depravity to which Europeans sank in history’s bloodiest century.
It is an arresting argument, but not a particularly new one. Nine years ago, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent offered what, at the time, was the most radical rereading of European history for a generation, emphasising the desperate fragility of democracy and civility since the dawn of the century. For Mazower – writing in the shadow of the war in Bosnia – ethnic hatred and genocide were not anomalies; they were embedded in European life as deeply as Beethoven or Shakespeare. Other historians followed suit. Niall Ferguson, for example, struck a similar pose in last year’s The War of the World, another chronicle of twentieth-century brutality, although on a global scale; again ethnicity, not class conflict, played the central role.