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.
Since Wasserstein generally follows the same line (blaming ‘not class … but ethnicity’ for the outbreak of the Great War, for instance), his argument is not quite as fresh and exciting as his publisher’s blurb would have it. Even so, this is a very impressive historical synthesis, as sure-footed on