The sharpest riposte to Helen Zille’s now infamous airport tweet about colonialism deserves an answer: "Why then do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilisation and manners to different continents? Why not to itself?" That mild question was posed 80 years ago by the great Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, author of The Radetzky March, making it even more pointed at a time when much of Europe lurches towards nationalist or authoritarian demagogues. Roth’s query appears at the start of historian Mark Mazower’s acclaimed book, Dark Continent — referring not to Africa, but to 20th-century Europe. While Hitler admired the British Empire, especially the way Britain ruled India, his territorial ambitions lay in Europe, to the east, with the stated aim of reducing the despised Slavs to a servile worker caste. Unlike the older imperialisms, which had seen their dreams of expansion and "civilising burdens" as being outside Europe, Mazower points out, "national social...

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