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Family saga in war and peace
December 2017 / January 2018

The Mazower family in Highgate, 1936 (©MAZOWER FAMILY)


The tectonic plates of European history writing are shifting. Whereas the generation of A.J.P. Taylor saw European history from the palaces and ministries of the great powers, a new generation has started to look at Europe from the margins, in particular, from the east and south-east. One of the key figures in this shift is Mark Mazower. He first made an impact with two books on 20th-century Greece but his real breakthrough book was Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998). The book saw modern Europe through a glass darkly. How fragile 20th-century liberal democracy looks when seen from Athens or Warsaw.

Since then Mazower has written two big, ambitious books: Salonica, City of Ghosts (2004), an account of how Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for 500 years, and Hitler’s Empire (2008), dark and original.

At first, Mazower’s new book could not be more different. It is a family memoir and starts with his father, William, at the end of his life. Born in north London, he spent his life in the suburban tranquillity of Highgate and Golders Green. He studied at Balliol, had a quiet war and spent 30 years working in middle management for Lever Brothers. His life seems a world away from the terrors of 20th-century Europe that Mazower has addressed throughout his career. As a schoolboy he swapped comics, collected stamps and kept up with the cricket scores. As an adult, family life in Golders Green seems contented, secure, very English.

But as Mazower explores the story of his father’s family, a very different picture emerges. We move from blazers and rockeries to Big History: the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s Terror and the Holocaust. Above all, it becomes the story of William’s parents, Frouma and Max Mazower, and we remember they are among the people Dark Continent was dedicated to. For good reason.

Max (born Mordecai) Mazower was a Jewish Bundist from the Russian Pale of Settlement. For years he lived a double life, helping to run an underground socialist movement in Vilna, “the revolutionary hub for north-western Russia”, while simultaneously working as a respectable accountant. He was arrested several times by the Tsarist police but escaped and moved in revolutionary circles in pre-war central Europe. These years taught him everything he needed to know about the Bolsheviks.

In 1909 Max got a job selling typewriters in Russia for a British company. Mazower sums up his grandfather’s life at this point: “Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had directed Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Łódź.” This was nothing compared to what was to come. Max went on to sell typewriters during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, constantly on the move. In 1923 he escaped to London and never returned to Russia. He married, settled in Highgate and learned to speak English with a perfect accent.

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