The history of 20th century Europe is replete with collapsing states: the almost contemporary end of the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties; the end of World War I, the break-up of France's Third Republic in June 1940, Italy's downfall in September 1943, the demise of the Soviet Union and its European empire, and many others. The author describes and discusses these "last days", during which palaces of power and public squares encompassed a crowded theatre of many elements: individual and collective events, decision-makers who try to oppose the exceptional pace of history, control structures that disintegrate and fail to use their power, urban communities that react to collapsing institutions, the foundations of everyday life that give way, public and private values that are overturned. These "last days" witness the accumulation, in a vicious circle, of political errors, administrative inefficiency, collective disappointments and conflicts, psychological bewilderment. And yet nothing is preordained: in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow, from 1917 to 1991, the game remained wide open up to the final move. History plays itself out with no regard for destiny.
Paolo Macry teaches Contemporary History at the Federico II University of Naples.