The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933–1939

Joe Maiolo hails Zara Steiner’s account of a Europe sleepwalking into war with Germany as a modern classic

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Reviewed by: Joe Maiolo
Author: Zara Steiner
Publisher: Oxford
Price (RRP): £35

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The second volume of Zara Steiner’s magnificent history of interwar European history deals with the complex interplay of motives, beliefs, decisions and actions of statesmen.

Steiner does not blame the peacemakers of 1919 for the coming of another great war. As she argued in volume one, The Lights that Failed, a fragile peace was established in the 1920s. What changed the direction of European international relations from peace towards war was the onset of the Great Depression from 1929 onwards.

No other single event did more to divide the victors of 1919, especially Britain and France, and to energise the expansionist impulses of the aggressive regimes than the collapse of the global economy.

Hitler’s arrival on the international scene in 1933 marked a sharp change in the nature of European politics. The führer was not interested in merely regaining sovereignty and territory lost in 1919; his ambition was to found an Aryan world order through the conquest of Eurasia. That ideological goal found concrete expression in the attack on Poland in 1939 and in the mass murder of European Jewry.

As Steiner points out, the real mystery of the 1930s is how such a banal and crude politician could seize power in Germany and then outmanoeuvre Europe’s greatest statesmen. The answer was that Hitler’s domestic allies and foreign opponents time and again underestimated and misunderstood him.

The liberal-minded men who held high office in London and Paris did not grasp what made an ideologue such as Hitler tick. To them, international relations was a game driven by cost-benefit analyses, and the cost of war almost always outweighed any potential gain. The result of this “dangerous misunderstanding” was a series of missed opportunities to confront the Nazi regime early and on better strategic terms than Britain and France eventually did.

The biggest missed opportunity passed in September 1938. In sparking a crisis over Czechoslovakia, Hitler, as his nervous generals and diplomats warned him, had overreached himself. A European war beginning that month would have ended in Germany’s early defeat.

Britain and France, however, did not push the diplomatic crisis to the brink. The British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was convinced that he could establish a lasting European peace by flying to Germany to negotiate face-to-face with Hitler.

He succeeded, and by doing so he offered Hitler a way out of a perilous situation. As Steiner tells us, the Munich agreement of 1938 should stand as a warning against the sort of “untrammelled conviction” and hubris that Chamberlain displayed in his pursuit of peace.

The failure of British and French politicians to comprehend Hitler’s motives was compounded by their failure to form a military alliance against him. The blame for this error lies squarely in London. Until 1939 the British blindly refused to back France and its eastern allies to contain Germany.

Much the same can be said for the attitude of London and Paris towards Moscow. We may never know whether Stalin would have decided to join the western powers against Germany, but their lack of interest in a triple alliance did nothing to entice him.

While Steiner’s main arguments can be summarised, it is impossible in a short review to do justice to the scale of her scholarship. The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the plight of German Jews are treated with great skill and conviction.

Steiner pays as much attention to the diplomacy of the small nations as she does to that of the great powers. And Mussolini’s contribution to the breakdown of peace is carefully woven into her narrative.

Authoritative and absorbing, Steiner’s volume will stand the test of time. 

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Joe Maiolo is senior lecturer in international history at King’s College London. His latest book is Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War 1931–41 (John Murray, March 2010)