European History: The Triumph of the Dark

The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939
Zara Steiner
Oxford University Press  1,248pp   £35
ISBN 978 0199212002

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Zara Steiner’s Triumph of the Dark is a superbly wrought history and a major contribution to the field. It is a mammoth work filled to the brim with prodigious scholarship, a scary bibliography, many insights and a wealth of detail. Its style is detached and coolly academic, prizing documentary detail above telling anecdote. Yet there is political engagement at the core. Steiner tells a story of darkness and in her strong judgements she offers a sometimes harsh moral clarity.

Does history offer us lessons? Or just stories, mostly sad? What is more dangerous, to sideline the memory of Hitler as a freak aberration and treat every crisis in its own terms? Or to treat the 1930s as the ultimate analogy, looking for unappeasable predators around every corner, from Hanoi to Tehran? For Steiner the history of the tangled pre-Second World War decade is a tale of moral combat (to borrow from Michael Burleigh) in which the West failed to stand up to serial aggressors. The wages of this failure were industrial-scale war and race murder. Read this way the history could be used as a basis for hard-line confrontation and even anticipatory war. Sound familiar?

The 1930s was a crisis decade. It lurched from the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarian barbarism to world war. Any strategic history of the period must reckon skilfully with a bewildering story, as Steiner’s does. The period saw ideological intensity and the clash of utopian visions, from Nazi racial conquest to the revolutionary workers’ paradise in the Soviet Union. It also saw calculating cold realpolitik, climaxing in the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, the midnight of the 20th century. The same period that saw the rise of anti-imperialism as an international force also saw the most aggressive assertions of empire. The moment of internationalism also saw the collapse of institutions like the League of Nations. The centre could not hold, the peace was lost and a world of dislocation, dictatorship and genocide was born. The dark triumphed. Observers have ransacked the 1930s for lessons about statecraft ever since.

Steiner offers richly drawn portraits of the main players. Hitler emerges both as canny opportunist exploiting crises and as determined ideologue, deliberately setting out to seize Lebensraum, exterminate the Judeo-Bolshevik enemy and win racial mastery. She poses the never-ending question, could it have worked out differently?

In response Steiner argues that with greater will the British, French and Russian empires could have stared down Fascist predators and forestalled their rapacious wars or at least fought them  earlier and on more advantageous terms. If Hitler could not be appeased, he could be deterred and, if not deterred, subdued before his Germany grew into a potent expanding power. The period 1933-39 should not be rendered a useless, tragic story by revisionist historians who let Neville Chamberlain and his co-appeasers off the hook. It should stand as a lasting lesson in the need for clear-eyed resolve.

Or should it? The statesmen then did not know the future. They had a weak hand abroad with many commitments and scarce resources, trying to protect far-flung interests in East Asia, the Mediterranean and in continental Europe with stretched navies and allies they were wary of. At home their own populations constrained them. The premier Chamberlain, denounced for his capitulations by 1940, was the man who in 1935 as Chancellor of the Exchequer was branded a warmonger for beginning rearmament.

He and others were hardly blameless in their suppression of dissent and innocent appraisals of the Führer. But every option seemed murky and for good reasons. Could a grand Anglo-French-Soviet coalition have done the job? Perhaps, but alliance blocs seemed suspect ever since the July crisis that brought on the Great War in 1914. It was forgiveable that, after that slaughter, states were coy about chain-ganging themselves into the conflicts of distrusted others. Stalin’s purging of his officer corps did little to build faith in his ability to checkmate Hitler on the eastern front. Given these uncertainties, playing for time and dividing potential enemies made sense.

To be sure, both the Munich agreement and the Nazi-Soviet pact ruthlessly sacrificed smaller nations. But there were compelling strategic reasons to postpone a clash with Nazi Germany, say, over the Czechoslovakia crisis in 1938. Time was a vital commodity. Britain needed time to develop its air defence system of extended radar and effective fighter planes, which turned out to be critical to staying on the chessboard. The margin of military advantage was not so decisively in favour of Britain and France. Pre-empting rather than responding to Hitler would have meant initiating war without domestic consent or international support. War in 1938 would have sacrificed the participation of Empire states like Australia, Canada and South Africa who were not prepared to bleed for Czechoslovakia. And anticipatory war would probably have been denied the economic and material support of the United States that would prove so critical. The rapid depletion of dollar and gold reserves and a balance of payments crisis was bad enough for Britain as things stood. It would take outright Nazi aggression, and resistance in the Battle of Britain, to provide the impetus for an end to American neutrality. Acting as aggressor in 1938 would have taken Britain to the brink of starvation and collapse. An early war would have squandered vital time, diplomatic support, political will and financial strength.

We should think twice before writing out the dilemmas that faced policymakers and replacing them with cast-iron moral axioms learned in 20:20 hindsight. History is neither a treasury of lessons nor a useless chain of tragedies. It offers context and perspective. Steiner’s formidable scholarship is a great stride in that direction, but the diplomatic complexities warrant some forgiveness. It may have been a triumph of the dark, but Steiner’s guilty parties were groping through the fog.

Patrick Porter is the author of Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009).

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