Disaster and diplomacy

The Lights that Failed
July 29, 2005

Alex Danchev traces a well-travelled crooked road between two wars

If ever a work were destined to be called monumental, it is this double-decker doorstop. The outlook is unpromising. Hindsight telescopes and flattens. The period 1919-39 becomes one undifferentiated period: postwar and prewar are conflated into interwar. The history of an intermission can be a barren affair. Zara Steiner is unfazed by all that.

The very amplitude of her work resists the telescoping and the flattening.

Her scrupulous inspection of the in-between retrieves the contingent, the imponderable, the ungovernable and, not least, the genuinely hopeful from the overdetermined accounts of the intermissionaries.

The story she has to tell is not war by timetable but rather war by slow-motion multiple pile-up. "The line from 1919 to 1939I was not a straight one. It was not the Treaty of Versailles that brought down the Weimar Republic, nor was the opposition to its terms the decisive factor in Hitler's capture of power. Versailles did not make Hitler's victory inevitable. This form of reductionist thinking, which attributes the disasters of the 1930s to the peace settlements of 1919I serves only to distort our understanding of the road to disaster. The 'hinge years'

(1929-33) were one of the major twists in that crooked path to the new Armageddon." Steiner is a Berliner. Her history is a proof of Isaiah Berlin's favourite proposition from Kant: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made."

The lights that failed are reconstruction, internationalism, multilateralism and disarmament in the decade after the Great War, eclipsed by disintegration, nationalism, autarky and rearmament as the serial crises of the 1930s ran into round two. This is only the first volume. A sequel, The Triumph of the Dark , already written, it seems, but not yet published, will address the remorseless years 1933 to 1939. The titles sail close to cliche. The work does not.

The whole enterprise is part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe , commissioned more years ago than Steiner cares to remember by the enterprising Alan Bullock, who did not live to see its completion.

Chronologically, and to some extent conceptually, it follows A.J.P.

Taylor's tour de force , The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954). Taylor set out his stall with characteristic verve. "The relations of the Great Powers have determined the history of Europe. This book deals with them in the last age when Europe was the centre of the world." The imp in him also inserted a famous footnote: "It becomes wearisome to add 'except the Italians' to every generalization. Henceforth it may be assumed." This pertained, in the first instance, to the morality of diplomacy and the integrity of the diplomatist. "Though they carried on the mysteries of secret diplomacy, there were few real secrets in the diplomatic world, and all diplomatists were honest, according to their moral code. No ambassador said 'No' when the true answer should have been 'Yes'; but he might evade the question or, even, if he was clever enough, give a misleading impression."

Steiner is calmer than Taylor, less emphatic, not as boisterous, mischievous or contentious. She is robust but restrained. The prose is more staid, and so is the interpretation. Knockabout is out. She is averse to the aphorism and suspicious of the argumentative short cut. Controversy is not her forte. Several times in the book she seems about to offer some modification or correction to the existing version, only to summarise evenhandedly, with a careful adjudication. On many issues she could be read with profit for a textbook demonstration of the historian's craft. Her appraisal of the peace treaty is an example. "The Treaty of Versailles was not a 'Carthaginian peace'," she declares roundly. "Germany was not destroyed. Nor was it reduced to the second rank or permanently prevented from returning to great-power status." Nonetheless, it was a flawed treaty.

Steiner endorses Jacques Bainville's sinuous verdict: "It is too gentle for what is in it that is harsh." It failed to resolve a problem that was perhaps unresolvable at the time: simultaneously punishing and conciliating the vanquished Germans, still smarting and still potent.

Another monumental work, Edgar Reitz's stupendous Heimat (1984), makes the point in its opening episode, set in 1922, in a well-received speech at the unveiling of a memorial: "Because of the farcical Versailles Treaty, which so deliberately humiliated our people, Germany will one day arouse the genius of its blood, who will deliver us from the dungeon of humiliation like a saviour..." The deep-rooted refusal to accept the reality of defeat made it virtually impossible to establish the treaty's legitimacy, as Steiner crisply underlines. "This was a very different world from that of 1815, or 1944-45."

Taylorian themes reappear under a different guise. Steiner takes up the argument about Eurocentrism. She, too, finds a certain commonality of outlook and purpose, at least among the big powers, leading to a greater willingness to invest in multilateral tea parties, conferences, treaties, covenants. "What evolved was an international regime run by those who still viewed Europe as the centre of the world and who looked backwards as well as forward" - a nice point -"but who also experimented with new forms of international discourse, some of which survived their subsequent destruction and reappeared after 1945."

More unequivocally than her predecessor, she is prepared to give the diplomatists their due. For her, they are pragmatists, or pragmatic realists, not the illusionists so often portrayed. Georges Clemenceau's contemporary verdict on Versailles is quoted approvingly: "In the end, it is what it is; above all else, it is the work of human beings and, as a result, it is not perfect. We all did what we could to work fast and well."

This becomes something of a leitmotiv. One might call it the moral of the work. The Lights that Failed has some rather old-fashioned virtues. Long gestation is one. No easy condemnation is another. Steiner's hallmark as a historian is a judicious blend of compassion and dispassion. She has the grace to be impressed by her protagonists' predicament. "The magnitude of the task confronted by the leaders of the victor powers in 1919 staggers the imagination." A good deal of their apparent weakness and blindness is explained in this fashion. Her book is a disquisition on difficulty.

She is strongly against a condemnatory reading of her three principals: Aristide Briand of France, Austen Chamberlain of Britain and Gustav Stresemann of Germany. She sees all three as prisoners of circumstance. The crux of the matter was the Franco-German power balance. Given the recent history, German recovery appeared inevitably to jeopardise French security.

Could German aspirations and French anxieties be reconciled? Steiner presents a resolutely sympathetic account of the foreign ministers grappling with this problem.

Briand gave his name to one answer. "Briandisme came to mean a policy of conciliation and appeasement and eventually also advocacy of the creation of a European federal union independent of American financial and economic power." Briand rather appeals to Steiner. "Briand's great gifts of oratory and persuasion and his lack of order and precision have made a balanced assessment of him difficult." Balanced assessment may be Steiner's mantra, but in her evocation of the artful Aristide, she lets herself go, just a little. "He was a silver-tongued statesman who delighted in the spoken word, the conciliatory phrase, and the oratorical gesture... But behind the cigarette smoke, the sleepy and heavy-lidded eyes, the walrus moustache, and the persuasive voice, there was a shrewd and highly experienced statesman." Briand was realist enough about his country and about the role he was invited to play. "Having long recognised that France was épuisée et exsangue (exhausted and bloodless), and that it could not impose its will on Germany, he was prepared to work for détente." Ultimately, he could not deliver - but he was undeceived, which is perhaps the source of his appeal.

Steiner's consolidated verdict on the effectiveness of men and measures is delivered in two weighty essays, "Europe reconstructed?" (1918-29) and "The hinge years" (1929-33), an invaluable resource or awful temptation for anyone contemplating the other 900 pages. These set pieces are not so much conclusions, as advertised, but more in the nature of recapitulations. In their authority and their sobriety they typify the entire project - mature in reflection, efficient in expression, long on empathy, short on editing.

"There were no wars. The memories of the past upheavals were still too fresh, and no country, either in western or eastern Europe, was in a position to challenge the status quo by force. The international system created during the course of the decade was still functioning in 1929, and few anticipated its collapse. Locarno (in 1925) had provided a window of opportunity that was closing. The cracks in the reconstructed system began to open in the last phase of reconstruction. The death of Stresemann, Chamberlain's loss of office and Briand's diminished influence removed from the scene the men most anxious to translate the 'Locarno spirit'I into something more concrete. Looking back at the history of the period, it is possible to see both how far the three statesmen had succeeded in rebuilding the European edifice and what weaknesses in their reconstructions blocked further progress even before the depression became the 'Great Depression' and altered the strategic landscape. The Hague conferences on 'the final liquidation of the war' (in 1929-30) ended the discussion of the main issues that could be solved through the existing process of negotiation. They brought to the surface the problems that remained and the great-power tensions that would make their resolution so difficult."

The best historians have a little something extra. Taylor had green fingers. Steiner has horse sense.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933

Author - Zara Steiner
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 938
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 19 822114 2

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