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The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939

The Tolkienesque title suggests a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, but Zara Steiner's new work describes a more complex drama, one with "few heroes, two evil titans, and an assortment of villains and knaves". Here she charts the victory of the darkness that was already encroaching in her previous book, The Lights that Failed, which dealt with the breakdown, in the period 1919-1933, of the attempted reconstruction of the international system after the First World War.

She begins with Hitler's assumption of power and ends with the outbreak of war in 1939, raising the central question of the degree to which Hitler was responsible for the European war that was the first stage of the Second World War. Was this "Hitler's war"? Yes, Steiner asserts, but not the war he wanted, nor at a time of his choosing. The advent of Hitler, she argues, marked "a new chapter in German and European history", but "for most Europeans as well as many Germans, it was but part of a continuing story".

The difficulty lies in squaring the Hitler of the 1930s - the man A.J.P. Taylor was, with some justice if also with a degree of coat-trailing, able to call an "ordinary German politician" - with the earlier and the later Hitler, the author of Mein Kampf (1925) and the man who launched the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Like Taylor, Steiner rejects the view of Hitler as a man with a careful plan to be accomplished in stages. But whereas to Taylor, Hitler was simply an opportunist, to Steiner, he "was an opportunist who knew where he was going". Her thesis is that "Hitler's ultimate purposes had a concrete meaning and that they found their fruition in an unimaginable war and the destruction of European Jewry". The historian's knowledge of what happened next can, however, be a disadvantage when it comes to an analysis of the motivations of the political leaders and diplomats of a period. Hitler may, or may not, have known exactly where he was going, but his contemporaries assuredly did not.

Was ideology the factor that determined the course of international relations in the Europe of the 1930s, or did it merely colour the rivalries of nation states pursuing their traditional interests? Another interpretation is a Europe divided between revisionist, hungry powers, including Germany and the Soviet Union, and powers, primarily Britain and France, that were largely satisfied with the status quo, or as Steiner puts it, a division between "active" and "reactive" powers.

She argues convincingly that "belief systems separated the nations from one another" and that "ideological assumptions affected the way statesmen and their advisers saw the world", but this is far from saying that ideology determined policy. Hitler had largely made up his own ideology, while Stalin was able to determine Soviet policy even if he had to justify it by an interpretation of the Marxist scriptures. There was a fluidity in the relations between the powers that overrode political philosophies, as was demonstrated by British and French attempts to come to terms with Italy and, most spectacularly, by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

The responses of the reactive, liberal-capitalist, democratic powers were as important as the moves of the "active" powers on the twisting road that led to war in 1939. As Steiner argues, "active" powers always have advantages, while liberal-capitalist powers have particular constraints when faced with threats to their interests. Thus, Britain and France "faced constraints that Hitler (and, she might have added, Stalin) felt free to ignore": they had to work with the grain of electoral opinion and the demands of world markets. She is rather hard on Neville Chamberlain, a man who strove for peace in the realisation that a great war might well mean the end of Britain's position as a world power and the decline of its economy. But she is surely correct in seeing Britain's neglect of French interests as a fundamental error.

A great strength of this book is that it combines a detailed narrative with analysis, without analysis dominating the narrative, or thesis dismissing the importance of accidental or contingent factors. Her discussion of the Spanish Civil War is particularly impressive, combining as it does an evaluation of both the purely Spanish causes and the international dimensions of the war. She rejects simplified views of the war that overemphasise its ideological nature and concludes that the war was not a first round of the Second World War, but was a prologue to it.

No book on a period that is the subject of such fierce debate by historians will be met with universal agreement, but The Triumph of the Dark, nevertheless, deserves universal acclaim. Steiner's bibliography demonstrates the depth of her research into primary sources and the vast and increasing number of secondary sources. But what most impresses is her ability to synthesise her manifold sources into a book that is both profound and readable.

The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939

By Zara Steiner. Oxford University Press 1,248pp, £65.00 and £35.00. ISBN 9780191549670 and 99212002. Published 31 March 2011

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