The Magazine

Between the Wars

When the European powers had a League of their own.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Lights That Failed

European International
History 1919-1933

by Zara Steiner

Oxford, 960 pp., $54.99

Virginia Woolf once remarked of Edward Gibbon's great work, "Few people can read the whole of the Decline and Fall without admitting that some chapters have glided away without leaving a trace .  .  . many pages are no more than a concussion of sonorous sounds .  .  . and innumerable figures have passed across the stage without printing even their names upon our memories." Readers might feel similarly stupefied by Zara Steiner's
history of international relations between 1919 and 1933, a volume in the Oxford History of Modern Europe series launched by Allan Bullock back in the 1950s. A sequel, The Triumph of the Dark 1933-1939, will follow.

The ground the present book covers is enormous. It provides a comprehensive account of the Treaty of Versailles, showing how this and related treaties played out in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Middle East and Asia. It charts in detail the diplomatic history of the League of Nations. There are also chapters on the repartitioning of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; the rise of Mussolini; the diplomacy of the Depression; the Manchurian Crisis; and the hapless fortunes of disarmament in a world never convinced that internationalism would root out militarism. Preparedness, not pacifism, carried the day--though too late for the many millions who never survived the Second World War, which Versailles had been convened, in part, to prevent.

Despite its daunting length, the book is worth reading. One does not have to share Steiner's affection for the League of Nations to recognize the usefulness of a book that studies so closely the "supple confusions"--to use T.S. Eliot's memorable phrase--that often inform even the best-laid plans of diplomatists.

The plans that Georges Clémenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson laid at Versailles were never entirely coherent. Clémenceau insisted that the treaty give France security from German revanche; Lloyd George was equally insistent that it enable Germany to rejoin the economic and diplomatic comity of nations; Wilson, the wild card of the peacemakers, whose Fourteen Points generated so much unfulfilled promise, initially spoke of the need for a "just peace" but eventually proved nearly as merciless as Clémenceau.

"Paris was a nightmare, and everyone there was morbid. A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene; the futility and smallness of man before the great events confronting him; the mingled significance and unreality of the decisions; levity, blindness, insolence, confused cries from without--all the elements of ancient tragedy were there." This was how the peace conference struck John Maynard Keynes, the glib economist whose Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) popularized the notion that the treaty was too punitive to be constructive.

Steiner contests this, persuasively arguing that the treaty "was not a 'Carthaginian peace'" and Germany was not brought to her knees. Indeed, as Steiner notes, Germany's recovery might have been deliberately delayed "in order to obtain a reduction in reparations." One need only recall the truly vindictive peace that the Germans exacted from the Russians at Brest-Litovsk (1918) to see how comparatively magnanimous the Versailles Treaty was.

Steiner concedes that the treaty had its flaws:

It failed to solve the problem of both punishing and conciliating a country that remained a great power despite .  .  . its military defeat. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the very different aims of the peacemakers, not to speak of the multiplicity of the problems they faced, many well beyond their competence or control.

The Congress of Vienna (1815) proved more durable, but it had only one capomaestro in Metternich and nothing like the fundamental problems that exercised the Big Three at Versailles. When one considers those problems--the fierce ethnic enmities that the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire unleashed in the Balkans, the question of what to do with Poland vis-à-vis France and Germany, the disposition of the Rhineland and the Saar--it is surprising that the treaty accomplished so much. With all its shortcomings, until Hitler came to power in 1933, the treaty did create, as Steiner demonstrates, "a legitimate post-war order that the defeated as well as the victor nations could accept"--though Lloyd George must have spoken for many when he said that "we shall have to do the whole thing over again in twenty-five years at three times the cost."