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."

What is less persuasive is Steiner's contention that "the establishment of the League of Nations, whatever the reservations of the victor powers, held out the promise of a more just international regime which the excluded could one day join."

The League of Nations was the brainchild of Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958), who once recalled that it was the absence of the rule of law at Eton that first gave him the idea for an international body that would prevent war and promote peace. The chivalrous son of Lord Salisbury could no more abide the bullying of little boys than the bullying of little states. Readers interested in the prototype of the United Nations should read Kenneth Rose's witty biography of Lord Robert and his siblings, The Later Cecils (1975), which highlights the widespread skepticism that the new body inspired.

As Rose relates, "The intruder at a meeting of the League of Nations, who declaimed through his megaphone, 'Robert Cecil, you are a bloody traitor,' was both rude and wrong. But he echoed the suspicions of very many Tories who felt that dependence on the whims of any international assembly was both corrosive of national sovereignty and an insult to the millions who had fought, died and suffered for their country during four years of war."

Winston Churchill, although fond of Cecil, never extended that fondness to the League.

It seems a mad business to confront these dictators without weapons or military force, and at the same time to try to tame and cow the spirit of our people with peace films, anti-recruiting propaganda and resistance to defense measures. Unless the free and law-respecting nations are prepared to organize, arm and combine, they are going to be smashed up.

In fairness to Cecil, if he was passionate about doing what he could to promote peace, he was free of the pacifism that muddled so many League supporters. He never advocated dismantling Europe's defenses in pursuit of a peace that would only have served the dictators. For Cecil, the League was a pragmatic means to rein in Germany; he made no grandiose claims for its moral imperative.

On this score he was shrewd enough to take Wilson's measure. "I do not quite know what it is that repels me: a certain hardness, coupled with vanity and an eye for effect," he wrote. "He supports idealistic causes without being in the least an idealist himself." When it came to the claims many liberals made on behalf of the League--and still make--Cecil would have agreed with his cousin, the historian Algernon Cecil, who exclaimed: "God help the world .  .  . if the League of Nations is its only hope!"

It has to be said that the thesis of The Lights That Failed is trite. It amounts to this: The Treaty of Versailles did not cause the Second World War. Steiner quotes an article from the Economist claiming that the "harsh terms" of the treaty "would ensure a second war" to suggest that this view is somehow widely accepted. Yet readers will not find it in the pioneering work that Ian Kershaw has done on Hitler and the Nazis, or in Hew Strachan's definitive history of the First World War, where he says explicitly that "there was no inevitable link between [the Treaty of Versailles] and the outbreak of a second world war twenty years later."

The only person who consistently argued that Versailles caused World War II was Hitler. Steiner's thesis is a nonthesis. It is reminiscent of the ignoratio elenchi that propels so much academic debate, or what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as an "Argument that appears to refute opponent while actually disproving something not advanced by him."

This caveat aside, The Lights That Failed is a welcome book at a time when we must decide ourselves whether we shall meet the threats of proven aggressors with happy talk or preemption. For those who find the book a little overwhelming, I would recommend reading it in tandem with Ronald Blythe's The Age of Illusion (1963), which is at once very insightful and very funny. In studying what Steiner calls "the crooked path to Armageddon," we need the odd laugh. And for true gallows humor, there is nothing better than this from the once hugely popular Labour leader George Lansbury, who told the House of Commons on the day that the Second World War began:

The cause that I and a handful of friends represent is this morning going down to ruin. But I think that we ought to take heart and courage from the fact that after two thousand years of war and strife, at least those who enter upon this colossal struggle have to admit that force has not settled and cannot settle anything.

What is not so funny is that the ghost of George Lansbury haunts us still.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.