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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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.