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March 16, 2006

After Versailles: The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919-1933 - Zara Steiner

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919-1933
by Zara Steiner
Pp. xv+938. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
Hardback, 35

The Lights That Failed is the latest volume in the Oxford History of Modern Europe, and is intended as a prelude to Steiner's The Triumph of the Dark, which will take the story to the outbreak of World War Two in Europe, this is a major work, at once scholarly and meditative, and one that offers much to those considering contemporary international relations. Steiner has taken advantage of and responded to, major shifts in the subject, not least the opening up of intelligence archives (a source understandably closed to those working on the contemporary situation), the greater availability of Eastern European and, to a certain extent, Russian material, and the expansion of the subject so that it centres less than hitherto on diplomatic collections.
Indeed Steiner makes very good use of material on the fiscal dimension, seeing it as key to postwar reconstruction.

Arguing that the 1920s should not simply be seen as a prologue to the Hitler era, Steiner is at pains to emphasise the distinctive character of the management of the European state system in this period. Although she does not dwell on the connection, there are interesting parallels with a previous volume in the series Paul Schroeder's The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (1994), his treatment of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars prefiguring hers.

The geographical range of the work is good, and there is due attention to the Mediterranean dimension and to the problem posed to other states by the Soviet Union. Its admission to the comity of nations was a grudging one, and the Soviet Union continued to be treated as a nation of the second rank, but still dangerous in a way that most such states were not. The Soviet government itself was not strong enough to force its way into the concert of powers, but neither was it so weak as to pay the price demanded for full admissions. Although its revolutionary aspirations were subordinated to the more pragmatic interests of the Soviet state, Soviet propaganda, and the activities of the Comintern, and of Communist parties, known and suspected, went beyond the confines of acceptable diplomacy. It is instructive to consider the European response to Putin's Russia in this light.

More generally, Steiner argues that the international order was affected by the contrary pressures of nationalism and internationalism, again a situation that prefigures the modern age. The peace treaties led to an assertion of nationalism and to its greater role in international and domestic politics. At the same time the failure of Wilsonian idealism did not lead to the end of internationalism. Instead, there was a strong interest in international co-operation and peace, with new international institutions acting as the foci for multilateral diplomacy. This was seen in finance as well as diplomacy.

Some problems are attributed to Versailles, but Steiner is careful not to overload the charge. For example, she argues that, although the security predicament of the Eastern European states resided partly in the structural problems created by the peace treaties, it rested even more on the failure of policy-makers to take advantage of the respite of peace during the late 1920s in order to devise ways to work together.

1925 is seen as creating a window of opportunity; one, however, that closed. In part, this was a failure of the League of Nations and of its role in injecting a new multinational dimension to the practice of traditional negotiation. As Steiner notes, attendance at League meetings became almost mandatory after 1925, when the foreign secretaries of the Locarno powers were almost always present. Furthermore, the middle-sized and small states found a public platform for their grievances and demands, and their representatives played important parts in the proceeding of the Assembly and the League's committees.

Steiner is skilful in the way she brings together her different subjects. She argues that governments used the old concert and balance of power mechanisms to survive in an anarchical international society, but that they also contributed to the creation of a more diversified international regime, the latter both cause and product of hope. As such, these years anticipated the situation within Western Europe after World War Two.

The situation deteriorated from 1929 because of the spreading global depression, and this is skilfully probed in the second half of the book although without any teleological or reductionist methodology. Japan and the USA both play an appropriate role. Steiner argues that American interventions in European affairs were sporadic and ambiguous in their consequences (p. 620):

Given its potentially hegemonic position and its unrivalled financial and economic power, after its successful intervention in co-operation with Britain in 1923-4, America did surprisingly little to advance the process of stabilization during the next five years, and some of its actions proved counter-productive.
Steiner closes by arguing that, unlike the 1920s, when there were numerous threads preventing the imposition of a narrative pattern, the post-1933 period had one due to the challenge from Hitler. This takes precedence for her over lines of continuity. Possibly this is clearer in some spheres than others, and important lines of continuity can certainly be seen in Eastern Europe; but projects do need divisions. 1933 is an understandable one, but, hopefully it will not prevent scholars from probing continuities.

One interesting continuity that receives insufficient attention is the attempt of military planners to respond to the lessons drawn from World War One as they planned for future conflict. Understandably, Steiner's focus is primarily diplomatic, but there could have been more on the military context. In particular, military planning throws much light on strategic cultures and risk assessments, and diplomacy was not separate from these pressures.

The book closes with statistical tables, lists of officeholders, a valuable chronology and useful bibliography. The book also includes maps. There was a tendentious quality to Schroeder's work a preference for systemic theory over the policies of individual states that gravely weakened it. Steiner's book is much more grounded in the understanding of individual governments, ministers, and contingencies. It is a major achievement and she richly deserves congratulation.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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