The Mistakes

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BOOKS SEPTEMBER 1, 2011

The Mistakes

The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939
by Zara Steiner
Oxford University Press, 1,222 pp., $76.25

IT IS WITH Hitler and Hitler’s intentions,” remarks Zara Steiner at the beginning of this magisterial account that opens with the Nazi seizure of power and ends with the outbreak of World War II, “that any student of European international history must start.” From the moment he became German Chancellor, Hitler acted and other statesmen reacted.

His intentions were fixed long before he came to power. They were breathtaking in their ambition. Hitler was not a conventional European statesman. Governed by a Social Darwinist belief in international affairs as a perpetual struggle between races for survival and supremacy, Hitler repeatedly told his leading military and naval officers that Germany would conquer Eastern Europe, aggrandizing its vast agricultural resources for itself and pushing aside those who lived there to make way for the expansion of the German race’s “living space.” France, Germany’s traditional enemy in the west, would be subjugated to allow Germany to become Europe’s dominant nation. This was not conventional German foreign policy in any sense; nor was it determined by the structural factors inherent in the international system of Europe since the nineteenth century, as some have argued.

Of course, Steiner concedes, Nazi Germany was not controlled by a monolithic policy-making structure, and different groups and individuals in the higher echelons of the regime often pursued their own agendas. This was particularly the case with Joachim von Ribbentrop, who graduated from being head of the Nazi Party’s foreign affairs bureau to being the ambassador in England and then Foreign Minister. “Vain, aggressive, and self-important,” in Steiner’s words, Ribbentrop developed a rabid Anglophobia and did his best to dissuade Hitler from pursuing the idea of an Anglo-German alliance. Britain, he said, was “our most dangerous enemy.” Fuelled by perceived slights during his time in London, where his tactlessness earned him the sobriquet of “von Brickendrop,” the Foreign Minister eventually succeeded in weaning Hitler away from the idea. (The Nazi leader continued to hope for British neutrality in the coming conflict, however).

Others, such as Hermann Göring, also on occasion ploughed their own furrow, or influenced Hitler in one direction or another. Yet in the end, it was Hitler—rather than an ill-defined “polycracy”—who determined Germany’s foreign policy. “Whether Germany was led by Bismarck, Wilhelm II, or Hitler made a vital difference to its policies,” Steiner observes.

Germany, Hitler declared in Mein Kampf, his autobiographical tract written in the mid-1920s, would “either be a world power, or cease to be.” Once hegemony had been achieved in Europe, so Hitler adumbrated in his unpublished Second Book, Germany would enter into a power struggle with America for world domination. In order to achieve this, Germans, equated by Hitler with the “Aryan” race, would have to deal with their arch-enemies the Jews, whom Hitler’s paranoid political fantasies portrayed as engaged in a global conspiracy to subvert German civilization.

Increasingly, Hitler came to identify the United States as the epicenter of this supposed conspiracy, with Jewish capital working through Franklin D. Roosevelt. All of this would involve war—not a limited war for limited and arguably rational objectives, but war on an unimaginable scale, waged at least in part for its own sake. “We can be saved only by fighting,” Hitler told leaders of the armed forces in February of 1933. Normal rules of diplomacy saw as their ultimate aim the avoidance of conflict and the settlement of international disputes by negotiation. Hitler did not play by these rules, though he repeatedly tried to publicly reassure people that he intended to do so. It took other European statesmen a very long time to realize this. Their misjudgments form the heart of this important book.

Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, has had several defenders, but Steiner is not one of them. Her thorough command of the German and French literature and source-material enables her to reach a properly contextualized judgment of his policy of appeasement, of giving Hitler what he demanded in the hope that it would satisfy him. Chamberlain, she argues persuasively, was a man of limited insight and imagination, repeatedly prone to wishful thinking. During the Munich crisis he mistakenly thought that all Hitler wanted was to absorb the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, when what he really wanted was the total destruction of the country, which he achieved in violation of the Munich settlement a mere six months later.

Chamberlain also put too great a burden on his own abilities. As Steiner writes, his “hubristic ambitions and self-confidence were extraordinary.” He stubbornly refused to recognize reality. Right to the end he viewed Mussolini as a calming and restraining influence on Hitler—“a judgment,” Steiner comments, “which was entirely wrong.” He had no idea of Mussolini’s ambitions in the Mediterranean. It is true that Chamberlain pursued a policy of rapid rearmament from 1936, but he did so in order to deter Hitler, not in order to prepare for a war. As late as July 23, 1939, he told his sister that “Hitler has concluded that we mean business and that the time is not ripe for the major war. Therein,” he concluded with ineffable smugness, “he is fulfilling my expectations. ... the longer the war is put off the less likely it is to come at all.” Just over two months later Britain was at war.

Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary who later portrayed himself as a resolute opponent of the Nazis and of the policy of appeasement, does not fare much better in Steiner’s account. In developing policy towards the Germans, Eden was “wobbly and unclear in his own mind,” and “gave no consistent lead,” so that it was scarcely surprising that Chamberlain “was thoroughly annoyed by his Foreign Secretary, who needed constant prodding to take any positive action.” Vacillating and indecisive, he did not join the anti-appeasers around Winston Churchill even after he (Eden) had left office in 1938. Lord Halifax, Eden’s successor, was easier for Chamberlain to manage, especially once the Prime Minister had restructured the policy-making machinery to give himself control. Halifax dutifully pursued Chamberlain’s chimerical vision of a general European settlement involving non-aggression pacts, collective security, and disarmament (in 1938!), a policy that led Hitler to remark to Halifax’s face that the British government was living in “a make-believe land of strange, if respectable, illusions.” Steiner notes that Halifax, “though patronizing about Hitler and his advisers, was clearly out of his depth in dealing with them.”

Chamberlain’s and Halifax’s defenders have sometimes argued that the peace they achieved by sacrificing the integrity of Czechoslovakia bought Britain and France time to re-arm. It is one of the many strengths of this book that it includes detailed assessments of the state of military readiness and arms production of the major European powers at various stages in the run-up to the war. The figures show that it was in fact Germany that benefited from the year’s peace that followed the Munich agreement. The Wehrmacht was so poorly prepared for a general war in September 1938 that leading generals were even considering arresting Hitler and staging a climb-down if a general European war became a serious prospect. It is often forgotten how close Europe came to slaughter at that time. British children were evacuated to the country and Londoners were issued gas-masks for the eventuality of German bombing raids.

Steiner speculates that if Chamberlain had joined forces with the French and threatened war instead of opening negotiations, Hitler might have been forced to back down. Popular opinion, strongly opposed to war, might have swung round behind the British and French governments. A military conflict would most likely have brought a stalemate, especially if the modern and efficient Czech army had held its well-prepared defensive positions against a German attack. But “like so many counterfactual scenarios,” Steiner concedes, “the arguments for war in 1938 seem much stronger in retrospect than they did at the time.” The British and the French had not held the staff talks needed to coordinate military action, and both seriously overestimated the strength of the German military machine. Ultimately Chamberlain still believed in the possibility of a general European peace settlement. And he was committed to avoiding war at almost any cost.

The leading French statesman of the day, Édouard Daladier, did not share such illusions. He was clear in his mind that Hitler intended to destroy Czechoslovakia, and that his word could not be relied on. “Within six months,” he predicted correctly after the Munich agreement, “France and England would be face to face with new German demands.” Throughout the crisis he tried to persuade Chamberlain to stand firm. A senior official in the British Foreign Office called his argument “awful rubbish.” By failing to build a viable system of alliances with the smaller East European states, the French had made themselves reliant on the British. After the agreement, Daladier told his colleagues: “I am not proud.” He knew it was an abject capitulation, and he was right.

Daladier’s relative clear-sightedness was not shared by the leadership of the other major European powers confronted by Hitler’s relentless expansionism in the second half of the 1930s, the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin sought as far as possible to keep his country out of any coming war. He had been building up arms at breakneck speed since the mid-1930s but still he felt unprepared, in part because of the damage he himself had inflicted on the higher levels of the military leadership in the purges and terror of 1937-1938. He regarded the capitalist powers in Central and Western Europe as bound by common interests and was persuaded by Chamberlain’s weakness in the face of Hitler’s demands that Britain and Germany would eventually make a deal with each other. The British government’s attempt to bring the Soviet Union into an anti-Hitler coalition foundered not least on the anti-Communist prejudices of Chamberlain and Halifax, but the understandable nervousness of the smaller Eastern European states also played a part.

“Common sense suggests that it would have been an act of desperation [for Hitler] to have attacked Poland in the face of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance,” Steiner concludes. But common sense was not one of Hitler’s characteristics. He described himself as a gambler who always went for broke. The alliance in any case did not come to pass. Stalin concluded that time was best bought by concluding a deal with Hitler and letting the capitalist powers fight it out amongst themselves. Pragmatic, defensive interests predominated in Stalin’s mind. This was not a prelude to world revolution. It was important, he told the head of the Communist International, not to fall into the over-optimistic frame of mind shown by the Bolsheviks in the ‘First Imperialist War’: “We all rushed ahead and made mistakes! ... Today we must not repeat the position held by the Bolsheviks.” If he did not provoke Hitler, Stalin thought, the pact would hold. These were all illusions that, as Steiner notes, “would cost his country dear in 1941,” when the Germans invaded without any warning, and proceeded to conquer vast swathes of territory, inflicting huge losses on the Soviet people, military and civilian, before they were eventually stopped.

By the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the system of international relations had changed beyond all recognition from two decades before. After World War I, the victors had hoped to create a new way of doing business, with the end of secret negotiations and bilateral pacts and the creation of the League of Nations to monitor international disputes and settle diplomatic crises. Disarmament talks would make the world a safer place and contribute to the avoidance of another destructive general war. Hitler’s accession to power put paid to disarmament talks: after he walked out of them in 1933, there was no point in carrying on, and the World Disarmament Conference was indefinitely adjourned in June 1934. Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 “irreparably damaged the League of Nations,” notes Steiner. Before 1914 the invasion would have been written off as a minor colonial adventure, but the new rules of international behavior ensured that it took on a far greater significance. While statesmen issued ritual expressions of moral outrage, the British and the French, on whose cooperation the League ultimately depended, approved the imposition of only the mildest of sanctions against the Italians, while behind the scenes they agreed to propose the partition of Ethiopia, with a large chunk of the country going to Italy.

When that agreement—the Hoare-Laval Pact—was leaked to the French press, the international storm of protest almost brought down the British government. Had they been serious about stopping Italy, the British and the French could have cut off Italian supplies by closing the Suez Canal. The fiasco of the Hoare-Laval Pact made it clear that the League was no longer an effective international forum for resolving disputes or enforcing peace. Recognizing the realities of the situation, it voted for the end of sanctions. Italy, after using poison gas bombs to destroy the Ethiopian army from the air, occupied the whole country with impunity. This convinced Hitler that he need fear nothing from the British and the French at this stage, and he brought forward his plans for the unilateral remilitarization of the Rhineland, another nail in the coffin of the Peace Settlement of 1919. For his part, Mussolini became convinced that his ambition to create a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean was now feasible. This, too, was an illusion: Italy’s resources simply did not allow it, as was to become clear later on when Italian troops failed ignominiously to conquer Greece, Yugoslavia, and North Africa.

From then on, international relations were conducted through old-style secret bilateral negotiations of the kind the Peace Settlement had sought to abolish in 1919. The scale of the virtually unchecked intervention by Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War served to underline the impotence of the League. It still continued its human rights, health, and welfare programs. But even here it met with failure when confronted with the greatest challenge of the late 1930s: the rapidly swelling flood of refugees. It is important, Steiner notes, not to be anachronistic in our judgment of this issue: “Few statesmen believed that the abuse of human rights was the concern of the international community.” The urgent issues of war and peace relegated the question of refugees to the bottom of the international agenda.

Yet something had to be done. The prospect of large numbers of Jewish refugees coming not only from Germany and particularly Austria following the Anschluss of March 1938, but also from Hungary and Romania, prompted the calling of an international conference at Évian in July 1938. It was called not on the initiative of the League but at the invitation of Roosevelt. The results were meager. One country after another declared itself saturated with immigrants and unable to do anything. “Openly anti-Semitic speeches provided the Nazi press with a field day,” Steiner writes. The League centralized its policy under a high commissioner for refugees towards the end of 1938, but his office was underfunded and lacked the means to negotiate with the Germans. Other institutions with a potential role in humanitarian aid, such as the Papacy, did not think that Jews were their concern.

Attitudes only began to change with the nationwide pogroms carried out by the Nazis on the night of November 9-10, 1938, when synagogues across Germany were razed to the ground, thousands of Jewish-owned shops trashed, and thirty thousand Jewish men seized and carried off to concentration camps, where they were brutally maltreated and released only after promising to emigrate. These events shocked international opinion. Chamberlain described them as “barbarities,” but no concerted action followed, least of all any action undertaken by the League of Nations. Britain eased visa restrictions and over the following months individuals and non-governmental organizations in the United Kingdom and other European countries launched a variety of schemes to bring German Jews to safety, particularly children. Many were saved. But this was still on an extremely modest scale. For Hitler, the war, from the very beginning, was, as Steiner rightly says, a “racially motivated war” against what Nazi propaganda already in September 1939 was calling “international and plutocratic Jewry” across the world. International opinion never really recognized this fact.

If World War I arguably began in August 1914 as a result of misunderstandings and errors of communication, the same was not true of World War II. Yet although Hitler wanted a war, Steiner writes, the war that ensued “was not the war he had wanted nor the one for which Germany was prepared.” Hitler was determined that there should be no repeat of the Munich agreement; nothing would stop him from invading and conquering Poland, as he had been stopped, for a while at least, from invading Czechoslovakia. Already jolted into a less sanguine view of Nazi Germany and its intentions by the savagery of the 1938 pogrom, the British and the French had come to the realization when the German armies stormed into the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, for the first time conquering territory where the majority of the inhabitants were not German, that Hitler really did intend to do more than simply revise the provisions of the 1919 Peace Settlement in Germany’s favor. Daladier was proved right.

Anglo-French guarantees to Poland and other East European countries in the event of a German invasion now followed. Both governments realized Munich had been in vain. Serious military plans were laid. The British arrived at a more realistic, and therefore less exaggerated estimation of German military strength. Yet the British and the French decided not to launch an independent attack on Germany if Poland was invaded, though they left the Poles under the impression that they would. The French promised to send over some obsolete aircraft as military aid. Polish officials unwittingly encouraged this relaxed approach by boasting to the British of their own military strength, a policy Steiner describes as foolhardy. In reality, once the Hitler-Stalin pact was sealed, Poland’s fate was sealed along with it.

In the final weeks before the outbreak of war, public opinion in Britain and France, though apprehensive, recognized that Hitler had to be stopped. Yet Chamberlain and Daladier still hesitated. Mussolini was clearly reluctant to come in on Hitler’s side—the Italians in fact waited several months until they did so—so perhaps he could be used as honest broker in bringing about a settlement that would avert war? Once again, Steiner comments acidly, both Chamberlain and Halifax misunderstood the nature of Hitler’s intentions. Surely the differences between Germany and Poland could be resolved without bloodshed? They simply did not see that Hitler actually wanted bloodshed. As Steiner notes, “rational to a fault, Chamberlain could not imagine that anyone in his right mind … would actually want war. To the very end, this stiff, controlled, and stubborn man sought to convince himself that some way existed to avoid the looming catastrophe.”

Chamberlain seriously misread the changing mood of the British House of Commons in 1939. When he appeared there immediately following the German invasion of Poland, it was to announce in vague terms that he was seeking mediation through the good offices of Mussolini. He was virtually shouted down. The cabinet met hurriedly without him and forced him to issue an ultimatum to the Germans to withdraw. The appointed hour passed without any withdrawal; consequently, Chamberlain told the British people in a radio broadcast whose sepulchral tones betrayed his deep disappointment that mediation this time had not been possible, that Britain was now at war with Germany. “Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life,” he told the House of Commons, “has crashed into ruins.”

Hitler did not want this particular war either. Right to the end, he hoped for Anglo-French neutrality, or at least inaction. Chamberlain’s and Daladier’s actions had only strengthened him in this view. As the situation neared the brink, he became apprehensive and postponed the invasion at the last minute. But in the end, he took the risk. Britain and the British Empire, together with France and the French Empire, and with the tacit support of the United States, just beginning to come out of isolation in the realization that Hitler’s long-term ambitions would seriously affect its own long-term interests, would, Hitler’s advisers warned, be the inevitable winners in a war of attrition. Germany’s resources simply could not match up to theirs in the long run. The best chance of success was now, before Germany’s enemies were fully prepared. And so began the greatest war in history, a war that was to last until 1945, a war in which more than 50 million people would lose their lives, a war that would end in the destruction of Germany and the collapse of the European overseas empires, including the British and the French. Few could have seen these outcomes at the time; but few thought in the end that war could be avoided.

Zara Steiner has written a masterly sequel to The Lights that Failed, her equally masterful study of international relations from the end of World War I up to the Nazi seizure of power. Her two-volume account will stand the test of time. It is as impressive in its breadth as it is in its depth, covering economic developments and relations, arms production, diplomatic negotiations, politics, and war with equal authority. Steiner’s command of the scholarly literature and documentation in several languages is little short of awe-inspiring. Her book is brilliantly written, full of pungent judgments, arresting phrases and sarcastic asides, and conveys often complicated sequences of events with limpid clarity.

Yet there are nonetheless too many misplaced or missing commas, grammatical confusions of singular and plural, and solecisms such as ‘disinterest’ for ‘lack of interest’ which could easily have been picked up had the publishers done their job properly. The more obvious mistakes include the misdating of the publication of Hitler’s Second Book to 1942 (it was in fact not published until 1961); the false claim that poison gas was used by the British in colonial wars (only the French, Italians, and Spanish did this); and the use of a purported set of interviews with a Leipzig newspaper editor that is widely thought to be a forgery. Hitler’s second arms program was certainly not adopted in 1932, which was a year before he came to power, and the German Foreign Office official’s name was not von Schulenburg but von der Schulenburg. Neville Chamberlain claimed to have brought back from Germany ‘peace for our time’, not ‘peace in our time’ (an astonishing slip). The indefatigable Martin Gilbert has published many useful historical atlases, but the Recent Identical Atlas is surely not among them.Given the fact that this book will be used as a work of reference for many decades to come, it is worth going through carefully with a keen editorial eye one more time before it appears in paperback, to expunge these and other, similar errors from the text. What will remain is a magnificent work of scholarship, narrative, and authoritative historical judgment.

Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War.

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