judicious blend of compassion and dispassion. She has the grace to feel sympathy for her protagonists’ predicament. In The Lights that Failed, she presented a notably sympathetic account of the principals. In The Triumph of the Dark, she is at pains to understand (but not excuse) the appeasers, Chamberlain and Halifax; and as for the hapless ambassador to Berlin, Neville Henderson, she remarks characteristically, ‘one cannot help but have some sympathy for this terminally ill, deeply fatigued, and much-tried man, who could hardly believe that he was being treated by Hitler and the despised Ribbentrop in such a brutal manner’. The sympathy does not preclude an uncompromising assessment of his failings as ambassador.
Even after seventy years, one cannot be sure how Hitler (or Mussolini) would have reacted if Britain and France had stood together earlier, if Britain had raised a continental army before 1939 (Dunkirk was an Allied failure), or if they had paid Stalin’s high price for an alliance. Given Hitler’s unpreparedness for a European war, the British underused their power. Even given what was known, Chamberlain could have taken a stronger line. If war had come in 1938, it is highly doubtful whether Germany would have achieved the kind of victories won in 1940. There are no short cuts in Zara Steiner’s argumentation. ‘Hitler was a gambler,’ she concludes pithily, ‘Chamberlain was not.’ It was Hitler’s war – ‘war by premeditation and not by accident’ (in another restatement, ‘war by calculation and not by miscalculation’). On this she is clear: ‘In the end, the one leader who had actually wanted war was the one that got his wish, though it was not the war he wanted nor the one for which Germany was prepared’ – echoing Donald Cameron Watt’s conclusion. Steeped in the sources, following the mad designs of Adolf Hitler, and driven remorselessly towards the denouement, Steiner may have found it harder to chart her own course in the dark of the 1930s than in the light of the less familiar 1920s. The shade of A J P Taylor is everywhere. ‘The invasions were only the beginning of the Polish agony,’ observes Steiner: ‘Poland was to pay heavily and long for its resistance to Hitler, far more than the Czechs who had surrendered without fighting.’ Which was better, asked Taylor impishly – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole? ‘Hitler was an opportunist who knew where he was going,’ offers Steiner, in a Taylorian paradox. ‘It is the underlying thesis of this book that Hitler’s ultimate purposes had a concrete meaning,’ she writes in her own voice, ‘and that they found their fruition in an unimaginable war and the destruction of European Jewry.’ She is equally clear that ‘Hitler’s Jew-hatred and quest for racial purity was at the heart of his imperial ambitions’. In this sense, it was a race war from the beginning.
Along with the historical sympathy goes a certain histor ical modesty. ‘No histor ian yet has adequately explained why Hitler triumphed so easily and so completely in this well-educated, culturally advanced, and highly industrialized society’; ‘Whether the AngloFrench actions [of 1938–39] came too late, and whether more could have been done to prevent this “unnecessary war” (Churchill’s famous description), is still the subject of active debate.’ Steiner’s own argument is carefully developed and crisply recapitulated:
For both the British and the French, it would have taken an enormous psychological leap to have moved earlier from peace to war. Without a clear and immediate danger to their existence, both governments looked for – and found – reasons for alternative courses of action. Chamberlain, in particular, felt that if war could be postponed, it might be avoided. Yet only a serious threat of war would have deterred Hitler in the Rhineland, from Anschluss, or in the Sudetenland. The Godesberg and Prague crises may have been the necessary precursors for the stand over Poland. It was only by this late date that both countries had become convinced that Hitler was determined on European domination. For the British, and consequently the French, the engagement with Eastern Europe that followed from the repudiation of the Munich agreement by Hitler was the shift that produced war in September 1939. Even in the final crisis, however, it may well be that the British public was more resolute and the French more resigned to war than their leaders. As one reviews the many arguments for British appeasement, and the debate has lost none of its potency, it is hard to excuse the blindness of British policymakers towards France and their long-term indifference towards Eastern Europe.
The Triumph of the Dark is in the first instance a gigantic work of synthesis. Given its purview, this is already a stagger-
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by research or as a taught MA. Start October or January. For more information visit our site www.buckingham.ac.uk/london/biography or email email@example.com ing achievement. If there are occasional signs of war weariness, a measure of Steinerian sympathy seems appropriate. In the final analysis, however, the two volumes together insist on an originality of their own. In Steiner’s words, ‘Hitler neither came to power in 1933 nor did he wage war in 1939 because of the peace of 1919.’ There were many connections but no straight road between the two world wars. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010