Casino Politics

David Stevenson

  • The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-33 by Zara Steiner
    Oxford, 938 pp, £35.00, April 2005, ISBN 0 19 822114 2

The Oxford History of Modern Europe belongs to a more leisured era. Its first volume, A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, appeared in 1954. Half a century later its two founding fathers, William Deakin and Alan Bullock, are dead, and their project remains incomplete. Individual volumes cover Germany, France from 1848 to 1945, Spain, the Low Countries, Romania and the European Jews. As yet they include only tsarist (not Soviet) Russia, and there is nothing on Austria or Italy. Even so, the formula has generated a number of classics, which have remained in print for decades.

The series is now fullest in its coverage of international relations, Taylor’s volume having been complemented by Paul Schroeder’s Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848. Zara Steiner’s new history will inevitably be measured against these distinguished predecessors, and it stands up to the comparison: considered as a monument to scholarly stamina, it is even more impressive. Although The Lights that Failed has been some twenty years in the making, it is only the first of two volumes (the second, The Triumph of the Night, will continue from 1933 to 1941). This initial instalment alone devotes eight hundred pages of text to a span of 14 years, whereas Taylor and Schroeder dealt with seventy or more. This is not said as a criticism – The Lights that Failed is undeniably a very long book, but its author does not waste words – rather it is a comment on the outpouring of specialist literature since the opening of the relevant European archives (few of the secondary texts cited predate the 1970s). Steiner has done her share of archival digging, in Britain, France, Germany and in the League of Nations files at Geneva, but essentially her book distils the fruits of a generation of academic inquiry. The focus of research on international history has now shifted towards the Cold War, and investigation into the interwar decades has slackened, which is another reason this synthesis is likely to last.

Steiner stresses the novelty of the 1920s. International relations by this period can no longer be analysed as a chess game played by aristocratic and bureaucratic elites in isolation from domestic politics. Recalcitrant parliaments and freshly expanded electorates exerted pressure on Western leaders as never before. Economic questions were newly prominent, too, ranging from German reparations in the early 1920s to currency stabilisation later in the decade and the onset of the Great Depression. An intimidating technical literature has accumulated on these topics, whose findings Steiner accessibly communicates. Secret intelligence, which was gathered more systematically than it had been before the First World War, even between the democracies, was also of enhanced importance. Thus the British regularly intercepted French diplomatic traffic, with findings that intensified the distrust between the two governments. Diplomacy was now conducted not only between states but by means of innumerable conferences in Europe’s resorts and spas – ‘casino politics’, as Raymond Poincaré disparagingly called them – as well as the League of Nations. Finally, there was a larger cast of actors. During the 1920s new states in Eastern Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia – enjoyed real independence. Nor can European politics be understood without reference to the United States (which was less isolationist than it would be in the 1930s), and to the Soviet Union, which oscillated between playing by the traditional power political rules and seeking to overturn them by exporting revolution.

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