THE TRIUMPH OF THE DARK European International History 1933-1939 Zara S. Steiner Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 1248 pp, US$65.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0199212002
With the second and final volume of her study of European international politics between 1919 and 1939, Zara Steiner has completed what is now the touchstone for several generations and beyond of international historians, international relations specialists, and the wider reading public interested in the period between the two world wars of the 20th century. Together with the first volume, this study is an immediate classic - one based on 20 years of research and, before that, a distinguished scholarly record and accumulation of knowledge stretching back to the late 1950s. Demonstrating the same deft analytical hand that dissected the vagaries of European international history from the Paris peace conference to the collapse of the Weimar republic, a command of English and foreign language sources, and lucid prose, Steiner provides an exegesis that neither preaches about nor excuses the generation of statesmen, politicians, military leaders, diplomats, and journalists who dominated Europe and hold responsibility for the outbreak of a second world war in 1939. In the first volume of her study, she argued that by the end of the 1920s, the problems spawned by the First World War were resolved and continental stability had emerged from the chaos of war and revolution. This process was then undermined by the "hinge years" of the Great Depression, beginning in late 1929 when the disruption of the international economy, the concomitant undermining of democratic government, and the rise of radical prescriptions to meet the apparent failure of capitalism and democratic governance emerged.
In this context, the central figure of this book is Adolf Hitler, the German chancellor after January 1933, supreme German leader after August 1934, and fountainhead of National Socialist ideology. Steiner's initial chapter, "Brown dawn," looks closely at the Nazi revolution and the end of the quest for disarmament. She sees Hitler's ideology as nourishing the roots of a foreign policy designed to make Germany supreme in Europe and laying the basis for an eventual struggle with the United States to make Germany the sole world power: territorial expansion to the east, whereby the newly created "successor states," including German- speaking Austria, would have to be brought within the Reich; the complete destruction of Nazidom's ideological enemy, Bolshevik Russia; and cleansing Europe of its subhuman races, especially the Jews. Through his dark social Darwinian lens, Hitler looked for the means and opportunity to achieve his foreign policy goals.
Opportunism is central here. In his influential 1961 book, The Origins of the Second World War, the revisionist A.J. P. Taylor argued that Hitler did not follow a diplomatic blueprint but was pragmatic in foreign policy: announcing German rearmament in 1935, remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936, forcing the annexation of Austria in March 1938, detaching the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia six months later, occupying the Czechoslovak rump in March 1939, and initiating the Polish crisis in September 1939. In contrast, Steiner shows clearly that while Hitler was opportunistic, he was an opportunist who knew where he was going. He gambled on inaction by the other great powers, took risks, and proved daring in exploiting the openings given to him. He took the initiative and the other powers' leaders reacted.
In Steiner's estimation, these responses were crucial to the origins of the Second World War. Engaged in a pyrrhic competition among themselves, all the successor states except Czechoslovakia gradually moved into the German orbit because the new Bolshevik Russian threat differed little from the old tsarist one. In Italy, Benito Mussolini found common ground with Hitler after the Italian conquest of Abyssinia in May 1936 and led his country away from London and Paris, which had temporarily united with Rome in a vain effort to contain Germany. …