The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919-1933

TitleThe Lights That Failed: European International History 1919-1933
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLojkó, Miklós
Author(s) of reviewed materialSteiner, Zara


PublisherOxford: Oxford University Press
ISSNISBN 0198221142
Review year


Full Text

The reader is faced with a monumental work of history produced by a single author whose lifetime of research and experience has enabled her to distil intricate detail into panoramic synthesis as well as succinct conclusions. This is the first part of a two-volume study of the interwar period in the Oxford History of Modern Europe series. While the author challenges and refutes numerous canonical wisdoms and routines of the traditional understanding of the 1920s and early 30s, the work has every chance to become the standard survey in the field.

One of the core deductions of the book is that, contrary to almost every observer’s all too hasty conclusion, there is an important diplomatic, ideological as well as economic fault line lying between the twenties and thirties which goes beyond the significance of the Great Depression. Ever since the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), it has been the accepted and fashionable view to see the failures of the peacemakers of Paris as the underlying cause, which eventually led to the ruin of democracy in Europe and the lurch towards the dictatorships and war in the 30s. Zara Steiner, treating the period in two distinct parts of the book (I. The Reconstruction of Europe, 1918-1929; II. The Hinge Years, 1929-1933) sees the triumph of nationalism in the 30s over the supranational guarantees of the League of Nations not as a linear consequence either of the mistakes made in Paris or of the economic depression. While the territorial system, the fraught reparations régime and organisation of the League were not without flaws, the decisive problems, the author argues, were not embedded in the system itself, but in the inability of the actors to consistently adjust to, rectify where necessary, or even properly understand, the new order in the 1920s. By adopting this view, the work raises the profile and significance of the 20s which tend to have become neglected by most present-day historians.

One of the striking features of the book is its ability to amalgamate small and often curious details with the projection of general conclusions. On p. 23, for instance, we are told that one of the proposals for internal German autonomies that Georges Clemenceau entertained at Paris in June 1919 was put forward by the then mayor of Cologne, called Konrad Adenauer. On the other end of the spectrum, on pp. 325-32, the reader is given a summation of the character of Benito Mussolini with a degree of elaboration and subtlety that reaches literary heights.

The author unreservedly bases her most important arguments on what she calls “the primacy of economics” which precedes “the primacy of nationalism”. While many historians may take issue with such an uncompromising interpretation of the driving forces behind international relations, the numerous statistical tables and charts that accompany the text add substantial weight to this approach.

And finally, a virtue which separates this work from any other general history of the interwar years is its detailed treatment of the small countries of the Central European region — successor states of the former great empires — almost on a par with the West and the Soviet Union. The inevitable conclusion is that in a trap between their own petty nationalisms and the rivalry of the giants around them, they could not become masters of their fate.