Between the Wars 1919-1939 by Philip Ziegler

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Review by Terence Jagger

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years –
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

T S Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker

Between the wars ziegler

This book covers a period which for me – as for the author himself – is relatively unknown, coming after one war and before the other, about both of which we know so much from general reading, obituaries, commemorations and so on, not to mention the vast outpourings of historical writing on both wars. 

The form of the book is not continuous history of any one period, but a series of 21 linked essays, going through the two decades chronologically but only covering one aspect of each year (tho’ some cover more than one year, and some years have two chapters). The choice is, as Ziegler himself acknowledges, distinctly subjective.  While it would be hard to argue with the Wall Street crash as the right subject for 1929, the publication of Ulysses for 1922 is more contentious – is it the most important writing of the period? Is it the most important thing that happened in 1922?  Probably many of us would say no to both questions, but it is certainly a characteristic and even seminal event, and this approach produces an engaging book.  Any history, of course, is incomplete, but this one has more than most the disadvantages of its particular approach, especially as its range and ambition is impressive – global, and covering political, economic and cultural matters, all in less than 300 pages – including the discovery of penicillin, the first film musical, and the Wall St crash. But that range, the humanism of its approach, and the clarity brought to complex matters makes it very worthwhile reading.

It is beautifully written, in a low key way – broad, unobtrusive sentences, sweeping arguments clearly towards clear exposition of the event and its place in the developing history of the period, and he is not afraid of straightforward judgement.  There are no fireworks, but it is a real pleasure to read.  No one, I suggest, unless they be a professional historian of the 20th century will find all the chapters familiar – of course, we all know about Hitler becoming Chancellor in Germany, but the burning of Smyrna (1922)? Or the Chaco war (1932-5)?  One of the very great virtues of this book is that it reminds the European reader that important things were happening in China, in South America, in India, and in the Middle East, at a time when we can sometimes think that all that counts is the lurch from one world war to another.

With this format, there is a danger that each essay would be very separate, and of course to some extent they are, but different themes emerge and hold the whole together without apparent effort – the dislocation and change prompted by the end of the 1914-18 war, the role of the rise of Fascism in Germany in distracting key international players from other issues, and the futility of the League of Nations.

Chapters I found particularly interesting were the Spanish invasion of Morocco, the Chaco war, and Palestine.  The Spanish invasion of Morocco in 1925 was partly an outcome of the clash of European imperial ambitions – Spain taking the lead at the expense of Germany, rebuffed in 1911, with Britain and France standing aside.  In 1920, the Spanish army suffered a serious and humiliating defeat at Anual, and this paved the way for Primo de Rivera’s coup in 1923, and the passion for revenge.  In 1925, an invasion was launched, spearheaded by a contingent from the Tercio, Spain’s Foreign Legion, led by a newly promoted Colonel Franco.  Franco, ignoring orders to fall back at the moment of landing, became the hero of the hour, and although his path to the Civil War and the dictatorship of Spain was still to be wandering and difficult, it is hard not to see the portents.

The Chaco war, between Bolivia and Paraguay, between 1932-35, has not the same resonance with later events in Europe, but it captures well a strand in American history, and seems born out of an entirely trivial incident – a minor clash of soldiers in a barren and worthless desert – two countries of great poverty and political instability embarking on three years of futile, costly conflict, for no ultimate benefit to either side: “it was inconceivable that anything would be gained by either party which would be remotely commensurate with the expense, loss of life [etc]”.    But for all its local importance, Ziegler points out that the key event of the war, the fall of Boqueron, was given four lines of type, less than the municipal election in Sofia, in The Times of London.

The chapter on Palestine focuses on the Arab-Jewish violence of 1938; it is an intriguing analysis, making the point that the Arabs, at that point, while not in favour of a Jewish homeland, would probably reluctantly have worked with it if the Jews had not done everything in their power to completely dominate society – for example, in not agreeing to joint Arab and Jewish university education, and encouraging immigration, legal and illegal.  The British, Ziegler argues, were seen as part of the problem by both sides, keen to get away from their Mandate responsibilities, and seen as pro-Jewish, but keen not to offend the Arabs with a European war looming (Jewish opposition to Germany being, of course, a given). In only a handful of pages, it is a more persuasive and nuanced account of the issues than I have read before.

So while this is not a comprehensive history of the inter-war period in Europe or the world, it illuminates both, most engagingly, and in his brief epilogue, Ziegler brings a few major themes together.  “The first decade was spent recovering from the First World War; the second preparing for the Second. And yet it did not seem like that at the time….the world as a whole rubbed along quite satisfactorily.” But the world was changing, Europe was ceasing to be the driving force, and a new superpower was rising – although it did not quite realise it itself – in the United States. The period as a whole, therefore, is about “Europe’s recession from power”, the consequences of which we are still living with, and will no doubt live with for many decades to come.

Back to Eliot. The most important writing of 1922 might have been The Waste Land, not Ulysses – but this is Four Quartets again:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

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Philip Ziegler  Between the Wars 1919-1939  Maclehose Press (7 September 2017) ISBN 978-0-85705-523-1  289pp, paperback.

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