Oxford, £35, 1,222pp. £31.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939, By Zara Steiner

This book may not be the last word about international relations during the 1930s but it is perhaps the last half-million words. Debates over specific developments leading up to the Second World War will continue, but it is unlikely that such a vast and authoritative synthesis will ever again be produced. The second volume of Zara Steiner's study of European diplomacy between the wars is substantially longer than its predecessor, The Lights that Failed, and even specialists will be awed by its erudition. They will, especially, look on her bibliographies and despair. Furthermore, the book is important for cutting through thickets of revisionism and setting the record straight about the folly of appeasement and the guilt of Hitler – AJP Taylor's day-dreaming Führer, who accidentally stumbled into war, is consigned to the dustbin of history.

The dictators are the clear villains of the story. Hitler was pragmatic as far as tactics went, exploiting situations with diabolical skill. But he never lost sight of his strategic goals: the struggle to win Lebensraum in the east, the eradication of the Jews, the establishment of an Aryan world order. As Steiner says, "Hitler was an opportunist who knew where he was going."

Mussolini was a Fascist who did not know where he was going. Steiner exposes the hollowness of his pretensions, rightly reacting against recent attempts (notably by Renzo de Felice) to rehabilitate the Duce. Far from recreating the Roman empire by invading Ethiopia and supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, he weakened the least of the great powers. Italy's impotence was exposed in 1939 when, despite the Pact of Steel with Hitler, Mussolini was forced to declare "non-belligerence" – his bombastic euphemism for neutrality.

Stalin created a new form of tyranny. He probably killed more than a million of his own people during the Great Terror of 1937-8 and, as Steiner writes, "the purges were rooted in Stalin's fierce determination to establish his control over all men and institutions that might threaten his monopoly of power". His conduct of foreign affairs was equally malign. The Red Tsar was so suspicious of the imperialist powers that he finally put his trust in the Führer, signing their infamous compact in August 1939 and participating in the dismemberment of Poland. Impervious to evidence that the Teutonic crocodile was proposing to eat him last, Stalin promised to help Hitler in the European war: "The USSR is interested in a strong Germany and will not let it be beaten."

However, Steiner is also justifiably critical of the democratic leaders. She pays tribute to Roosevelt's political adroitness but shows how slippery he was as an ally. French politicians, fearful about of their country's vulnerability, were much worse. A British ambassador remarked that "the only white thing about Laval was his tie" – and that was seldom sent to the laundry. Foreign Minister Bonnet was hopelessly defeatist and congenitally dishonest – it was said that he lied like a tooth-puller. And Daladier, the prime-ministerial "Bull of the Vaucluse", notoriously had the horns of a snail; when he banged the table it was a sign that he was about to capitulate.

At home, Anthony Eden was wobbly and disingenuous, earning his reputation as an anti-appeaser only by resigning in a fit of pique. Lord Halifax was aloof and his celebrated moral sense was largely in abeyance – he regarded the Führer as outlandish rather than evil. Neville Chamberlain's failures were legion and Steiner is scathing about his overweening vanity and misplaced self-confidence. Of course, his anxiety to avoid war was admirable. But he completely failed to understand Hitler, assuming that he was amenable to personal persuasion and judicious concession. About the only joke in the book is the Foreign Office's animadversion on the PM's achievement at Munich: "If at first you can't concede, fly, fly, fly again."

The Triumph of the Dark is austerely academic. It concentrates on documentary minutiae at the expense of the human dimension. There are few telling anecdotes, colourful vignettes or vivid character sketches. Steiner explicates the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but does not mention Ribbentrop's inventive eulogy to German-Russian friendship which Stalin deleted as unbelievable, since for years "we have been pouring buckets of shit over each other's heads."

At times her writing is uneven and the narrative is lost in the detail. Indeed, there are occasional repetitions and some overlaps with the previous volume, and the whole would have benefited from pruning. Yet despite the quibbles and against the odds, the book is a terrifically good read.

It is, after all, a definitive account, the distillation of a lifetime's dedicated scholarship. Steiner has marvellously lucid chapters on events such as the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini's Abyssinian adventure and Japan's developing aggression in the Far East. She shines new light on Poland, the Balkans and the Soviet Union. She is particularly illuminating about economic conditions and their impact in the wake of the Depression. And she musters an impressive array of facts and figures about rearmament. Thus she maintains convincingly that Britain did not divert resources from home defence in order to protect the Empire, that the Royal Navy could and should have bottled Mussolini up in the Mediterranean to stop his rape of Ethiopia, and that the democracies were in a relatively stronger position to fight Germany in 1938 than in 1939. No short review can do justice to the book's riches.

Surprisingly, though, much about the devil's decade remains obscure. As Steiner acknowledges, Roosevelt's motivation is baffling. Stalin is a partial enigma, at least until the Russian archives are fully open, and it is impossible to say whether he would have intervened in 1938 if the democracies had fought for Czechoslovakia. The Vatican is as secretive as the Kremlin. Japanese policy-making defies clear explanation. Above all, there is the question posed in Steiner's excellent conclusion: how did Hitler triumph over a nation as well-educated, culturally advanced and highly industrialised as Germany?

Piers Brendon's books include 'The Dark Valley: a panorama of the 1930s' (Pimlico)

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform