Between the Wars: 1919-1939
MacLehose Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
PHILIP ZIEGLER is a skilled and readable historian and biographer, who describes, in 21 essays, two decades of history that go unnoticed — those between the terrible wars that dominated the 20th century. These 20 years include cataclysmic events, such as the rise of Soviet Communism, the Great Depression, and the rise of Hitler; but the kaleidoscope of the time is littered with other conflicts, many of them illustrating the truism that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Who remembers the Chaco War, for example, between Bolivia and Paraguay, over territory of no use to either side, but which left more than 100,000 dead? Spain features regularly, from the invasion of Morocco, led by Colonel Franco in 1925, to the fall of Madrid at the end of a Civil War, and General Franco’s assuming the dictatorship in 1939.
As an avid collector of footnotes to history, Ziegler reports that the concept of a fifth column took root in Madrid; and that Anthony Blunt, the Communist spy, described Picasso’s devastating commemoration of the destruction of Guernica by Fascist aircraft as the “expression of a private brainstorm”.
Ziegler’s collection of little histories is packed with delightful details that illuminate a larger picture. For instance, James Joyce admonished an aunt who confessed that there was much she could not understand in Ulysses, saying that he had told her she should read The Odyssey first. Or that Kirov, a Communist leader in Leningrad, after whom the celebrated opera and ballet company is named, was murdered on Stalin’s orders during the Great Purge of the 1930s.
Some conclusions are surprisingly straightforward: the great Wall Street Crash was caused simply by human greed and hubris; Hitler’s rise to power was the result of the “demagogic passion” that his speeches roused in mass audiences. The League of Nations failed because the great powers turned a blind eye to blatantly illegal acts, such as Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.
There is the odd piece of good news from these years: penicillin was invented in 1928, and the Broadway musical became available to mass audiences when sound was added to the movies. Otherwise, these two decades suggest that, far from learning the lessons of the Great War, the actors in this dreadful drama took all the steps necessary to make the Second World War inevitable.
Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.