The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939

The Triumph of the Dark is the second volume in Zara Steiner's gargantuan history of international relations between the wars. The first book, The Lights That Failed, first published in 2005, took the story from 1919 up to January 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The Triumph of the Dark deals with the years when postwar history was coming to an end and pre-war history about to begin. It is a story, Steiner writes, with "few heroes, two evil Titans and an assortment of villains and knaves. I have not enjoyed their company."

Taken together, the two volumes are a remarkable achievement of conscientious scholarship. To write the diplomatic history of the interwar years is to enter a thick jungle, if not a swamp, and Steiner has done well not to be overwhelmed by her sources. She has delved deeply into all of the disputed issues of the 1930s; her judgements are weighty and, by contrast with so many other books on the period, she analyses the policies of the smaller states of Europe as well as those of the great powers.

But the book is tough-going, overloaded with facts and top-heavy with detail. It could have done with judicious selection and pruning. It is, moreover, old-fashioned international history, barely discussing the ideological and sociolo­gical forces lying behind diplomacy. The best diplomatic history, and especially that of the 1930s, deals with the grandest of themes - war and conflict, the existence and destruction of communities and civilisations. Yet The Triumph of the Dark is almost all foreground; there is far too little background.

The central theme - the growing dominance of Hitler - is announced at the very beginning of the book. The conclusions are on the whole conventional, and similar to those reached by Donald Cameron Watt in his book How War Came, published in 1989. Hitler, Steiner believes, was the only leader who sought war without reserve in 1939, and his will and power were sufficient to overcome the wishes of the many others who sought to prevent it. But perhaps matters were not quite so clear-cut.

Everything that we have learned about the Nazi regime in recent years - synthesised in Ian Kershaw's remarkable, two-volume biography Hitler - confirms that it expressed, in violent form, the outlook and wishes of many, perhaps most, of the German people. Indeed, that was the source of Hitler's power, and explains why so many were willing to obey the tyrant for so long. He emphasised and accelerated powerful trends already present in German society. He did not create them.

A J P Taylor used to tell the story of meeting the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl late one evening in Whitehall. After confessing that he had just committed a sin against historical scholarship by attending a dinner in honour of Arnold Toynbee, Geyl, who, although not Jewish, had suffered in a German concentration camp, told Taylor that his Origins of the Second World War was a wicked book for implying that the Nazis were little different from other Germans. "But was it true?" Taylor inquired. "You should not have said it," Geyl retorted.

Recent scholarship has tended to confirm Taylor's insight by showing the extent to which the Wehrmacht and the German foreign office were involved in atrocities. Nor was the Wehr­macht always backward in urging Hitler on to aggressive policies. The Nazi regime was a new kind of dictatorship, based on widespread popular support, and that is why it remains so frightening 65 years after its demise.

Steiner gives a sensitive account of the dilemmas faced in the 1930s by Britain and France, the only countries to go to war against Nazi Germany without having been attacked. She accepts that the options available to them were much narrower than most of their critics appreciated. The public, recalling the horrors of Verdun and the Somme, was unwilling to countenance great armaments, conscription, or any policy that might risk war. The politicians could not believe that a great and civilised country was being led, with the people's support, by a criminal lunatic. Hating war, they could not grasp that national socialism was based upon a glorification of war, and that, for this reason, appeasement had no chance of success.

But perhaps Steiner is wrong to concentrate the blame for the failure of British foreign policy on Neville Chamberlain. The ceding of the Sudeten German territories to Hitler in 1938 was not Chamberlain's personal policy, but that of the whole cabinet. Munich was the victory of a policy consciously pursued by the whole British government, and a victory also for those who had come to believe that troubles in Europe would be ended only if frontiers could be redrawn along national lines.

Chamberlain's diplomacy was designed not to circumvent the policy of his government, but to give effect to it and to avoid war, an aim in which he was, for a while, successful. His position was reinforced by the view of the chiefs of staff that Britain was in no condition to fight in 1938. It is a brave, perhaps reckless prime minister who ignores such advice. Nonetheless, by September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, both the British public and Chamberlain had concluded that stability in Europe could not be secured until Hitler had been destroyed.

That aim was eventually achieved, but at a terrible cost in human suffering. As Steiner points out, the war not only served to end the era of European predominance, it also called into question "the very concept of Europe as something more than a geographic expression". We are still living with the consequences.

The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939
Zara Steiner
Oxford University Press, 1,130pp, £35

Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College London. His latest book is "The New British Constitution" (Hart, £17.95)

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.