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Michael Jabara Carley. 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming
of World War II.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.  xxvii + 325 pp.
Bibliographical References and Index.  $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-56663-252-8.

Reviewed for H-Diplo by William Keylor <>, Boston

Note:  H-Diplo recently ran a roundtable discussion on Michael
Carley's book 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of
World War II.  The participants were William Keylor, Boston
University; Igor Lukes, Boston University; Sally Marks, Providence,
Rhode Island; and Robert Young, University of Winnipeg.  Each part
of the roundtable will be posted to the Reviews website as an
individual review, with Carley's comments linked to each individual

When I first met Michael Carley several years ago in the foyer of
the French Foreign Ministry in Paris, he was noticeably eager to get
upstairs to the Salle des Archives and start work on the business at
hand.  When we prepared to depart at the end of a long day perusing
dispatches and memoranda, he was the last to turn in his carton to
the impatient bureaucrat on duty.  In the course of subsequent
conversations Carley has regaled me with tales of his ardent labors
in the archives of the former Soviet Union in Moscow. The inelegant
term "_rat des archives_," employed by Sally Marks to characterize
the author of 1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of
World War II_, strikes me as right on the mark. What many readers of
this book may not realize is that Carley completed his exhaustive
investigations in British, French, and Russian sources while
occupying a full-time administrative position that did not afford
the long summers and sabbaticals that academic historians depend on
for this type of multi-archival research. Whatever judgment one may
render on the interpretations and conclusions of this work, one must
tip one's hat to the author for his shrewd and patient detective
work in following the paper trail of diplomatic maneuvering in
London, Paris, and Moscow as the governing elites in those three
capitals and their representatives abroad labored in vain during the
waning years of the 1930s to resurrect the old Triple Entente that
had prevented a German-dominated Europe at the beginning of the last

Some may be tempted to ask whether there is anything new to say
about the origins of the Second World War after the plethora of
studies on that subject that have appeared in the past half century.
The answer to that question must be a resounding "of course," for at
least three reasons.  First, successive generations of historians
may develop valuable insights about historical events that had
escaped or been ignored by their predecessors. Secondly, new
archival evidence may prompt a reassessment of the reigning
scholarly consensus concerning a particular historical development.
Thirdly, the literary form of a historical work may command the
attention of a readership beyond the small circle of scholarly
specialists in the subject at hand, thereby helping to bridge the
enormous and unfortunate gap between academic history and the
general public.

Carley's book qualifies as an important contribution to the
historiography of the interwar period on all three counts.  First,
it offers a bold and vigorous challenge to the reigning scholarly
judgments of the Western allies' failure to organize an effective
coalition of states to deter or contain Nazi aggression in the
1930s.  Most recent studies of appeasement, by focussing attention
on the complex social, economic, military, and imperial challenges
faced by the governing elites of Great Britain and France, have
tended (at least by implication) to absolve Chamberlain, Daladier,
and the other architects of appeasement of the terrible sins for
which an earlier generation of historians had indicted them.  Carley
brushes aside most of the nuances, qualifications, and complications
that other scholars have offered as extenuating circumstances that
help to explain the Anglo-French propensity for seeking a diplomatic
settlement with Hitler while rebuffing Soviet bids for an
anti-German alliance. Instead, he applies Occam's razor to this old
scholarly debate by offering a simple, straightforward, monocausal
explanation focusing on ideological considerations: The fanatical
anti-Communism that gripped the ruling elites of inter-war Britain
and France prevented them from grasping the salient fact that only
an alliance with Russia could prevent the total destruction of the
1919 peace settlement and the advent of a German hegemony in Europe.

Carley has little patience for the familiar explanations of
Anglo-French policy that have made appeasement seem an almost
over-determined outcome:  the weakness of the Red army after
Stalin's ruthless purge of the officer corps, which led Western
observers to discount its military utility in a war against Germany;
the Warsaw government's refusal to grant the Red Army transit rights
across Polish territory, which rendered Soviet participation in a
war against Germany problematical even if the purges had never
occurred;  the vivid memories of the Great War in France and the
resulting obsession with avoiding a repetition of that national
trauma, even at the price of treaty revision in Eastern Europe;  the
lingering guilt feelings in Great Britain about the territorial
provisions of the Versailles settlement and its violation of the
Wilsonian principle of national self-determination when applied to
Germany, which Hitler skillfully exploited during the Rhineland,
Austrian, Sudeten, and Danzig crises.  For Carley, all of these
circumstances recede into insignificance compared to what for him is
the omnipresent and omnipotent force at work in the corridors of
Whitehall and the Quai d'Orsay: the rabid anti-Bolshevism among
policymakers in London and Paris led them to fear not defeat but
victory over Germany with Soviet assistance, for such a victory
would lead to what they feared even more than a German-dominated
Europe: a Europe fatally infected by the bacillus of Bolshevism.

The work under review does not offer stunning new revelations from
hitherto hidden sources that might authorize the author to claim, as
John Gaddis did after absorbing the torrent of monographs on the
Cold War based on recently opened Soviet archives, "we now know"
this or that about the Kremlin's real intentions. The Russian
diplomatic records on which Carley relies have all been published,
most long before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.  But few
specialists in the history of appeasement have exploited them, at
least in the systematic way that Carley has.  His close reading of
the correspondence between the Narkomindel and its embassies in
London and Paris, supplemented by his analysis of the more familiar
material found in the correspondence between the French and British
foreign offices and their representatives in Moscow in the late
1930s, affords us a fascinating glimpse into the policymaking
process of all three powers as they failed to forge "the alliance
that never was."

Finally, a word must be said about the author's distinctive writing
style.  In his response to the criticism directed at his book by
reviewers in this forum, Carley defiantly declares that it "is not a
scholarly monograph, full of dull, impenetrable prose, loaded down
with long commentaries in the endnotes, examining all the angles and
variants of all the possible interpretations of the issues at hand.
This is a story, a historical narrative, my narrative, as I see it,
of key events leading up to World War II."  I would submit that it
is not merely a story. It is a morality tale, complete with a
dramatis personae of heroes (Vansittart, Churchill, Mandel, Reynaud,
Maiskii, and, above all, Litvinov) and villains (Chamberlain,
Cadogan, Daladier, Bonnet, Beck)  locked in an epic struggle to
prevent Europe's descent into barbarism.  Because this is history
rather than imaginative literature, the reader knows in advance the
bleak outcome of that story and that struggle: the war, the fall of
France, the Holocaust, and the death, destruction, and despair
caused by the imposition of the Nazi imperium on the continent.
Viewed with the wisdom of hindsight, the choices facing British and
French policymakers at every turn seem so clear cut in Carley's
narrative scheme that those making the wrong decisions evoke only
condemnation as well as the suspicion of ulterior motives. The
reader experiences, as one ought to in a finely crafted work of
literature, a kind of emotional catharsis in observing the
Anglo-French descent into disaster during what Carley calls (with
his customary flair for sweeping judgments) this "low, dishonest
decade."  The book's fast-paced (at times almost breathless)
recitation of unfolding events, its richly-textured
characterizations of the main actors in the drama, the almost
conversational tone of its pithy put-downs and sardonic asides, its
air of pontifical certainty in dispensing definitive appraisals of
people and policies, stands in sharp contrast to the meticulous
scholarship that underpins the narrative offered by this _rat des
archives_.  General readers uninterested in arcane scholarly
disputes will doubtless be charmed by the thoroughly engaging tale
of heroism and perfidy Carley has to tell.

Like the three reviewers in this Forum, scholarly specialists will
find this or that assertion in _1939_ to challenge. In my view, the
uniformly critical appraisal of Polish foreign policy betrays a lack
of appreciation for the excruciating difficulties faced by a
geographically cursed country sandwiched between Germany and Russia
as it struggled to preserve its national independence.  The
observation that "Soviet foreign policy was approved by the
Politburo and carried out by the Narkomindel"  and that "Even the
text of the [foreign] commissar's interviews with the press were
approved and sometimes revised by the Politburo" leaves the
impression of a consultative, bureaucratic system that strains
credulity.  Carley concedes that when working in Moscow he "saw
correspondence to Stalin, but never from Stalin" and that the Soviet
dictator "did most of his communicating by phone."  With memories of
the murderous purges of the army, the bureaucracy, and the party
still fresh in the minds of survivors in the Soviet apart, one must
assume (in the absence of disconfirming evidence) that the sound of
a thick Georgian accent over the phone lines must have prompted
speedy "approval" by the Politburo and "execution" by the Foreign
Ministry. The dismissive appraisal of the Kremlin's approaches to
Berlin long before the failure of the Anglo-French military mission
to Moscow as mere "tactical probes or trade initiatives," followed
by the observation that London's and Paris's "interest in
composition with Nazi Germany was greater than in Moscow," requires
a more systematic examination of the German records than Carley has
given us in this robust reinterpretation of the origins of the
Second World War, which is certain to entertain generalists and
provoke controversy among specialists for years to come.

     Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
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Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 06/03/2000
S D Stein

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