Books April 2001

The Nonconformist

Our author reconsiders A.J.P. Taylor and the question his work provokes: Is history just one damned thing after another?
More

Anyone living in England during the 1950s and 1960s who was politically alert knew about A.J.P. (Alan) Taylor. He was that diminutive bow-tied Oxford academic who, with Canon Collins and Michael Foot, marched in protests organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was one of the first of the British "telly dons," who could stand in front of the camera and pontificate without notes about virtually anything. (One of my favorite Taylor legends has him arriving at the studio in 1953 to give a talk about Napoleon, only to be told of Stalin's death and asked to lecture instead on the life of a very different dictator—which he did, in his unflappable way.) He was the only person who could get Oxford undergraduates out of bed early in the morning—and in vast numbers, to sit in the chilly Examination Schools and listen to him talk (for exactly fifty-five minutes and again without notes) on modern European history.

Alan Taylor wrote one of the most enduring works of diplomatic history, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954, and never out of print), yet he also wrote potboilers that swiftly faded from sight and use. His regular opinion pieces for The Guardian, the Daily Herald, and Lord Beaverbrook's newspaper the Sunday Express—polemical articles about why the Germans were inherently bad, and why the Americans would plunge the world into a nuclear war, and why Whitehall bureaucrats were ruining Britain—infuriated his academic colleagues, who ensured that he never received a professorship (a far more exalted position in Britain than in the United States) or a public honor. Whether they resented him because of his radical views, or because he wrote for a middlebrow readership, or because he was so well known to the British public, or because seemingly no other historian except J. H. Plumb in those days made so much money from his writings is unimportant. He was a burr under the saddle, a pain in the neck, a "troublemaker"—the very title that Kathleen Burk uses in this new examination of Taylor's life and writings.

From the archives: Above all, Alan Taylor was the author of that brilliant and unnerving book The Origins of the Second World War, which appeared in 1961. It rocked the academic world and also sent shock waves into the political arena, because of its seeming implications for Cold War policy. For forty-plus years undergraduates around the world taking twentieth-century-history classes have found it hard to avoid grappling with the "Taylor thesis"—that is, his argument that World War II in Europe was caused not so much by a megalomaniacal Adolf Hitler as by the misguided policies of Britain and France.

"Was the Great War Necessary?" (May 1999)
A young historian argues iconoclastically that Britain's entry into the First World War, in 1914, was "the greatest error of modern history," born of neurotic fears projected onto Germany. By Benjamin Schwarz

Taylor argued that Hitler's geopolitical ambitions (at least until the invasion of the Soviet Union) were similar to those of traditional German statesmen, including the Weimar Republic's Gustav Stresemann—though Hitler had better gambling nerves. When he came to power, Hitler inherited vast potential. By the twentieth century Germany's large population and industrial might gave the country a natural pre-eminence in west-central Europe, and the Versailles settlement of 1919 was an artificial absurdity that was bound to unravel. This unraveling could have been done rationally, as in the early stages of British and French appeasement over the Rhineland, Germany's anschluss with Austria, and so on; but after Munich, in 1938, it was increasingly bungled. Having appeased Berlin over more-contestable territorial issues, the British changed their stance and decided to fight over Danzig and the Polish Corridor, where the German case for revision was stronger. The result, Taylor maintained, was a war in Europe that nobody wanted and that personally dismayed Hitler. World War II was simply an accident: Hitler never imagined that the democracies would actually go to war over Poland, especially because London and Paris could do almost nothing to defend the Poles. Such things happen from time to time; and if the Americans and the Russians continued to jostle each other in the 1960s over Berlin or Cuba, another accident would blow the world to smithereens. All Taylor was doing was retelling this tale of folly, in wonderful, lucid, captivating prose.

How much of this was tongue-in-cheek is hard to know. Taylor was certainly no pro-Nazi; he had campaigned against appeasement in the 1930s, and described Winston Churchill as "the saviour of his country." Some fifteen years before Origins he had written a work—The Course of German History (1945)—that was profoundly anti-German; the book demonstrated, Taylor modestly noted in his preface to the revised edition (coincidentally also 1961), "that it was no more a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea, though the process is, I daresay, unpleasant for the fresh water." That neo-Nazis in Germany welcomed Origins must have caused Taylor only amusement; to say that Hitler was no worse than Stresemann was the same as saying that Stresemann and all other Germans were no better than Hitler. And, somewhat like the Soviet leadership of the time, he was totally against German reunification. (It was not until after Willy Brandt knelt on Polish soil, many years later, that Taylor's Germanophobe attitudes moderated.)

Still, the surprising portrayal of German policies in Origins was pretty shocking stuff. Taylor had assaulted orthodoxies on all fronts. In 1961 the British firmly believed that World War II had been "the good war," a Manichaean clash between light and darkness in which Hitler was the true Beelzebub, whereas the British nation, standing alone under the leadership of Churchill (whose own extraordinarily popular history of these events differs markedly from Taylor's), had remained true to the causes of democracy and decency. To imply that the war was some sort of mistake or accident was heresy. Moreover, Taylor had not only attacked the honored past but also, implicitly, questioned the contemporary meaning of the Western alliance in the midst of the Cold War. After all, Hugh Trevor-Roper and others among Taylor's critics asked, if it would have been wise for the democracies to recognize Germany's natural hegemony over Central Europe in the 1930s, was it not also sensible to allow the Soviet Union in 1961 to be hegemonic in Berlin? To approve yesterday's appeasement, as Taylor seemed to be doing, weakened the West's stance for the future.

Besides, Taylor's critics asserted, there was something both morally and methodologically unsettling about his preference for the accident and the contingent in history. If World War II was like an unintended road crash (an analogy Taylor used), where was the place for blaming Hitler and his noxious creed of racism and aggression? More important, where was the space for profound forces and for overall trends? For the roles of ideology, domestic politics, culture, national traditions and myths, and economic forces? Was all of history a series of Jacques Tati-style accidents? This was the kernel of the Oxford historian T. W. Mason's powerful attack on Taylor for trivializing the innate evil and aggressiveness of National Socialism (and thereby downplaying the likelihood, rather than the happenstance, of a conflict with the democracies).

The only "solution" open to this regime of the structural tensions and crises produced by dictatorship and rearmament was more dictatorship and more rearmament, then expansion, then war and terror, then plunder and enslavement ... A war for the plunder of manpower and materials lay square in the dreadful logic of German economic development under National Socialist rule.

In his reply Taylor conceded that he may not have emphasized the profound forces, but he asserted that too many historians focused on those forces because they didn't like to do the detailed work—add up the pennies, Taylor advised, and they will soon become pounds; "I prefer detail to generalisations"; and so on. This was not a persuasive reply. In fact, in the context of the other historical debates that were raging at Oxford and elsewhere in the 1960s, it seemed a breathtakingly banal attitude. These were the years when Fernand Braudel's magnificent The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II was showing that history could be understood at three separate but interconnected levels; when E. P. Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class revolutionized the writing of socio-political history; when Fritz Fischer's works on German war aims in World War I sought to connect the deep social and economic forces that were impelling expansion in Wilhelmine Germany with the high policies being pursued by Berlin; when Arthur Marwick was developing the study of "total war and social change." And here, on the other hand, was Taylor, a sort of Athanasius contra Mundum, stating that he preferred details to generalizations.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In