The Nonconformist

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

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.

Before we dig deeper into these themes, let us know more about Taylor himself, especially as Kathleen Burk describes him. (Burk's, by the way, is one in a surprisingly large number of Taylor biographies: Adam Sisman's extremely thorough study, A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography [1994] is one.) Born in 1906 into privileged circumstances (Taylor's father was a wealthy Lancashire textile businessman who indulged his son with a car when Alan was an undergraduate at Oxford), Taylor also inherited a family tradition of political radicalism. His dislike of the British "establishment" (a term he helped to popularize) lasted until the end of his life, and probably intensified because of the many professional snubs he received. Flirting briefly with the Communist Party in the 1920s, he then lodged within the left wing of British Labour for the rest of his days. None of this leftism was for Taylor incompatible with his appreciation of fine food and wine, his holiday homes, and his obsession with the earnings from his writing (he seems to have haggled over every royalty and fee, and many of the newspaper articles he poured out were clearly written only for the money). He liked the company of women, and his three marriages (especially the first) were riven with quarrels and betrayals. He had some good friends, such as Malcolm Muggeridge and the impish press baron Lord Beaverbrook, but he made many enemies and rarely if ever forgave a wrong or a slight.

Reviews of Burk's book in Britain last summer focused heavily on those personal details, but few of them seem pertinent—except the lasting influence of Taylor's northern, radical roots. This was a world view that might baffle most American politicians today, because of its curious combination of ideological principles. It suspected large defense spending and opposed foreign-policy adventures and overseas obligations, unless they were for a radical cause, such as supporting the Republican (left-wing) side during the Spanish civil war. It favored world democracy and the League of Nations. It mistrusted class privilege and, despite its Nonconformist origins, was cool to religion. It opposed large government when that favored the ruling elites of the nineteenth century, but came steadily to advocate substantial social-welfare and education support for all Britons as the poverty of the lower classes grew more obvious and disconcerting in the first half of the twentieth century. It was independent-minded and quirky. It preferred being in opposition to being in power. Not for nothing did Taylor declare that his favorite among his writings was The Trouble Makers: Dissent Over British Foreign Policy 1792-1939 (1957), which examined radical criticism of the establishment's handling of external affairs from the French Revolution to the crises of the 1930s. Taylor liked dissent; moreover, he believed to the end of his days that his own dissent had been consistent, whereas his critics never ceased to accuse him of deliberately trying to shock readers, of frivolousness, of setting off firecrackers just to make a noise, of changing his mind whenever it suited him. Even after his death, in September of 1990, historians such as John Keegan and A. L. Rowse charged him with everything from contempt for England's national traditions to a lack of seriousness.

Somewhere in Taylor's tangled, idiosyncratic, and contradictory character, I suspect, lie clues to his curiously split approach to causation in history. To assume that he never paid attention to the profound forces that changed our world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is simply wrong. That he wrote The Trouble Makers and that Richard Cobden (the nineteenth-century British crusader for free trade, disarmament, and moralism in foreign policy) was his great hero indicate that he believed in the power of ideas to change politics—just as he believed (at least for a while) that the CND's protest marches could change the British government's nuclear strategy. Even more important was the attention Taylor paid in his writings to the deep shifts in balances of power from the 1860s to the 1930s. In his introduction to The Struggle for Mastery in Europe is a superb analysis (complete with many statistical tables) of alterations in the demographic, industrial, and military balances among the Great Powers from 1848 to 1914. It was then necessary, Taylor wrote, to "translate these economic figures into political terms." He argued that its great economic growth after 1870 gave Germany the means to dominate Europe, but it had to do so soon (before 1920), or the even greater growth of America and Russia would have blocked that option. There was little evidence of the contingent or the accidental here.

Taylor picked up this argument in the second chapter of The Origins of the Second World War in an analysis that is worth reproducing in extenso.

However democratic and pacific Germany might become [after 1919], she remained by far the greatest Power on the continent of Europe; with the disappearance of Russia, more so than before. She was greatest in population—65 million against 40 million in France, the only other substantial Power. Her preponderance was greater still in the economic resources of coal and steel which in modern times together made up power. At the moment in 1919, Germany was down-and-out. The immediate problem was German weakness; but given a few years of "normal" life, it would again become the problem of German strength. More than this, the old balance of power, which formerly did something to restrain Germany, had broken down. Russia had withdrawn; Austria-Hungary had vanished. Only France and Italy remained, both inferior in man-power and still more in economic resources, both exhausted by the war. If events followed their course in the old "free" way, nothing could prevent the Germans from overshadowing Europe, even if they did not plan to do so.

Yet, paradoxically, the greater part of both Mastery and Origins tells a story with few references to these basic forces and instead focuses on week-by-week and sometimes day-by-day diplomatic jugglings, misunderstandings, and personal foibles. To some degree this can be explained by the fact that Taylor relied heavily on diplomatic documents, which are not especially helpful in making a link between a particular day's policy and broader causes. On the contrary, a diplomatic telegram is much likelier to emphasize the immediate, the tactical, the particular, while its euphemistic language can disguise great passion and ambition. Thus the broad balance-of-power shifts that Taylor covers in the early sections of his books remain separate from the dazzling diplomatic narratives that follow; and the day-to-day events come to seem autotelic, to be understood and read on their own terms. Even so, other historians (I think in particular of James Joll, in his seminal 1968 inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics, "1914: The Unspoken Assumptions") have taught us how to read diplomatic documents in a more nuanced way, and therefore Taylor's sources cannot fully explain his contradictory position about causation. For example, 200 pages after assuring the reader of Origins that the first world war "caused" the second, he wrote, "The war of 1939, far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders." Statesmen, he also asserted, are "too absorbed by events to follow a preconceived plan." And on the final page he wrote, "Hitler may have projected a great war all along; yet it seems from the record that he became involved in war through launching on 29 August a diplomatic manoeuvre which he ought to have launched on 28 August." It is hard to think of a less satisfactory explanation for the coming of World War II in Europe.

Still, it may be too easy to conclude that Taylor was simply intellectually confused or carelessly inconsistent—that he wanted his history both ways, the predetermined and the accidental, the broad trends and the individual maneuverings. Perhaps it would be more useful to see this tension in his writings as reflecting a natural dialogue that exists in the study of all history, and in many related disciplines as well—and that he somehow exhibited that dichotomy more publicly, more blatantly, than most. A child of the twentieth century, he was immensely affected by World War I, the emergence of communism and fascism, the Great Depression, the decline of the British Empire, the ordeals of World War II and the Holocaust, the rise of the superpowers, the nuclear age. Who of his generation could not be? This was a world turned on its head, a century more turbulent, perhaps, than any since the sixteenth, when different profound forces also upset the traditional order of things.

Yet Taylor, who always said that history was "fun," was also fascinated by the contingent and the personal—by the warped personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II, by Lenin's historic journey in a sealed train to the Finland Station to join the Bolshevik Revolution, by the premature death of Stresemann, by the coincidence of the banking crisis of 1931 and the Manchurian Crisis, by the failure of the German generals to remove Hitler in 1938, by the Soviet and American intelligence errors of 1941, by Stalin's mysterious lapse in not vetoing United Nations action in Korea, by Anthony Eden's lack of realism over Suez. How can all these be fitted into any grand theory of historical causation? The answer is they cannot, because of course they exist at another level of historical unfolding.

Taylor's failing (if that is the proper word) was that instead of grappling in a thoughtful way with this problem of the general and the particular in history—as, for example, his contemporary E. H. Carr attempted in What Is History? (1961)—he dismissed his critics with trite remarks about adding up pennies in order to make pounds. By this evasion he saved himself some hard thinking but earned—or deepened—his reputation as a gadfly, which is a shame. Yet this tension belongs to elsewhere and everywhere, including to our own age. When historians half a century from now look back on the years, say, 1980 to 2000, how will they grapple with the relationships between broad trends and particular occurrences in our generation? Between the steady economic and social weakening and then collapse of the USSR and the flawed but critical characters of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin? Between the high-tech revolution of Microsoft and the Internet and a sex scandal that weakened the American President most capable of articulating the significance of that new landscape? Between the rise and fall of UN peace-enforcement in the 1990s and Jesse Helms's resistance to U.S. participation in such actions, the especial nastiness of Slobodan Milosevic, and the breakdown of communications one night in Mogadishu? Scholars fifty years hence will obviously have a clearer view of today's broad global forces than we have, but where will they rank such personalities as Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher? Are the latter to be Hegelian "world-historical figures" or merely incidental to the unfolding story of our ever modernizing, ever globalizing planet? Since none of us knows what will happen next year (the death of a world leader, perhaps, or a nuclear war over Kashmir), how can we deny the power of the contingent and the unforeseen?

From the archives: Taylor was familiar with many of the historians who had confronted this problem of assigning causation—Gibbon, Burke, Carlyle, Macaulay, Marx and Engels, Lewis Namier—and recognized, surely, how serious and tricky the issue is. But he declined to advance any fully reasoned explication of where he came out on this problem, or of whether his position changed over time. He will long be remembered for his studies in diplomatic history, and even more so for his explosive work on the origins of World War II. But this unorthodox contrarian will not stand in the pantheon of those scholars, from Thucydides onward, who have insisted that the historian's task is not only to retell what happened in the past but also to try to explain why things happened the way they did.

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If that sounds like harsh criticism of a gifted scholar, it is doubly so coming from this author's pen. During the first decade or so of my academic life I was devoted to the Taylorian view of diplomatic and political history. As an embarrassingly youthful twenty-year-old who had received a book prize in history at the University of Newcastle during graduation in 1966, I chose to spend the money on Taylor's Mastery, Robinson and Gallagher's Africa and the Victorians (1961), and W. L. Langer's The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902 (1935), perhaps the three classic texts of diplomatic history. It would be many years before my reading of Braudel, Carr, Geoffrey Barraclough, William McNeill, and Eric Hobsbawm pushed me to think of history in broader and more methodologically complex ways. This is, for most of us, a natural progression. A doctorate compels most of us to be detailed and narrow, and to carve out our own specialties, and tenure committees rarely like boldness. Later, when our jobs are safe, we can be synthetic, and generalize. But something in Taylor pushed him to become more skeptical of searching for deeper meanings, and more persuaded that the pennies added up to pounds.

To those of us writing and teaching history today, the same weighty challenge of assigning causation remains. The general reader and the college student alike deserve to be stimulated and drawn into this unending debate—unending because the serious study of humankind's story will always need the particular and the general, the contingent and the profound. Providing both is easier said than done. In fact, it has never been "done" perfectly. Relating small details to large forces in history remains a maddeningly chicken-and-egg, squaring-the-circle, hedgehog-and-fox exercise that tests even the finest scholars, none of whom will get a straight A for the effort. But to evade, as Taylor did, is no solution at all. The least we can do is try.