‘Like Goering with culture, I reach for my revolver when offered philosophies of history,’ wrote A.J.P. Taylor some years ago, when the ‘What is History’ theme was going the rounds. He likes to parade himself as a simple, practical man – ‘an old-fashioned, penny-counting historian’. He thinks that history’s only function is ‘fun’, dismisses the rest as ‘sales-talk’ and believes that we study history ‘for pleasure, not instruction’.
The fact is that he has himself given the world a great deal of both. As Chris Wrigley’s large and thorough bibliography of his works shows, he has been more prolific, on a wider range of subjects, than any of his contemporaries except perhaps for E.H. Carr. He has written two standard works of reference in Oxford series: English History 1914-1945 and The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 – now a generation old, but still the best place to go if you want to know what, say, the Schleswig-Holstein question was about. Taylor’s Bismarck, his Habsburg Monarchy and his famous Origins of the Second World War are all classics, which are regularly reprinted and which have something fresh to say each time you look at them. He was and is a wonderful lecturer. He has combined all of this with a journalistic sideline that would have occupied other men full-time. And yet he is generous with his time when it comes to virtually unpaid, humdrum academic work – giving occasional lectures, or contributing reviews to the scholarly journals. He will shortly be 75, and it is a good time to consider his career as a whole.
Taylor’s public stance has always been a radical one, and he has quoted more than once the French revolutionary’s motto: je suis contre. He has made his reputation in debunking Establishments – the Habsburg Monarchy, statesmen, generals, diplomats or politicians. In his English History he was even surprisingly good on bankers. He approves, in good radical style, of the People: he writes warmly, for instance, of the working classes’ generosity of spirit at the time of the General Strike, when they stood by the miners though this would bring no obvious advantage. But, oddly, he is not very interested in social history, probably feels that it can be made up once you get the political side right, and writes off sociology as nonsense. He is concerned with individuals and their decisions, and so has written mainly about Establishments, even if he disapproves of them. There is some tension between what interests him and his own attitudes to it – a tension that makes him the outstanding historian of the Macmillan era. It is maybe not surprising that, with such attitudes, he should have been associated with the Beaverbrook empire and become a great popularising historian.
But though Taylor has always been a popular historian, he is still a professional one, of extraordinary technical gifts. His most obvious strength is his style, which tells, even in his briefest comments. He likes short sentences, with short words, and he is sparing with adjectives or adverbs. He likes homely words (he is, for instance, the only historian who regularly uses the word ‘fancy’). His paragraphs are dramatic: you always want to know what happens next.
Above all, he has a wit and irony that English history has not known since Gibbon. Here he is, introducing a very complex subject, the political crisis of 1931, which, occurring in the context of the Slump and the collapse of the pound, split the existing Labour government and brought about a ‘National’ coalition of Labour Right and Conservatives: ‘The new age got off to a good start. A crisis of muddle which no one properly understood led to a general election of unrivalled confusion. A National government, which had been formed to save the pound, failed to save it; presented themselves as the saviours of the country on the basis of this failure; and had their claim accepted by a great majority of the electors.’ He has no rival in the acid footnote that often sums up, in the shortest possible space, an issue of which the rest of us might be tempted to make a meal. English History contains a classic, in the context of British strategy during the ‘phoney war’ of 1930-40. One essential element in that extraordinary strategy was the belief that Hitler’s economic system was collapsing, and that blockade would finish it off. Only one man, the Cambridge economist Claude Guillebaud, really understood that what Hitler had done was to stumble on the economics of public spending. He published a book saying as much, and was almost imprisoned under the 18B regulation as a pro-Nazi. In a footnote which cast a glow over Guillebaud’s last years, Taylor acknowledged his achievement and added: ‘His reputation never recovered from this recognition of the truth.’
Style can be a dangerous thing, as Taylor himself pointed out about the later Shaw (‘verbal felicity, nothing to say’). There are times when the sheer verbal excitement of a Taylor paragraph can detract from its meaning: you remember the phrases, not what they are saying. The tension builds up as these short sentences follow each other; quite often, you cannot put the book down. But sometimes you find yourself turning to a far less agile writer – a May or a Macartney on the Habsburgs, an Otto Pflanze on Bismarck – to understand the context, and to appreciate what Taylor achieved in simplifying it all. Taylor’s two books on the world wars are astonishing feats of clarity and compression. He himself regards his Second World War as, technically, his best piece of work, in that he succeeded in combining the German and the Japanese wars in a coherent, concise account. Both books can safely be put into the hands of an intelligent 14-year-old who wants to know what happened. Both also have something to say to a specialist, because Taylor is an inspired ‘guesser’ of things.
I have found this myself on several occasions, for my own interests – coincidentally – have followed Taylor’s. Some years ago, when I was writing an article on Hungarian politics at the turn of the century, I hit upon an insoluble problem: why had the Government lost the election of 1904? Hungarian governments did not lose elections: they jotted down the names of successful candidates, and then let the police organise for them to be elected. The problem in Hungarian politics was to keep the government bloc together, and to stop the small opposition from obstructing parliamentary business. Taylor found the answer: the Government had deliberately lost that election, in order to foist responsibility on the opposition and thereby stop the Habsburg Army from intervening. After laboriously going through the sources, I found that Taylor was quite right.
A similar inspired guess in his First World War put me onto an important truth about Russian railways: they came under crippling strain in wartime circumstances, not because the network or rolling-stock was too poor – on the contrary, they could stand comparison even with Germany – but because the Army authorities used an excessive amount of railway transport to carry fodder for horses, particularly cavalry horses that were next to useless in the field. When I checked up on this, I found that Taylor had put me on the right lines. The German Army used only a fifth of its railway transport for fodder: the Russian Army used half. You do not need much more explanation of the supply crisis, whether civilian or military, that preceded the revolution in 1917. Taylor’s ability to intuit things after which the technicians have to lumber – in his Second World War there is a similar intuition about Soviet tank strength in the early summer of 1942 – marks a true leader in historical writing. It is maybe no surprise that Taylor’s only hero in modern England is Lloyd George – also a man ‘above the parties’ who could tell the technicians what to do. Perhaps it was this that made Taylor so interested in Adolf Hitler.
On the strength of his Origins of the Second World War, Taylor was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser – an accusation that is not worth refuting. He said that ‘Hitler’ was not a sufficient explanation for the outbreak of war in September 1939: the British were also responsible. For some years after Hitler had come to power, they tried to bring him into some kind of political and economic partnership that would uphold the European order and maybe make Hitler less dreadful at home. They lured him up the garden path and then slammed the door in his face when he tried to take Danzig, which everyone regarded as legitimately German. When the British declared war on him, Hitler was obviously dismayed; he insulted Ribbentrop for misleading him. At the same time, since he and not the British had an alliance with Russia, he could stand the pace, and even suspected that the British had only declared war on him to save face. This interpretation transfers much of the problem from Berlin to London. When the book came out, this was regarded as scandalous. But the interpretation is now commonplace, and we have moved on.
It was Taylor’s picture of Hitler that was really disturbing. Earlier writers had seen Hitler as an evil genius, revealing his plans in Mein Kampf, planning to destroy German democracy, militarise Germany, annihilate the neighbouring countries to south and east, and embark on a conquest of the world. Taylor saw something different – still evil, but not in the Hollywood sense that was apparently required. A year or two before, he had written a Bismarck that also clashed with customary opinion: Bismarck turned out to be a man who despised ideas, a master gambler who profited from the weakness of two Establishments – the German Liberals and the Habsburgs – at one go. Taylor had been reading the various documents on Hitler as they came out, and saw that Hitler was much more of a short-term opportunist than anyone had supposed. His rearmament, about which he boasted, was sufficient only for a short war with a weak state; it was Austrians or Czechoslovaks or Englishmen who kicked off the crises that led to German occupation of Austria or the Sudetenland or the destruction of the Czech state; it was Hitler’s expectation that the same would happen over Poland that led him to miscalculate in September 1939; the various documents used at Nuremberg to hang leading Nazis for conspiracy to cause war were fraudulent – especially in the case of the Hossbach Memorandum of November 1937; finally, Mein Kampf, which so many writers had taken seriously as Hitler’s blueprint, was simply the kind of bad-tempered vapouring you could hear in any Munich beerhouse or Viennese café. To be fair, that was Hitler’s own judgment of it: it had been written in prison, when he had nothing better to do, and he wished he had not written it at all.
Taylor would never, of course, deny that Hitler intended to restore Germany as the Great Power in Europe; nor would he deny that Hitler probably meant to expand at Russia’s expense. How did it then happen that he found himself involved in a war with the Western Powers? It was a good enough question, and Taylor’s answer was a coherent one, based on better documentation than his opponents had.
True, he overstated his position. It was an unnecessary provocation to say that war broke out in September 1939 because Hitler launched a diplomatic manoeuvre a day later than he should have done. In his desire to show how much combustible material lay around in eastern Europe for Hitler to use, Taylor sometimes oversimplified. It was true, as Taylor says, that the Austrian crisis of 1938 was kicked off when Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, asked to see Hitler; similarly it was the Czechoslovak leader, Benes, who kicked off the crisis that led to Munich in September 1938 and Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. But these statesmen were responding to situations that Hitler had created. In March 1939, the Czechoslovak state broke up altogether when the Slovaks declared their independence. Taylor seems to think that this happened more or less as a consequence of a nationality quarrel between Czechs and Slovaks, and in a sense he is right. But he forgot that there had been severe German pressure on the Slovaks for some months. He quotes a remark that Hitler made to a Slovak Fascist early in 1939, to the effect that he, Hitler, wished he had known about the Slovak movement before. This remark can only have been a face-saver: Hitler had been studying how to use Slovak nationalism to break up Czechoslovakia for the previous two months, and his agents had been at work. None of this really dents Taylor’s case, but it gave hostages to fortune which his critics could use – a great deal less scrupulously than Taylor had used his own evidence.
One great strength – perhaps the greatest – in Origins was a standard Taylorian anti-Establishment theme. The key to that book lies in its first hundred or so pages, demonstrating the weakness of the international Establishment between the wars, and especially the gap between its rhetoric and its ambitions. ‘Self-determination of peoples’ had been a con-trick as far as the defeated peoples of 1918 had been concerned; so was the League of Nations. ‘Reparations’, the Gold Standard, German Democracy, the Little Entente were all of them bogus – like the Maginot Line which was set up, at great expense, to defend it all. Taylor had a wonderful time in these first pages of Origins, demonstrating the hollowness and even the contradictions of the post-war settlements. It was almost as if they invited a Hitler. It probably is as true to say that Hitler was a creation of his own success as that his success was his creation.
There were gaps, inevitably, in Origins. Taylor’s Hitler was rather too passive, a man on the make who was led into situations. It is almost certainly right not to bother too much with Mein Kampf in a direct sense: but it said a great deal about the moral framework in which its author operated (and for that matter its readers). Taylor tended to be weak on ‘atmosphere’, to stick perhaps too closely to the kind of documentation he had used to such effect in his earlier works of diplomatic history. He was certainly right in saying that Hitler did not go to war to solve some great economic and social crisis – T.W., Mason’s efforts to demonstrate this have been a boring failure – but he might have considered the long-term causes of the Second World War. Still, his facts have stood up astonishingly well. Almost the only area where there has been a modification worth mentioning concerns Hitler’s armaments. It now turns out that German armament in the 1930s was quite low, not because Hitler wanted it to be, but because the Nazi state was not good at producing the goods. Hitler would say that he wanted the skies darkened by aircraft. His planners would knock a third off his figure; then the producers would manufacture a third less than that; and Goering would step in and scrap the whole programme, substituting other aircraft.
Origins offers no pattern – only muddle and misunderstanding, and an arms-race exploding into war. Taylor was (and is) a keen unilateral disarmer, and 1939 was maybe a parable for him. So, demonstrably, was 1914. In his short book on the outbreak of the First World War – War by Timetable – he more or less made out that the crisis of July 1914 began with German ‘brinkmanship’, but developed into war because the Great Powers, especially Germany, were caught by the intricate technicalities of their mobilisation programmes. Negotiations had to be cut short because generals became nervous that if they wasted time in talking, their enemies would steal a march on them when it came to mustering troops for the railway movements which everyone knew would decide the outcome of the war. This is of course quite fair at one level. But the atmosphere of mistrust and Russo-German rivalry in which such panics could occur matters at least as much: it made the difference, between, say, 1911 and 1914. To account for an atmosphere of this kind is not easy.
A.J.P. Taylor makes something of a virtue out of not confronting long-term questions. In a splendid metaphor, he said that looking for long-term causes of things was like ascribing motor accidents to the existence of the internal combustion-engine. We could forgive him the sentiment for the sake of the metaphor. He dislikes explanations ‘which explain everything and nothing’ (and said some very sensible things on Marxism in his introduction to the Communist Manifesto). He writes rudely about Acton’s pontificating – it leads straight to 1066 and All That – and he is not much less rude about Burckhardt. His own grasp is sometimes weaker when he has to tackle a larger theme than usual – say, ‘Fascism’. There are signs that he is occasionally uneasy about this: he can say surprisingly favourable things about the history of technology, and he once said of the famous Dutch historian, Geyl, that he was one of very few historians who would stop the historian apologising to the philosopher.
It is a pity that he did not get an Oxford chair just at the moment when he might have developed his range to cover longer-term historical subjects. Still, even if he was treated by Oxford with the same kind of grotesque misappreciation that E.H. Carr had received, it was by his own choice that he abandoned the Oxford position he still had, and spent the next few years largely on journalism and writing textbooks.
One fruit of that period is Taylor’s uncharacteristically lengthy life of Beaverbrook, who caught him as he fell or propelled himself from Oxford’s good graces. It was an extremely laudatory life – Taylor’s only exercise in that genre. But I do not know that this connection did A.J.P. Taylor very much good – any more than it did Michael Foot, Harold Nicolson, Robert Bruce-Lockhart, Tom Driberg or any of the other literati who seem to have lost a dimension in the service of that heterogeneous collection of unlikeable lost causes that Beaverbrook picked up. Taylor wrote that the Express was what England would have been without its class system. (He also said of Chaplin – another acquisitive little man who did splendid things in his youth before degenerating into a bad-tempered and slushy old money-bags – that he was ‘as timeless as Shakespeare and as great’.) Taylor had in fact been trapped in a position he himself must have found deeply uncomfortable, as chaplain on a pirates’ ship. He was happier when it was the other way about.
The extraordinary thing about this connection is that, though he was caught up in the Beaverbrook empire, Taylor did not care a fig for the social careerism, expense-account lunches and general splashing of money that might have made sense of it all. He was out of place in that world. Was it that Beaverbrook’s exuberance and ebullience could cut through the emotional constraints of the Nonconformist North of England? Was it that he offered his own version of power? Was it just that he made a fuss of Taylor at a bad time?
This latest volume of Taylor’s essays begins with an autobiographical essay that explains everything short of that. His origin, Dissenting middle-class stock in the North of England, accounts for a great deal: ‘On the one hand you reject established views – religious in earlier times, political and social in our own. On the other hand, you have no inner conflict in doing so. Indeed you would have a conflict only if you accepted them.’ His only hero is the People, or perhaps the commonsense characters who spoke for them and aspired to become their managers – Bright, Brougham, Peel (he even contrives to say some good things about C.P. Snow). He inhabits an oddly Dickensian world, in which the British Empire is represented by a Major Bagstock, the Civil Service by the Tite Barnacles, the bourgeoisle by the Veneerings, religion by the Reverend Melchisedech Howler. In his English History the only people he respects are managers, especially if they are slightly neurotic, as Baldwin (like Bismarck) was. As for the rest, the Church of England, like the Habsburg Monarchy, might as well take itself off to Hollywood; so maybe should the British Monarchy, though not so fast; the universities produce little, and that little is not read; the Army does not come off very well, though the Navy does. It is altogether a Little Englander’s view of the recent English past: if the People were freed of all the claptrap of Empire, Peerage, Church, Civil Service, Ancient Universities, then all would be well. He ends his English History on a note of hope, as the Labour Government comes in: ‘Men no longer sang “England Arise”. But England had arisen just the same.’
This same attitude underlay what he said about the Habsburg Monarchy a generation ago. Most Englishmen who write about the Habsburgs do so dazzled by the romance and gloss of a thousand-year-old empire whose head could claim the Mandate of Heaven, and use it to enjoin on his subjects a suitable consciousness of the futility of human endeavour – particularly political endeavour, and particularly where it meant limiting the power of the Mandate of Heaven. Taylor was different. He seems to have peered across the fog of Middle European history and espied there faces that reminded him of the government front bench. He lived in Vienna for two years, learnt the language (and many others) thoroughly, but seems to have gained no affection at all for the place. Metternich’s aphorisms (‘most men would do better while shaving’), German liberalism, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s promise, Magyar nationalism, most of the Croats (they regarded their horses as ‘more national than their peasants’) and virtually all of Viennese culture (‘daring arguments, tame conclusions’) are put to flight in a marvellous essay, the only heroes of which are the manager, Tito, and the saint (or maybe mismanager) Michael Karolyi, whom Taylor knew. This dislike of Establishments also led him to write badly of the Prussians; until a few years ago, he was a notorious German-hater. He was also extraordinarily rude about the Italians – Prussians at heart, but with an element of southern frivolity thrown in. It was maybe understandable that he should have regarded Soviet Russia, for a time, as the great hope. Here was a People, demonstrably Managed. At the end of the war, he thought that ‘we can be more confident of the future of the Anglo-Russian alliance when we have learnt to think of Trieste as Trst.’ By 1954, he was calling Russia ‘the greatest catastrophe of my lifetime’. In other words, he has been honest all the way through, even if it has led him into trouble and self-contradiction.
In the end, the country where Taylor belongs most is probably the one he has written about least – France. He admits that he learnt much of his style from the great French historian, Albert Sorel; he could probably be brought to admit that he owed much to another French writer of distinction, Louis Eisenmann, whose Compromis Austro-Hongrois he once described as the finest historical work of this century. France of the Third Republic had a solid patriotism, not one captured by imperialist ranters or militarists. It was anti-clerical. It had an intellectual élite that was honest, hard-working, egalitarian, humane, and vertically, though not horizontally, puritanical. That élite set some sort of standard for the kind of ex-peasant politician on the make who kept the Republican show on the road. The exoneration of Dreyfus, Taylor says, brought more glory to France than Napoleon did.
At bottom, A.J.P. Taylor is a romantic individualist. It is this which makes him so uneasy with institutions. It is this, too, which seems to have caused his increasing breach with the Left. His English History carefully catalogued the blunders and the have-your-cake-and-eat-it attitudes of the Left in the Thirties. He has nothing at all in common with the methods or ideology of the new left-wing historians; and he probably regards the present-day constellation in the Labour Party as every bit as unscrupulous and dreary – and more dangerous, because more comprehensive – as any interest group of the past. He has become something of a pessimist, and says: ‘Now I regard the state and still more the future of my country gloomily. Indeed I often wonder whether it is worth while writing history at all.’ He would have deserved well of the Republic, if we had had one.
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