War in our Time

A.J.P. Taylor

In one way or another I have now been teaching Modern European History for at least fifty years. When I looked back I realised with some embarrassment that most of the time I had been dealing with one war or another, or wars in general. I can’t claim any expert knowledge of war: in fact, the nearest I have come to war was in 1940, when I and other members of the Home Guard patrolled round Oxford gas works. We foresaw with a flash of strategical penetration that the entire German parachute force would land on Oxford, if only because Oxford was supposed to be in those days a seat of learning. Why it should concentrate on the gas works I never understood. However, there we were on summer evenings, plodding round the gas works with unloaded rifles, waiting for the enemy who never came. That is the nearest I have been to a military experience. And yet war has dominated my life. The first book I published was about the Austro-Sardinian war of 1848, a war no doubt somewhat obscure to most of you: the last of my books, published in 1976, was a history of the Second World War, so I have kept moving. But I have rarely reflected on the general character of war. I do not propose to do so now: rather, to make some personal comments on how I and other historians have treated the subject.

War is one of the most admired and yet one of the most deplorable activities of human beings: its function is to get your way by killing other people. It is one of the oldest activities of the human race. By the 19th century it had become more formal – one could almost say, more civilised. In the last thirty years of the 19th century Europe hardly experienced war at all. The Victorians and their immediate successors attributed this long peace to the Balance of Power if they were feeling cynical about it, or to the Concert of Europe if they were feeling more high-minded. Europe had peace for so long that people began to take it for granted: maybe that was one of the causes of it ending. It would, however, be entirely wrong to suppose that people did not continue to admire and even to idealise war. The literary enthusiasm for war was at its height and such wars as there were, all outside Europe, received constant attention and applause.

Nineteenth-century England is often presented as the most pacific and sensible of European countries: but some units of the British Army were engaged in war during every year of the reign of Queen Victoria. The British Army was an experienced army: nearly all its generals of 1914 had served in the Boer War. Most of the German generals of 1914 with their high repute and prestigious names had never experienced battle at all: their theories, their strategy had been entirely developed on paper or on the drill ground. This unparalleled period of peace made the shock of war in 1914 all the more shattering. It was universally felt that the First World War, as it came to be called, must have had causes that were both obscure and profound. When I was a young university teacher we ran whole courses on the origins of the First World War and if we could find some new little cause we felt we had arrived in the academic profession.

When I look back again I am very doubtful whether the so-called causes of war before 1914 had much to do with the actual outbreak of war. Take, for instance, the great stress laid on the territorial disputes outside Europe: colonial or imperialist rivalries, as they were called. There certainly were such conflicts. In 1885, there was a conflict between England and Russia over some scrap of territory in Afghanistan and the British Government asked the House of Commons for a vote of war credits – the only such vote asked for between 1864 and 1914. But no war followed. In 1898, Great Britain delivered an ultimatum to France during the Fashoda crisis. No war followed. By 1914 all the colonial disputes had been settled or were on the point of being settled. When the war of 1914 broke out, Great Britain and Germany had drafted agreements partitioning the Portuguese colonies and sharing out the Baghdad railway. As late as 23 July, ten days before the outbreak of war, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, actually said that the two great powers, England and Germany, were drawing closer together in friendship.

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