A. J. P. Taylor - revisionism
A. J. P. Taylor, ( Alan John Percivale Taylor), was born in March, 1906,
at Birkdale, Lancashire, England into a politically liberal
family that enjoyed a definite affluence through involvements in
the cotton industry - he was to be the only surviving
The Origins of the Second World War
He showed early signs of intelligence as he began reading
books and newspapers from a notably young age with a particular
penchant for historical novels.
Due to his parent's opposition to the Great War then raging in
Europe he was educated at Quaker schools (the Quaker Christian
sect being committed to pacifism). He had a maternal uncle who
was punished as a Conscientious Objector after refusing to obey
government instructions that he serve in the army. His parents
were moved by the example of the Russian Revolution to embrace
Bolshevik sympathies - one Walton Newbold, a slightly notorious
Conscientious Objector of Quaker background then 'on the run'
from the authorities, who later became the first Communist Member
of the British Parliament, was a clandestine visitor to the
As a thirteen-year-old in 1919 Taylor proved to be something
of a rebellious influence in his last year at his preparatory
school (The Downs School, Malvern) where, during a time when many
pupils were laid low with the Mumps, he was responsible for
transforming the student school Cabinet as approved of by the
headmaster into a body which sought, amongst other things, to
abolish corporal punishment.
Taylor moved on to the Bootham School, York, and was, at the
end of his time there (1924) awarded a scholarship by Oriel
At Oxford he experienced something of a culture shock as he
had decided 'Lancashire', 'Leftist', and 'irreligious'
characteristics that were out of place in its plummy,
conservative, and somewhat episcopalian groves of academe.
Whilst a student at Oxford Taylor became involved in various
ways with support for the Communist Party. In the summer of 1925
Taylor, together with his mother and her political protege Henry
Sara, (a sometime socialistic journalist who was a foundation
member of the Communist Party of Great Britain), visited a Russia
which was then experiencing the relatively balmy days of the New
Economic Policy. In these weeks Taylor laid eyes on Lenin, heard
Zinoviev speak, and met Kamenev and Litvinov.
Back in Oxford however Taylor's involvement with Communism was
to be brief due to his disgust with what he saw as the party's
do-nothing approach in the General Strike of 1926.
Taylor graduated from Oriel College with first-class honours
in 1927. He considered that the course had just completed had
primarily been structured to offer its participants, who might
actually have no real interest in history, opportunities of
gaining 'good' degrees that would enable them to secure
prestigious jobs in the civil service or in commerce.
Uncertain about his path after graduation, he briefly clerked
with his Conscientious Objector uncle (now a prominent left-wing
solicitor-at-Law), but grew bored with the job. In 1928 he
somewhat irregularly returned to Oriel for graduate work in
history - he had no formal 'permission' to do so but just 'turned
up.' His father was wealthy enough to finance further studies,
Oriel College did not turn him away, Taylor himself imagined that
this course might well lead to his becoming a schoolmaster.
Despite his own 'first class' degree qualification Taylor did
not accept that he had actually as yet been trained as an
historian. Whilst he had some familiarity with the French
language a lecturer at Oriel advised him that he would have to
achieve a good understanding of German if he really hoped to
become an historian. After Taylor had tried unsuccessfully for
several possible openings in Germany a Professor mentioned a
friend who was a professional colleague in Vienna and encouraged
Taylor to apply to for a placement in that city.
Amongst other considerations Taylor was attracted by the
reputation Vienna then had as being in the vanguard of European
socialism - he applied, was awarded the opportunity of an
interview, and was accepted. He subsequently kept up studies
there for some two years - learning German mainly by reading
german language works of history with, initially fairly constant,
reference to a billingual dictionary.
The Viennese Radicals prior to 1848 had been initially agreed
as his topic of study but Taylor found that studies in the
"History of Ideas" did not suit him. His academic supervisor,
Professor Pribram, suggested a study in diplomatic history
concentrating on Anglo-Austrian relations between 1848 and 1866.
At this time Taylor was in no way familiar with Diplomatic
His autobiography records that:-
"I had never seen a diplomatic document before and simply
plunged in at the deep end without any instruction. I did not
know the difference between an original dispatch and a private
letter. I had no idea how to weigh the reliability of historical
evidence. I did not even know that I must note the number of each
document, an ignorance which caused me much unnecessary labour.
Nowadays graduate students are taught these things in their first
seminars. I operated as though no one had worked in diplomatic
Some familiarity with the content of the archives was followed
by Taylor again seeking to change his main subject of study as he
thought that it would be interesting to focus on the
international diplomacy surrounding the position of northern
parts of the Italian peninsula in 1848 - a time when Austrian
governance there was being openly challenged by an array of
Alongside these months of historical and diplomatic studies
Taylor learned to ice-skate, to horse-ride, and also began to
seriously frequent classical music recitals.
In 1930 Professor Pribram delivered that years Ford lectures
at Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he heard from a friend of a lecturing
appointment at Manchester University for which Taylor might be
suitable. Taylor secured this assistant lecturership - he
initially 'lectured' by reading out pre-prepared notes but
eventually decided to lecture entirely from memory.
Manchester was already familiar to him as his family's roots
were in the north east of England. He became active in
trade-union politics, developing his talent for speaking to
audiences by often addressing hundreds in town meetings. He also
began writing reviews and essays for the Manchester Guardian
(later The Guardian). In 1934 his first book, The Italian
Problem in European Diplomacy 1847-49, was published.
The editor of the Manchester Guardian began to commission full
articles from Taylor whilst pressing home the message that:- 'An
article in the Guardian is no good unless people read it on the
way to work.'
By these times Mussolini was in power in Italy and Hitler was
in power in Germany - Europe had seriously begun to become a
'Europe of the Dictators' and the possibility of war led to the
formation of variously directed anti-war movements.
Taylor's approach was pro-Russian, he considered that the
British government were really hoping that Germany would be a
future ally in keeping Soviet Russia at bay. Taylor thus opposed
British rearmament as Britain was in his view anti-Russian. (He
even proposed an alliance with Russia!). As early as February
1936, however, Taylor came to view Hitler's Germany as most
likely to become open adversary in the future and began to
support rearmament regardless of the present British
governmentment policy of hoping for an accomodation with Germany
whilst holding aloof from association with Soviet Russia.
In 1936 Taylor was appointed as full lecturer at Manchester
with security of tenure. Although he was in many ways quite happy
with his life in Manchester his friends encouragement that he
consider questions of professional advancement, and his own
realisation that this was pretty much expected of him, led to his
applying for various positions at Oxford University.
In 1938, he became a fellow of Oxford's Magdalen College where
he was to tutor in modern history. Although the academics of the
'City of the Dreaming Spires' considered that their University
was a place where any academic person would dearly love to find
employment Taylor found much there that appeared to him to be
old-fashioned and parochial when he took up his new teaching
During the war Taylor, as a teacher of modern history, was
regarded as helping to clarify why Britain was involved in the
conflict. He was therefore not considered for military service
but he did give lectures to servicemen about modern Europe and
also featured on a weekly series radio broadcasts for the
In order to provide for home defence the government decided to
organise units of Local Defence Volunteers later officially
renamed the Home Guard and unofficially known as 'Dads Army.'
Taylor joined early in the process of recruitment and found
himself in the company of other volunteering academics such as
Taylor's involvement with European matters led to his being
approached by for help a prominent Hungarian exile named Michael
Karolyi who later became a friend. Karolyi introduced Taylor to
other central and eastern Europeans in British exile and this
helped to broaden Taylor's understanding of the nationalities of
central and eastern European.
In these times a colleague was approached by a major publisher
to write a short history of modern Austria but this colleague did
not feel that he could be successful as an author of a history on
this subject with the result that Taylor embarked upon writing a
constitutional and narrative history that was later published as
The Habsburg Monarchy 1815-1918.
Hitler's invasion of Soviet Russia in 1941 opened up a vista
that Taylor had hoped for before the war - an alliance between
Britain and Russia as adversaries of Hitler's Germany. Before
many months had passed Taylor was consulted, as a left-leaning
expert on central and eastern Europe, by a clandestine Government
sponsored agency called the Political Warfare Executive.
From 1943 Taylor was occasionally called upon to write leading
articles for the Manchester Guardian. Before many months had
passed the writing of most of its leading articles on foreign
affairs were entrusted to him.
His involvement with the Political Warfare Executive led to
the writing of an article on Weimar Germany that was later
expanded into a work entitled The Course of German History
(1945) which became a best-seller. The line it took over an
effective alliance between the Junkers and heavy industry from
the times of Bismarck was not in accordance with established
historical wisdom in Britain.
After the war ended, Taylor continued to write, including an
extensive re-write of The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918, in
the more vivid style that was now at his command due to his
From early 1948 his standing as a left leaning academic
friendly to Russia became somewhat open to question with the
emergence of an increasing chilliness in relations between the
former eastern and western allies. This chilliness proved to be
the onset of the Cold War.
Taylor was invited to contribute a volume on international
relations between 1848 and 1914 to an ongoing project that was
intended to produce a twenty volume Oxford History of Modern
The proceedings of a UNESCO sponsored conference on Fascism
that he attended in Monte Carlo included his preparing a document
on Adolf Hitler that led him to see the German leader as an
opportunist in his several policies rather than as a person who
had consistently followed a definite evil plan.
In the summer of 1950 Taylor began a year of sabbatical leave
that he intended to devote to research in diplomatic history. It
happened, however, that he based himself in London where he was
called upon by a former associate in radio broadcasting to appear
as a panellist on a weekly BBC television programme of political
discussion. A program called In the News was subsequently
broadcast once a week and Taylor began to gain in celebrity and
At this time there were only a few hundred thousand TV sets in
Britain, and these seem to have been taken up moreso by affluent
and skilled working people than by the middle classes or
intellectuals. Taylor began to find that he was increasingly
recognised and addressed as "Alan". He was also building a
perception of himself as a Plain Man's Historian.
Another outcome of this sabbatical year was The Struggle
for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954) a work of detailed
diplomatic history which was very well received by reviewers and
helped to soundly establish Taylor's academic reputation.
In 1953 Taylor was appointed as a special lecturer by the
History Board at Oxford. This allowed him more opportunity for
research whilst also involving a lessened burden of teaching
In 1954 Taylor was invited to prepare to deliver the next
series of Ford lectures (in 1956) at Oxford. The Ford lectures
are widely thought to be the most prestigious lectures in history
in the English speaking world.
The series of lectures involved were to be, in line with
tradition, on English history: this was not Taylor's speciality
but a friend suggested that Taylor, as a sometime opponent of
government policy, lecture on a range of British people who had
opposed the official government foreign policy in the past.
Taylor was well pleased with this suggestion and his extensive
preparations for the Ford lectures also eventually resulted in a
work that was published as The Trouble Makers: Dissent Over
British Foreign Policy 1792-1939 (1957).
Unlike many previous Ford lecturers Taylor lectured over six,
one-hour, sessions without the benefit of notes. He was also
unlike many other lecturers in that the audience did not diminish
as the series progressed such that the lectures had, almost
unprecedently, to be maintained in a venue with adequate
The impression this feat of presentation made upon observers
resulted in Taylor being invited to feature in a series of
half-hour TV programmes where he would be filmed lecturing,
without benefit of notes, on historical topics. The first such
series of three lectures on the Russian Revolution proved to be a
success and this resulted in his being involved in one or two
series of six of such lectures, each year, for each of the next
Following a conversation with the overall editor of the
Oxford History of Modern Europe Taylor was accepted as the
author of yet another volume in the series - this time on
English History 1914-1945.
This acceptance incidentally led to the newspaper magnate Lord
Beaverbrook became a sometime employer, and a friend, following a
favourable review that Taylor had disinterestedly written in
relation to Beaverbrook's historical work Men and Power.
He had accepted this and other volumes for review in association
with his researches towards English History 1914-1945.
Taylor later counted Beaverbrook to have been the cleverest man
he ever knew.
In these times the British Government had approved the
building up of a stock of nuclear weapons and in 1958 Taylor made
a first speech in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament by
Britain. Shortly thereafter an article in the New
Statesman informed him of a group who were contemplating
involvement in a campaign for nuclear disarmament. As a result
Taylor was one of those in attendance at the very first meeting
of the CND executive.
Other active persons of particular celebrity being Kingsley
Martin, J.B. Priestly, E.P. Thompson, Bertrand Russell and Labour
MP Michael Foot.
Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War written
between 1957-61 proved to be vastly controversial. It challenged
the then accepted view that Hitler had been an uniquely evil
plotter of war by presenting a view of Hitler as an opportunist,
who had enjoyed much popular support in Germany and Austria.
Hitler's pushed for various reforms of diverse aspects of the
peace settlement to the First World War hoping to secure
concessions that would be satisfactory to Germanic
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. Great Britain
and France had in the past vacillated between policies of
appeasement and resistance.
Taylor's own statements such as "in principle and doctrine,
Hitler was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many a
contemporary statesman" outraged very many people who thought
of the racial imperialism, and of the death camps, that had been
evident in the Second World War as being monstrously evil.
Taylor does however say of Hitler that "in wicked acts he
outdid them all."
Fellow historian Hugh Trevor-Roper--Taylor's antagonist in the
fierce debates over Hitler that roiled the intellectual world
after Origins was published--once remarked, "The sad fact is that
Taylor is really too independent to have any support from any
Establishment." Taylor managed to annoy just about everybody in
the British historical profession, and his interpretive daring,
while sometimes strikingly original, often seemed willfully
perverse to his peers and colleagues.
Taylor's initially 'outrageous' revisionism was increasingly,
but not fully, accepted by British historians and by a majority
amongst the rising generation of German historians.
English History 1914-1945 was finished in manuscript in
July 1964. It was considered by Taylor to be technically the best
book he had written and when published in paperback proved to be
He loved to twit the United States, and often advocated an
alliance between Britain and the USSR. "Anyone who claims to
learn from history," he wrote with breathtaking assurance in
1967, "should devote himself to promoting an Anglo-Soviet
alliance, the most harmless and pacific of all possible
In 1976 A.J.P. Taylor reached the age of seventy - this being
the retirement age at Magdalen College. He accepted a visiting
professorship at Bristol University which was maintained over the
two years 1976-1978. He continued to be intermittently involved
in television broadcasts and in lecturing after this time.
During his career he had written more than thirty books and
was awarded several honorary Doctoral degrees (from the
Universities of New Brunswick, York, Bristol, Warwick and
Manchester). He died in September 1990 in London.
In retrospect we can say that A.J.P. Taylor was the best-known
British historian of the twentieth century, certainly the most
popular and probably the most influential. His books,
particularly The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, The Origins of
the Second World War, and English History 1914-1945 changed the
way history was written and read. Most of all - and unlike any
other historian before or since - Taylor made history accessible,
controversial and enjoyable to a mass audience.
"I was born without ambition and this made the conventional
rewards of life dust and ashes for me or not even that. History
has always been my consuming passion: reading history, writing
history, lecturing about history. I am afraid I enjoyed teaching
history less: something I had to do in order to justify my
academic position and of course also to bring in some money. Once
I discovered that I could earn money more easily by becoming a
journalist I slipped out of teaching history and I can almost say
became an historian in my spare time. But I think I remained a
good historian: careful about my sources, trying to set down the
truth as I saw it. I have never belonged to a school of history,
whether Marxism or Les Annales. I am a plain narrative historian
and I hope I give the reader plenty of entertainment as well. For
me writing history has been Fun on a high academic level. Add
television lectures which combined history and entertainment and
my enjoyment was complete. I would not have changed my
professional life for any other in the world."
From A. J. P. Taylor's autobiography
~ A Personal History
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.