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A. J. P. Taylor WW2 revisionism

A. J. P. Taylor - The Origins of the Second World War

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 child.
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 Taylor home.

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 College, Oxford.
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 documentation.
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 archives before."

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 'Italian' interests.
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 position.

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 BBC.

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 C.S. Lewis.

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 journalistic experience.

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 Europe.
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 public notice.
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 duties.

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 seating.
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 ten years.

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.

WW2 revisionism

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 sentiment.

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' WW2 revisionism was increasingly, but not fully, accepted by British historians and by a majority amongst the rising generation of German historians.

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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 a bestseller

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 combinations."

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.

A. J. P. Taylor quotes

"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."

"[Otto von Bismarck] only considered the interests of his own country - always the worst offense that a statesman can commit in the eyes of foreigners."

"Our task as historians is to make past conflicts live again; not to lament the verdict or to wish for a different one. It bewildered me when my old master A. F. Pribram, a very great historian, said in the nineteen-thirties: 'It is still not decided whether the Habsburg monarchy could have found a solution for its national problems.' How can we decide about something that did not happen? Heaven knows, we have difficulty enough in deciding what did happen. Events decided that the Habsburgs had not found a solution for their national problems; that is all we know or need to know. Whenever I read the phrase: 'whether so-and-so acted rightly must be left for historians to decide', I close the book; the writer has moved from history to make-believe."

"earlier wars, and in the Second World War, generals, even marshals, also ran risks and died in action. In the First World War they led comfortable lives. All except Kitchener. He was the only outstanding military figure on either side who came to a violent end."

"Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness."

"In 1917 European history, in the old sense, came to an end. World history began. It was the year of Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom repudiated the traditional standards of political behaviour. Both preached Utopia, Heaven on Earth. It was the moment of birth for our contemporary world."

"The First World War had begun — imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)

Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare endorse a 'Tripartite Soul' view of Human Nature. Platos' Republic

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Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

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.