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A. J. P. Taylor (1906–1990)

Author of The Origins of the Second World War: 1919-1939

172+ Works 5,469 Members 55 Reviews 6 Favorited

About the Author

British historian A.J.P. Taylor studied at Oxford University and in 1938 became a fellow of Magdalen College. Interested chiefly in diplomatic and central European history, he is a prolific and masterful writer. Fritz Stern wrote of him and his The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848--1918 (1954) show more in the Political Science Quarterly: "There is something Shavian about A. J. P. Taylor and his place among academic historians; he is brilliant, erudite, witty, dogmatic, heretical, irritating, insufferable, and withal inescapable. He sometimes insults and always instructs his fellow-historians, and never more so than in his present effort to reinterpret the diplomatic history of Europe from 1848 to the end of the First World War. . . . After a brilliant introduction, in which he defines the balance of power and assesses the relative and changing strength of the Great Powers, Mr. Taylor presents a chronological survey, beginning with the diplomacy of war, 1914--1918. . . . [He] writes on two levels. He narrates the history of European diplomacy and compresses it admirably into a single volume. Imposed upon the narrative is his effort to probe the historical meaning of given actions and conditions. . . . He has a peculiar sense of inevitability, growing out of what he regards the logic of a given development, as well as a delicate feeling for live options and alternatives. Mr. Taylor suggests that fear, not aggression, was the dominant impulse of pre-war diplomacy." The Origins of the Second World War (1961), again controversial and lively, starts from the premise (in Taylor's words) that "the war of 1939, far from being premeditated, was a mistake, the result on both sides of diplomatic blunders." The New Statesman said of it: "Taylor is the only English historian now writing who can bend the bow of Gibbon and Macaulay. [This is] a masterpiece: lucid, compassionate, beautifully written in a bare, sparse style, and at the same time deeply disturbing." Several of Taylor's other works also received high praise. Among these were Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman (1955), in which he exonerated Bismarck; Hapsburg Monarchy, 1809--1914, a survey of the era; and English History, 1919--1945, a volume in the Oxford History of England Series, greeted by the N.Y. Review of Books as "an astonishing tour de force." (Bowker Author Biography) show less


Works by A. J. P. Taylor

English History, 1914-1945 (1965) 636 copies
Europe: Grandeur and Decline (1967) 139 copies
From Sarajevo to Potsdam (1965) 129 copies
The War Lords (1977) 122 copies
History of World War I (1966) 77 copies
Beaverbrook (1896) 69 copies
How Wars Begin (1979) 59 copies
The Trouble Makers (1957) 53 copies
From Napoleon to Lenin (1952) 27 copies
The Russian war, 1941-1945 (1977) 26 copies
How Wars End (1985) 26 copies
20th Century vol. 1-20 (1979) 13 copies
An Old Man's Diary (1984) 11 copies
Essays presented to Sir Lewis Namier (1956) — Editor — 6 copies
Letters to Eva, 1969-83 (1991) 6 copies
Lloyd George: Twelve Essays (1971) — Editor — 3 copies
Englishmen and Others (1956) 2 copies
Trieste (1945) 2 copies

Associated Works

The Communist Manifesto (1848) — Introduction, some editions — 15,082 copies
Ten Days that Shook the World (1919) — Introduction, some editions — 2,453 copies
Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain (1977) — Introduction, some editions — 593 copies
My Youth in Vienna (1968) — Foreword, some editions — 98 copies
If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931) — Contributor — 56 copies
Lloyd George: a diary (1971) — Editor — 20 copies
The Abdication of King Edward VIII (1965) — Editor — 19 copies
Lloyd George (1974) — Introduction — 6 copies
Edwardian England (1982) — Prologue — 6 copies
Lord Melbourne (1975) — Introduction — 3 copies
The Life and Times of David Lloyd George (1981) — Historical Adviser — 2 copies


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Common Knowledge



In 1960, historian A.J.P. Taylor reviewed again the evidence available that described the series of political events between the two world wars. He dispensed with 'common knowledge' and worked from the records to arrive at his own conclusions. These boil down to some basic points: Hitler had no master plan, he was a master opportunist; appeasement did not seem nearly so weak or unreasonable a strategy in the heat of the moment, lacking foreknowledge; and World War II erupted more from a result of blunders than intentions. For all of these he builds a case based on evidence that he can point to (and it makes for an interesting exercise), but in terms of conclusions this winds up feeling like the proverbial "sound and fury signifying nothing." The faulty treaty of Versailles still set up Europe for another disaster, and Hitler was still a bully always threatening to use force and ready to go back on his word to achieve whatever next end he had in mind, a sequence of which seemed to have no final end in sight. Poland drew the line that nobody else would draw by absolutely refusing to negotiate with him, and thus a line was crossed. I'm more interested in the three points above that Taylor seems to win, rather than his suspect logic about shared blame for war.

Hitler was not a master strategist who executed a plan years in the making. He had vague ideas about a greater Germany and took opportunities to pursue it as those opportunities came to hand. That they arose so readily was more a factor of empathy for Germany's treatment in Versailles, and the stirring nationalism of neighbouring German peoples in Austria and elsewhere. At the end of the day this does not in fact paint a dramatically different picture from anyone else's assessment: Hitler is still bad, Chamberlain is still foolish. But if Hitler was not a frightening mastermind, the sketch drawn of him is still something just as frightening: a democratically elected tyrant guided only by his megalomania who did not share the decorum of the rest of the world order. A man who would act impulsively and outrageously when others only talked that way. He had no superior wisdom, pulled no puppet strings. He only liked power, and he liked to use it. You do not have to look nearly as far to find examples of people like that all around you.

The strategy of appeasement is much maligned, a backing down in the face of aggression. Taylor contextualizes this in its setting. Statesmen in the 1920s and 1930s had to grapple with fallout from the treaty at Versailles. It was not, in fact, a workable document in how it treated Germany; partly in it outrageous terms but primarily because there was never any means provided to enforce it if necessary. The disagreement among allies as to whether Germany deserved the harsh terms and/or could even survive them was a key factor. Certainly the German people didn't accept them, and used them as a scapegoat for literally everything that ever went wrong until Hitler came to power. Consequently British (willing) and French (grudging) diplomats allowed that some of the treaty's terms should justifiably be undone somehow, some way. It's unfortunate that Hitler happened to be the one in power, and that his way involved infantry, tanks and bluster. This proved particularly effective in the face of his opponents' already soft position.

Lastly, there is Taylor's blunders argument. It was proven to Hitler multiple times that the western powers (Britain and France) would not react to the point of war in the face of provocation. Mussolini would have had to withdraw from Abyssinia, Hitler from the Rhineland and his intervention in the Spanish Civil War, if Britain and France had reacted more strongly. Later, when Hitler stood a chance of military resistance, they were even more reluctant to do so over Austria or Czechslovakia, and demonstrated a horrible lack of regard for those countries' sovereignty. This explains Hitler's ready determination to invade Poland. He didn't expect any different a response. The lesson here is that when you are going to draw a line in the sand, be very firm and clear about it: think Cuban Missile Crisis.

Many years ago I read 'Rise and Fall of the Third Reich' which also covered all of this ground, was written at almost the same time and is just as heralded a work if not more. I wish I had read these books in closer proximity so I could contrast their perspectives.
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Cecrow | 8 other reviews | Feb 11, 2024 |
Very enjoyable, highly readable, dry and pithy account of the First World War. Good with context, and the personalities involved. Does reinforce the "lions led by donkeys" popular image of the war.
thisisstephenbetts | 6 other reviews | Nov 25, 2023 |
This is a sort of iconic work on the origins of the second world war, and obviously it would be presumptuous to make a critical comment. The book is mercifully not big (only slightly over 300 pages), and hence can be condumed without a strain. As for the author's style, it is rational, non-pompous, and speaks directly to the reader. Many of its paragraphs are rounded off with a pithy and inspired aphorism that sums up the whole thing aptly. As for the author's general approach, it seems that Hitler did not have any pre-detrermined grand aim to subjugate the world, and could have been satisfied if the French and British had allowed him to take over Poland (they had alrwady conceded Austria and Czechoslovakia). Thius theory is somewhat like the judgment that the British fell into the Indian empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. Of Hitler's antipathy to the Jews and other unfortunates, there is hardly any mention. Of course, I could not make a cogent appraisal of this approach, as I have not read the author's other works.One wonders, however.… (more)
Dilip-Kumar | 8 other reviews | Oct 31, 2023 |



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