The History of A. J. P. Taylor

Politics in Wartime and Other Essays

by A.J.P. Taylor
Atheneum, 207 pp., $5.00

Whether or not he has the stature of Gibbon and Macaulay, as enthusiastic reviewers have occasionally—and irrelevantly—claimed for him, A. J. P. Taylor is certainly among the most prominent of living British historians. It is not the universal opinion that he is among the most distinguished. On the contrary, he is also; by all odds, the most controversial among these most prominent figures. He poses a problem, indeed, which the controversy has done little as yet to resolve. While some of the criticism he incurs is concerned with the quality of his work and the soundness of his judgments—and does not arise merely from disagreement with the drift and content of his conclusions—most of it, and all the praise, confuses these two issues. His latest book, providing us with another opportunity to assess his real worth, will receive, like everything he has written, both lyrical praise and the blackest of damnation. On this account it will be another missed opportunity.

Mr. Taylor’s critics will be quick to point out that of the eighteen pieces here reprinted at least eleven are brief reviews which need not have been rescued from the newspaper columns because they are pointless except in relation to the publication, some time back, of the volumes to which they refer. Were it not that most of his opponents are themselves now engaged in this reprehensible practice, for which he set the fashion in 1950 with his From Napoleon to Hitler, they would certainly go on to say that his decision to reprint these notices in book form is another testimony to that abiding love of the limelight and profound lack of discrimination which produce his regular indulgence in other forms of questionable journalism. They will not fail to notice in this connection the relish he displays, not to speak of the inside knowledge, whenever he writes here on the subject of the Press. Can it be doubted that what he says about Lord Northcliffe—“the plain fact is that Northcliffe was a newsman first, last and all the time”—applies equally to himself? And least of all will they allow us to ignore the fact that not only in these occasional pieces, but also in the more serious chapters, there is embedded still more serious evidence that his historical judgment is often wildly faulty and his lack of discrimination virtually complete. How else, to take one example, could a man give to the review of a book on the Irish Famine the title “Genocide”? How else could he begin it with these words?

When British forces entered the so-called “convalescent camp” at Belsen in 1945, they found a scene of indescribable horror…Only a century before, all Ireland was a Belsen.

Mr. Taylor’s admirers, on the other hand, will easily overlook and in some cases be unable to recognize, such gaffes. They will not be disturbed by the presence in a book entitled Politics in Wartime of a slight review of a …

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Letters

Overstatement? June 17, 1965