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 book on the Famine, or others on Cromwell and the Historians, for example, or on Charles James Fox. For more important, surely, than the fact that many of these pieces were not worth reprinting is the fact that we now have in book form the few pieces that indubitably were: “Politics in the First World War”; “How a World War Began”; “The War Aims of the Allies in the First World War”; “Lloyd George: Rise and Fall.” As for Mr. Taylor’s judgments, if their astringency and their aphoristic quality add to the shock that they administer, so much the better. And if they sometimes spring from a desire to shock which leads him into occasional excesses and lapses from good taste, the effect is more than offset by the fact that so many of the judgments are penetrating and true. They are not the fireworks of a journalistic enfant terrible but the enlightening discoveries of an acute and mature historical mind.
So, undoubtedly, the reviews will run; and because they have so often run according to this pattern it is tempting to say that there must be something to be said on both sides, and let it go at that. But it would be a pity to stop there. This latest book advances our knowledge of how Mr. Taylor ticks as a historian, and of what his worth is as a historian. It is high time that the evidence on these points should be assessed in order that at least some of the controversy may be stilled. The book is most revealing where he himself advances beyond his revisionist endeavors in connection with the origins of the Second World War to present a revisionist attack on the historiography of the origins of the First. On this issue particularly—though this conclusion is confirmed elsewhere in these essays—he finally establishes beyond doubt that he is a superb tactical historian, not to say a superb antiquarian, who is somewhat deficient in those wider speculative and logical powers and that gravitas which are essential ingredients of the best historical minds.
Nobody with a knowledge of the subject can fail to admire Mr. Taylor’s mastery of the evidence, or the brilliance with which he dissects and rearranges it, when he is dealing, in connection with the outbreak of the First World War, with the details of the Sarajevo murder or of the slide into war that followed it. The account is by no means lacking, either, in profound psychological insights: he cuts through obscurity no less ruthlessly and effectively when reconstructing the motives of individuals than when he is handling, technically, the mountainous evidence with which the modern historian is confronted. These qualities are equally evident elsewhere in the book. Comparison of his analyses in “Politics in the First World War” or “Lloyd George: Rise and Fall” with, for example, those in Mr. Jenkins’s recent biography of Asquith at once displays the gulf between the acute mind controlled by professional mastery and arduous technical experience and the acute mind tout court. There need be no doubt, if ever there was, that on the detailed or tactical level of historical reconstruction Mr. Taylor is a craftsman of the first order, even if he sometimes slips into mistakes of fact and emphasis.
But it is not from mistakes on this level, infuriating though these can be to his opponents, that reservations about his work arise. And it is not from deficient craftsmanship, or even from carelessness, that, mostly, they derive. Mr. Taylor says in his preface that “some historians…produce rich plum puddings; some produce dry biscuits. I produce dry biscuits…” The point can be made in another way. An antiquarian may be defined as somebody who is interested in historical objects and even in the reconstruction of the historical past, but who lacks interest, as much as does the journalist, in the historical process. In this sense of the word Mr. Taylor is an antiquarian; and it is because he is an antiquarian, and not because he is a journalist, that he is deficient in the historical imagination.
Again the point can best be illustrated from his discussion of the two World Wars. In his Origins of the Second World War he gave it as his opinion that “wars are much like road accidents. They have a general cause and particular causes at the same time…The Second World War, too, had profound causes but it also grew out of specific events, and these events are worth detailed examination.” And because he devoted all his brilliant craftsmanship to reconstructing the specific events which precluded the war of 1939 in isolation from the “profound causes,” from the wider historical context in which the events arose, the book arrived at a radically false interpretation. In the present book when he writes about the origins of the First World War, Mr. Taylor is still more forthcoming about his approach. “Most of the nonsense,” he says,
has sprung from the very human conviction that great events have great causes. The first World War was certainly a great event. Therefore great causes have had to be be found for it…The truth is that the statesmen of Europe behaved in July 1914 just as they had behaved for the preceding thirty years, neither better nor worse. The techniques and systems which had given Europe a generation of peace now plunged her into war.
Not even a mention of profounder causes now; and even less regard than in the Origins of the Second World War for the broader historical process in which the outbreak of war, so ably reconstructed on the tactical level, occurred.
What will be found to be wrong with the resulting interpretation, then, is not the occasional slip or technical mistake, as when Mr. Taylor says that Sir Edward Grey, unlike the German government, failed to make his position clear, but forgets to add that the German government had made its position clear only to Vienna. It is a suspect interpretation because it shows no sensibility about the differences that had come about in the international context or system since the 1900s, as compared with the years before; because it shows no judgment in discriminating between the different qualities of the policies pursued by the different governments; and because, with regard to Sarajevo itself, it shows no power to discriminate between the occasion and the causes of the war. It is indeed true that the techniques of diplomacy which had enabled the Powers to localize crises and preserve the general peace during the years since 1871 proved inadequate to localize the crisis that broke out after the Sarajevo murder. But the main reason for that inadequacy in 1914 was that the relations between the Powers had progressively deteriorated since at least 1904. We cannot here discuss the causes of the deterioration; it is sufficient to say that it was so widely recognized even at the time that it is manifestly untrue that in 1914 “the statesmen of Europe behaved just as they had behaved for the preceding thirty years.” And although we cannot go into the even more complex question of the responsibility for the deterioration, one other thing is equally obvious. While the policies of all the Powers had in some measure degenerated under the strain, the policies of Germany and Austria-Hungary had since 1909 been more desperate or more ruthless than those of the other Powers, and this difference in the quality of the policies pursued by the Powers was glaring during the Sarajevo crisis. And these two points, finally, have a bearing on the third. Elementary logic normally persuades a man that there is some distinction between occasion and cause. To discuss the Sarajevo crisis as if the outbreak or the conduct of it was the cause of the First World War, instead of being merely the occasion which brought its causes into operation, requires not only the suspension of logic but also neglect of the entire pre-1914 context.
Mr. Taylor, who knows as much about this context as any other man, may plead that he has been writing only about how a world war began. But it is difficult to believe that he could slip into so limited and distorted an account of the Sarajevo crisis were it not the case that his mind is fundamentally one that is absorbed in the what and the how of history and uninterested in the why. At the same time, these criticisms should be enough to reveal that in proposing that Mr. Taylor’s historical sense is weak we are not lamenting that he is no Toynbee. If his weakness as a historian is that he neglects “the profound causes”—and this is his phrase—he will not correct it by jumping from his own extreme of concentrating entirely on the detailed reconstruction of historical episodes to that other. If he is to correct it he must think along other lines. With him, up to now, as with Toynbee, but for exactly the opposite reason, history, though not indeed a tale told by an idiot, is a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
May 6, 1965