Historian of the People

English History: 1914-1945

by A.J.P. Taylor
Oxford, 708 pp., $9.75

A. J. P. Taylor
A. J. P. Taylor; drawing by David Levine

Taylor’s volume, covering the period 1914-45 and the fifteenth in the Oxford History of England, is having, as might have been expected, a mixed reception in his own country. Some academic historians have condemned it as a characteristic product of his perversity, brittle cleverness, and intellectual frivolity. It seems to them old-fashioned in concentrating upon the maneuvers of politicians and diplomats and on the clash between interest groups. They deplore what they call his gross lack of discrimination in making judgments and his refusal to examine in depth the changes in the British social and economic structure and to relate these to the events he describes. Other historians have praised the wonderful readability of the book, the pace at which it moves, his mastery of the art of critical narrative, and his knowledge of the voluminous sources, which is so immense that even his most provocative judgments rest on an ability to disentangle a mass of evidence which few of his contemporaries can match. What other historian, they ask, could have written an account of political events with such authority when working under the iniquitous British Treasury rule whereby the archives of a period are closed to scholars until fifty years have elapsed?

What caused the row? The short answer is Taylor’s judgments. There is no historian who more enjoys coming to sharp, shocking conclusions, and quotation alone gives the flavor. In 1914 “the English State and the English people merged for the first time.” Asquith’s “initiative, if he ever had any, was sapped by years of good living in high society.” Gallipoli was “a romantic campaign.” Trenchard in 1917 “insisted that victory by air power alone was the oretically possible…probably the most permanent, certainly the most disastrous, legacy of the first world war.” Honors such as peerages went “to the conformist who saw nothing but good in the British way of life.” Homosexuality in the Twenties became “for a brief period normal.” The years between the wars were “the best time mankind, or at any rate Englishmen, had known.” On the declining birth rate: “the nursery gave place to the garage.” The Rev. Harold Davidson, a clergyman who liked chorus girls, was defrocked as a priest, and was devoured by a lion, “attracted more attention than Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury. Which man deserves a greater place in the history books?” “The Labour Party entered the war against Hitler locked in conflict with his most vocal opponents.” In August 1940 “it was perhaps fortunate that British patriotism was not put to the supreme test.” “So far as air strategy was concerned the British outdid German frightfulness first in theory, later in practice…”

But the judgments are part not only of the man but of his method. What were Taylor’s aims when he wrote, and what sort of an historian is he? He intended first to de-mythologize…

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