A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War and his critics in Great Britain
In 1961 A.J.P. Taylor, described as “an enfant terrible among historians”1 by Ian F. D. Morrow, discombobulated peer historians with his publication The Origins of the Second World War. In this book Taylor disputed the orthodox school of war historiography. Taylor‟s thesis of the origins of the Second World War has received some support, but primarily critique. His thesis may be briefly stated. According to Taylor, Hitler was not a demonic warlord, who had plans of world conquest but was only an ordinary man “who was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many other contemporary statesman”2. Hitler followed a foreign policy like “that of his predecessors, of the professional diplomats at the foreign ministry, and indeed of virtually all Germans”3. Adolf Hitler was not a “a system-maker, deliberately preparing from the first a great war which would destroy existing civilisation and make him master of the world”4 Hitler‟s purpose was to liberate Germany from the Treaty of Versailles that “lacked moral validity from the start”5 and “to make Germany the leading Power in Europe from her natural weight.”6 In fulfilling his goals, Hitler was supported by appeasers such as Neville and Chamberlain, who believed that Hitler would become pacific if his demands were met. Hence, all Hitler had to do was waiting for concessions. Taylor presents Hitler as a passive Fuehrer, without clear intentions. Regarding Danzig and Poland, Hitler didn‟t intend its destruction. On the contrary “he had wished to solve the question of Danzig so that Germany and Poland could remain on good terms.”7
Almost immediately after the release of The Origins of the Second World War a scintillating debate started in the Times Literary Supplement, which is, “perhaps, the most highly respected English review.”8 Isaac Deutscher, Margret Lambert, David Thomson, William Norton Medlicott, George Bonnin, Alfred Leslie Rowse and Elizabeth Wiskemann challenged Taylor‟s interpretation. The review articles appear anonymously, but authors of letters to the editor are identified.
The first review article - entitled “Why did we fight”- of this kind was written “anonymously”: indeed, this earliest review was written by E.H. Carr, who gave a favourable review of Origins of The Second World War, who was close friends with A. J. P. Taylor and Isaac Deutscher.9 The “anonymous” critic points out that Taylor‟s explanation “has suited almost everybody. It has suited the western allies because it covers up their own deviancies of policy; it has suited Hitler allies, because it partially exonerates them; and it has suited the German people because, although the mist honest of them do not deny their guilt..:”10
Carr triggered an avalanche by stating that “Paragraph after paragraph and page after page [Taylor] build up [his book] with methodical and impeccable logic”. The book left unanswered questions, of course, but it was “the first time that we have been able to read an account of the inter-war period which is the world of a scholar studying history rather than the commentary of a contemporary reliving a part of own experience.”11
Within days Taylor‟s books as well as Carr‟s letter were under attack. David Thomson and Medlicott stressed the inconsistency of Origins. Taylor could state, for example, that Hitler‟s reoccupation of the Rhineland led to Belgium‟s withdrawal from the French alliance which „created a terrible strategical problem for the French,” since it left France‟s Belgian border without defences. It is a trifle, puzzling; however, when we have been assured that “The reoccupation of the Rhineland did not affect France from the defensive point of view12
So, too, Thomson points out that according to Taylor Hitler had no „long-term plans‟, he could four paragraphs later begin discussing his long-term plans; Taylor could claim that Great Britain was the only power being interested in the Far East and then in the same paragraph relate that the United States had interest in the Far East. David Thomson concluded that “such gifts of ventriloquism, being rare among historians, surely deserve some comment?”13, while Medlicott presumes “that this is a readable but somewhat baffling and unconvincing book; if there is a Hitler-problem Mr. Taylor has not solved it.”14
According to this letter, E.H. Carr replied again (anonymously) to Thomson‟s critique, in which he says that he “should like to point out on my own behalf the futility of trying to give examples of a “methodical an impeccable logic” which runs through the whole long and closely woven argument. It is only the lapse of occasional logic that can be illustrated; and this is was Dr. Thomson has done. “However “he had not …even touched the main structure of Mr. Taylor‟s argument.”15
1 Roger Louis, WM.(1972), The Origins of the Second World War: A.J.P. Taylor and His Critics, p.63.
2 Taylor, A.J.P. (1963), Origins of The Second World War, p.100.
3 Ibid. P. 101
4 Ibid. p.98.
5 Ibid. p.52.
6 Ibid. p.97.
7 Ibid. p.256.
8 Roger Louis (1972), p.30.
9 Cole, Robert (1993), A.J.P. Taylor: the traitor within the gates, p.191.
10 Roger Louis (1972),p.31.
12 Ibid. p.33.
13 Ibid. p.33.
14 Ibid. p.96.
15 Ibid. P.33-34