AJP Taylor (II)
* Closer to his work as a historian, Taylor championed less government secrecy and perhaps ironically for a staunch leftist, fought for more privately-owned television stations.
* The frequent television appearances helped to make Taylor the most famous British historian of the 20th century.
* A recurring theme in his writings was the role of accidents in deciding history. In his view, leaders did not make history; instead they reacted to events - what happened in the past was due to sequences of blunders and errors that were largely outside anyone's control. To the extent that anyone made anything happen in history, it was only through their mistakes. Thus, in his best-selling biography of Bismarck, Taylor argued that the Iron Chancellor had unified Germany more by accident than by design.
* His argument was that Hitler wished to make Germany the strongest power in Europe but he did not want or plan war. The outbreak of war in 1939 was an unfortunate accident caused by mistakes on everyone's part.
Notably, Taylor portrayed Hitler as a grasping opportunist with no beliefs other than the pursuit of power and anti-Semitism. He argued that Hitler did not possess any sort of programme and his foreign policy was one of drift and seizing chances as they offered themselves. He did not even consider Hitler’s anti-Semitism unique: foreshadowing the arguments that Daniel Goldhagen was to make decades later
* Taylor argued that the basic problem with an interwar Europe was a flawed Treaty of Versailles that was sufficiently onerous to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Germans would always hate it but insufficiently onerous that it failed to destroy the Reich’s potential to be a Great Power once more.
* Taylor always made clear that he wanted nothing with either Barnes or Hoggan. Much to Taylor’s intense discomfort, various neo-Nazi groups claimed that The Origins of the Second World War “acquitted” Hitler of responsibility for World War Two and tried to claim Taylor. Taylor always disowned the support of the neo-Nazis, making clear that he held their politics in extreme distaste.
* In the aftermath of the controversy occasioned by The Origins of the Second World War, many felt that Taylor was discredited forever as a historian, a point reinforced by the University of Oxford’s refusal to renew his teaching term in 1964. However in 1965 he rebounded with the spectacular success of his book English History 1914-1945, his only venture into social and cultural history, where he offered a loving, affectionate portrayal of the years between 1914 and 1945. English History 1914-1945 was enormous bestseller and in its first year in print sold more than all of the previous volumes of the Oxford History of England combined.
Though he felt there was much to be ashamed of in British history, especially in regard to Ireland, he was very proud to be British and more specifically English. He was fond of stressing his Non-Conformist Northern English background and saw himself as part of a grand tradition of radical dissent that he regarded as the real glorious history of England.
* One of Taylor’s finer moments occurred in the 1960s when he became the first English language historian and indeed the first historian after Hans Mommsen to accept the conclusions of the book The Reichstag Fire by journalist Fritz Tobias, that the Nazis had not set the Reichstag on fire in 1933 and that Marinus van der Lubbe had acted alone. What Tobias and Taylor argued had happened, was that the new Nazi government had been looking for something to increase its share of the vote in the elections of March 5, 1933, so as to activate the Enabling Act and that van der Lubbe had serendipitously (for the Nazis) provided it by burning down the Reichstag. Even without the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were quite determined to destroy German democracy. (...) Today, it is universally accepted by historians that Tobias and Taylor were correct about van der Lubbe as the sole arsonist.
*Taylor possessed a magnificent literary style, which allowed him to get away with many of his more frivolous ideas, such as that the major cause of the First World War was the wrong turn taken by the chauffeur of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. His views were those of a quirky, idiosyncratic and flamboyant individualist who challenged orthodoxies.