The Outbreak of the Second World War: Design or Blunder?

By John L. Snell | Go to book overview

A CHALLENGE TO NUREMBERG AND
POSTWAR HISTORY

A. J. P. TAYLOR

The previous three readings emphasize German responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. Here is an attack on that "orthodox" interpretation. The author, A. J. P. Taylor, is Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford University. In books on nineteenth-century Italy, Imperial Germany's acquisition of colonies in the 1880's, Bismarck, the course of German history, the Hapsburg monarchy, and diplomatic history, Taylor had made himself known before 1961 for his research, his vivid and sometimes shocking interpretations, and his terse and ironical style, drawing heavily upon cynicism and paradox. It was usually said of Taylor's works, even before 1961, that they were "thought provoking," which they were. Many historians also considered their interpretations perverse or irresponsible. This reading is taken from a book of 1961 that stirred more controversy than any of Taylor's other works. It is inaccurate to say simply that the book is "pro-German" or "pro-Hitler." In his early pages Taylor briefly seems to imply that Germany should have been dismembered into separate states in 1919; that a Germany left united, as if by some kind of geopolitical natural law, inevitably would reassert the power it had briefly established with the surrender of Soviet Russia at Brest-Litovsk early in 1918. Taylor, who in the Chamberlain era opposed appeasement of Nazi Germany, in his 1961 treatment frequently justifies Hitler's demands and criticizes British policy for not appeasing Hitler more fully. But he is not consistent in his argument. Would Taylor's interpretation have been different if he had made use of the records of the International Military Tribunal, which he criticized as historical sources and failed to mention in his bibliography?

THE leading authors to whom we turn for accounts of the origins of the second World war -- Namier, Wheeler- Bennett, Wiskemann in English, Baumont in French -- all published their books soon after the war ended; and all expressed views which they had held while the war was on, or even before it began. Twenty years after the outbreak of the first World war, very few people would have accepted without modification the explanations for it given in August 1914. Twenty years and more after the outbreak of the second World war nearly everyone accepts the explanations which were given in September 1939. . . .

If the evidence had been sufficiently conflicting, scholars would soon have been found to dispute the popular verdict, however generally accepted. This has not happened; and for two apparently contradictory reasons -- there is at once too much evidence and too little. The evidence of which there is too much is that collected for the trials of war-criminals in Nuremberg.

____________________
From The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, pp. 9, 13-14, 71-72, 131-132, 195- 196, 209-211, 215-216, 218-220, 250, 263-264, 268-269, 272-278. Copyright © 1961 by A. J. P. Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York, and Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., London.

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