"GOAK HERE": A.J.P. TAYLOR AND
THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR(1)
Alan John Percivale Taylor could never resist a dig. In the introduction to the second edition of The Origins of the Second World War he wrote that he "ought perhaps to have added `(goak here)' in the manner of Artemus Ward" to his characterization of the Munich settlement as "a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life."(2) This reference hardly made the matter clearer for many readers, and Taylor seems to have spent a great deal of time explaining that Artemus Ward was a comedian of such uncertain talents that he wrote "goak here" on his scripts -- a misspelling of "joke" -- so that no one would miss the punch line.(3)
As I write, thirty-five years have passed since the publication of Taylor's classic and controversial book. The Origins has had a long career in the historiography of appeasement; indeed, something of a cottage industry in attacking and defending its central theses has grown up around it.(4) If it is not true, as Taylor claimed, that his book has become the new orthodoxy, there is more justice in his claim that "every historian cashes in on my views, perhaps without realizing that he is doing so."(5) And yet, for all the buckets of ink and forests of trees that have been devoted to Taylor over three and a half decades, the central problem raised by his book remains that suggested by his reference to poor Artemus Ward@ How should we read Taylor? What is his punch line?
This essay is divided into three sections. The first section considers "the origins of the Origins," Taylor's work and thought on questions of war and diplomacy through the late 1950s. The second section examines Taylor's historical method as it can be divined from both his historical writings and his autobiographical comments. In the concluding section I consider several fundamental criticisms of Taylor's argument, and I attempt to demonstrate how Taylor's style and intellectual preoccupations combined to create such a startling book.
In a typical aside toward the end of the Origins, nearly buried in a long paragraph on Hitler's intentions for the year 1993 Taylor wrote:
Many however believe that Hitler was a modern Attila, loving
destruction for its own sake and therefore bent on war without
thought of policy. There is no arguing with such dogmas ... But
his policy is capable of rational explanation; and it is on these that
history is built ... At any rate, this is a rival dogma which is
worth developing, if only as an academic exercise.(6) (Emphasis
I submit that this passage provides the interpretative key to Taylor's difficult book. I will argue that what Taylor gave us was not so much a straightforward historical narrative as a brilliantly constructed admonitory fable that operates on levels other than the literal.
Taylor was born in 1906 in Lancashire. Throughout his life he made much of this background: the northern upbringing, the family of successful Quaker cotton manufacturers, his parents' radical-liberal politics. He was educated at the Quaker school of Bootham and at Oriel College, Oxford, where he took a first in history. Taylor then spent two years studying in Vienna under the nominal direction of A.F. Pribam, who, like so many historians of the day, had turned his professional attention to the origins of the First World War. On Pribram's recommendation Taylor secured a teaching position at the University of Manchester, where he became a protege of Sir Lewis Namier -- perhaps the first person to teach him something of the craft of the practising historian. Namier had a powerful influence on Taylor, making him, as Sisman writes, "a tougher, more rigorous thinker."(7) Taylor himself admitted that he might not have pressed on with his historical career were it not for Namier. …