Master of the Multiple Viewpoint: Continuing Our New Series in Which Historians Delve into the Extensive Archive of History Today, Jeremy Black Examines A.J.P. Taylor's Account of the Crimean War, Published in February 1951

Article excerpt

A.J.P. Taylor, in explaining why the Crimean War occurred and, more crucially, its short, medium and long-term consequences, displayed his mastery of international history and, in particular, his ability to understand and then integrate multiple viewpoints.

The roots of the war, which pitched Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire against Russia, were indeed multiple. French interests in the Near East had led to support for demands by Catholic priests for access to the holy places. Ottoman concessions on this matter led to similar demands from Russia, protector of the Orthodox clergy, but their pressure was resented by the Turks.

Britain and France were worried that Russia was becoming too powerful in Europe. In addition, Britain had concerns about competition with Russia in South Asia. Russophobia helped to push a divided British government into war. The complexities of international relations were ably charted by Taylor, in particular the importance diplomatically of the neutral states of Prussia and Austria.

The historiographical context is fascinating as, self-consciously writing in the shadow of the Second World War and at the time of the Cold War, Taylor made frequent reference to both. At times, the reference is implicit and looks toward Taylor's later work on the Second World War as when he refers to 'this mixture of conciliation always too grudging and firmness always too late which, on the British side, produced the Crimean War'. Generally, the parallels were drawn much more clearly, as between the neutralisation of the Black Sea in the Treaty of Paris (1856) and that of the Rhineland in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and Taylor believed in spelling out his message: 'If you wish to perpetuate a military victory, you must perpetuate the balance of forces which produced that victory.'

At the same time, he presciently warned of the dangers of misunderstanding and misusing history, of 'the scrappy, illogical way, in which men use the past to prop up their own prejudices; a theme then apparent in work on the 'lessons' of Munich.

Again, parallels are drawn with the Cold War, both implicitly--'in Russian eyes the Crimean War was a defensive war'--and explicitly, when advocating a neutrality for modern Germany comparable with that of Prussia during the Crimean War.

Looking to subsequent decades, there are ironies, notably Taylor mocking the idea that the Soviet Union would crumble from within, but also the intelligent point that wars are won by destroying, or at least weakening, the military strength of the enemy. …