A.J.P. Taylor as Historian

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, April 1994 | Go to article overview

A.J.P. Taylor as Historian


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: The appearance of two biographies of A. J. P. Taylor 1906-1990) and the re-publication of some of his essays on historical topics has generated much comment about Taylor's iconoclastic approach to history (see list at the end of the article). This approach has been highly praised by those with little knowledge of history. Dr. A. L. Rowse, another celebrated Oxford historian, who knew Taylor, provides a sparkling assessment of Taylor as a man and as a writer.

HOW good was A. J. P. Taylor as a historian? It is a subject worth considering, however distasteful, since he was so celebrated, or notorious. as a public performer on television, and as such characteristic of our time. Mr. Cole's sub-title already suggests an answer to the problem Taylor presents, and it is justified. The book goes conscientiously through Taylor's work, and is reliable, if a trifle naif about it, as seen from the perspective of Utah. He quotes so many people, as if their opinions are of equal weight.

Taylor's earlier work was on diplomatic history. As a genre of historical writing this is limited: it is one-dimensional, one-track, for it omits the social, economic and military factors conditioning it. Taylor himself admits this, but it would be unfair to take his own dictum seriously that people nowadays |read diplomatic history for purposes of entertainmcnt'.

Anyone who reads the revealing Reminiscences of Prince Lichnowsky, the decent German who was ambassador in London before 1914, will realise what a heartache it all was to Edward Grey, who strove by all means to keep the peace in Europe. The German Chancellor, Bethmann-Holweg, however admitted that never would such a good occasion for their war as the Sarajevo assassination present itself again.

Taylor's earlier academic reputation rested on the half dozen books he devoted to nineteenth century diplomatic history. C. A. Macartney, an authority in the same field, Central Europe, thought Taylor's work in it biased.

We may sympathise with the double bias Taylor himself admits. He describes the bullying diplomacy of Bismarck, with the aggressiveness and instability of German policy which kept Europe on tenterhooks. Taylor's other bias was in favour of the Slavs, whom Germans always despised and held down in Central Europe. |The German problem', he wrote, |is, and always has been, the gravest problem of our European order'. At any rate since Bismarck we may say, to be more accurate.

I take a more favourable view of Taylor's Course of German History than Mr. Cole does. That is to say, on the whole, for it is vitiated, like all Taylor's work by his pathological weakness for snap judgements. Luther, for instance, objected to the sale of indulgences for Rome, |if it had been for the purpose of massacring German peasants, Luther might never have become a Protestant'. This is not a serious historical judgement, it is the kind of thing that runs through all Taylor's work, on every other page, and disqualifies him as a serious historian.

His biography of Bismarck uncritically omits the fatal flaw that did such damage to Germany. He aborted the development of responsible parliamentary government, and riveted real power in the hands of the irresponsible military upper class upon the new untried nation. The Empress Frederick, Queen Victoria's daughter, bred in English constitutionalism, understood this and always thought that the Bismarckian regime would run Germany on the rocks -- as it did. Chancellor Adenauer understood it and had no admiration for Bismarck -- who despised Gladstone's liberalism -- though how much happier Europe would have been if it had prevailed instead of German militarism. Bismarck always called parliamentary democracy |the Revolution'. Grant Robertson's biography -- a better, more responsible historian -- saw the fatal consequences. Taylor's irresponsibility, lack of judgement, recklessness wrecked him as a historian. …

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