Seldom is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography considered an ideal place to seek pathos-laden anecdotes, but one can find them there. In the DNB’s article on Sir Arthur Bryant—for decades among Britain’s most popular non-fiction authors—there occurs such an anecdote in which Bryant, sometime after World War II, was introduced as “our greatest living historian” to A.J.P. Taylor. The alarm felt at these words by Taylor, who had long believed this title to repose safely with himself, may be readily envisioned.
How stands either man’s reputation in our time? Bryant died in 1985 and now is almost unread, his books retailing for derisory sums on eBay. Nobody would have predicted such oblivion to overtake Taylor, who outlived Bryant by only five years but had made himself a public figure as the largely pre-television Bryant had not. While the phrase “media whore” had not attained common usage in Taylor’s lifetime, it accurately—if nastily—describes Taylor’s addiction to the studio arc lights, his gift at lecturing learnedly in prime-time schedules for half an hour without a single written note, and the sheer demotic fame of his bow tie. Yet Taylor has been forgotten to an extent that middle-aged denizens of former British colonies find almost beyond belief. (This neglect has occurred despite his having inspired no fewer than three biographies since his death, much the best of which is the 2006 production by Nottingham University professor Chris Wrigley.)
As late as 1980, undergraduates on the campuses of Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand could not attend classes in post-1789 European history without confronting Taylor’s achievements head-on. Today, students in these same lands can become post-1789 European history majors—can even achieve doctorates in the field—without noticing the smallest indication that Taylor existed. It should, moreover, be stressed that Taylor’s American readership was always comparatively small, though he did score a long New York Times obit on September 8, 1990. The temptation is, therefore, to dismiss Taylor as of purely local interest.
That temptation must be resisted, on two grounds. First, Taylor found himself caught up in geopolitical struggles that curbed his Little Englander cussedness. Periodically he drew from these struggles fallacious conclusions; periodically he drew correct conclusions for fallacious reasons; but he stayed sufficiently engagé—in the best sense of that ambiguous adjective—to ensure that even at his worst he warranted public attention. The second reason for taking Taylor seriously (not solemnly, nor literally) is that he wrote remarkably well.
Not for the first time, Evelyn Waugh had it right: “We remember the false judgments of Voltaire and Gibbon and Lytton Strachey long after they have been corrected, because of their sharp, polished form and because of the sensual pleasure of dwelling on them.” A man who writes nonsense that he can verbalize as memorable nonsense will forever retain at least artistic interest. Obvious risks attach themselves to assessing any historian by the yardstick of how many column-inches in the quotations dictionaries he occupies. Still, Taylor’s tally in this sphere is impressive.
Some quips, at random, from Taylor the gadfly:
“Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.”
“Like most of those who study history, he [Napoleon III] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.”
“Nothing is inevitable until it happens.”
After Prime Minister Anthony Eden had just issued a self-exculpating memoir called Facing the Dictators: “Eden did not face the dictators; he pulled faces at them.”
“In other countries dynasties are episodes in the history of the people; in the Habsburg Empire peoples are complications in the history of the dynasty.”
If we discovered these maxims with no clue regarding their origin, we might well assume their creator to have been unduly fond of after-dinner speechmaking and hostile to doing the hard scholastic yards. We would thereby be wrong, as so many have so regularly been about Taylor. Far from being—to quote a former Australian prime minister’s attack on a clever opponent—“all tip and no iceberg,” Taylor had polyglot learning to clarify even the least convincing of his claims. Few who admired or abhorred Taylor the talk-show guest appreciated Taylor the “archive rat” (Stalin’s jovial rubric for classifying insufficiently obsequious historians), but the latter underpinned the former. Profuse source materials, often primary, needed to be hunted down, interpreted, processed, and metabolized within Taylor’s intellect before the funny stuff could emerge from his typewriter or his mouth. Here initially plausible comparisons with Clive James—fellow newspaperman, fellow populist, fellow talk-show pundit—break down. In James’s case, the funny stuff does not habitually arise from the research but is all too apt to substitute for the research.
Then again, nature and nurture combined to make Taylor, born in 1906, what James never wished to be: a genuinely hard man. Rich but socialistic and unglamorous Lancashire parents of antiwar convictions farmed out young Alan John Percivale Taylor to various Quaker schools that he might be inoculated against Great War militarism. Originally he wanted to be an archaeologist; maybe, deep down, he never stopped being one. He punctuated his 1920s Oxford sojourn, successful but not spectacular, with membership of the Communist Party. After only two years—which included an actual visit to the Soviet Union—his card-carrying ended: “I … quietly lapsed, thus escaping the soul-torments that troubled so many intellectuals during the 1930s.” It is difficult to resist concluding that his mercurial temperament rejected communism not for being evil but for being tedious.
Henceforward Taylor’s career amounted pretty much to “scribble, scribble, scribble,” with no let-up till the early 1980s and with no suggestion of dilettantism in either his Manchester University lectureship (1930–1938) or his subsequent fellowship (1938–1976) at Oxford’s Magdalen College. Neither teaching job of Taylor’s enriched him overmuch. Before 1945 British welfarism hardly even touched higher education. An American academic born in 1906 would have had more reverential audiences than his British counterpart and less bitchy colleagues. An Australian academic born in 1906 would have had stupider audiences and still bitchier colleagues but would have been wealthy beyond the dreams of British (or American) collegiate avarice. A British academic born in 1906 had practically the worst of all possible worlds.
Taylor married thrice: no celibate don he. By his first and in every way most high-maintenance wife, he had four children requiring to be fed somehow. His initial spouse’s protracted lust-affair with the already alcoholic Dylan Thomas ensured not merely a humiliating ménage à trois for Taylor but an economic mechanism worthy of Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinson by which Taylor’s earnings had scarcely emerged from his employers’ accounts departments than they were poured down Thomas’s throat, before they could make even glancing contact with Taylor’s own wallet. (After Thomas had finally drunk himself to death, the cuckolded husband announced payback time: “Men pressed money on him, and women their bodies. Dylan took both with equal contempt. His great pleasure was just to humiliate people.”)
The surprise is less that the cash-strapped Taylor churned out third-rate columns for London’s tabloids than that he churned out anything else. A more generous interpretation of Taylor’s literary practice would involve likening him to Paul Hindemith, who late in life maintained that 80 percent of his own music was bad but that without penning the bad 80 percent he could never have penned the good 20 percent. While Hindemith erred on both counts, such inherent unpretentiousness—with an authentically 18th-century artisanal spirit—sounds a refreshing note after protracted exposure to modern British academe’s “I’ve gotta be me” brigade.
With certain members of this brigade, notably Hugh Trevor-Roper, Taylor had his own methods of dealing. In a 1957 review of Trevor-Roper’s latest essay collection, Taylor purred: “It seems like an original work, and will enable Mr. Trevor-Roper to conceal for some time the fact that he has not yet produced a sustained book of mature historical scholarship.” Taylor actually liked Trevor-Roper’s finest efforts, even calling Trevor-Roper’s style “Mozartean,” and remained as baffled as posterity has been by how much time Trevor-Roper wasted on grubby administrative intrigue, on anti-Catholic hatred that would disgrace a Klansman with 11 fingers, on unhinged JFK conspiracy theories, on truckling to Harold Macmillan, or preferably on all four pastimes at once—even before the fiasco in which he “authenticated” the fraudulent “Hitler Diaries” made him a global laughingstock.
Almost every tome among the three dozen bearing Taylor’s name can be read with benefit, as much for its erudition as for its streamlined English. Even a comparative potboiler like British Prime Ministers and Other Essays furnishes permanently instructive insights into 10 Downing Street’s best known occupants. It is tempting to discourse at length on Germany’s First Bid for Colonies, on English History 1914–1945, and on War by Timetable. Nonetheless, two major scholarly feats deserve notice above all: The Habsburg Monarchy, which helped make him, and The Origins of the Second World War, which almost destroyed him.
When The Habsburg Monarchy emerged in 1941, its subject remained largely unknown even among Britain’s well-educated. Comprehensive Habsburg studies by Taylor’s compatriots Edward Crankshaw and C.A. Macartney had yet to appear. Taylor’s overview has the defects of its pioneering qualities: few experts now accept Taylor’s assumption of the early-20th-century Austrian imperium’s “unavoidable” decline. Today’s consensus—shaped by such historians as Alan Palmer, Alan Sked, and John Van der Kiste—stresses the opposite: Franz Josef’s and his successor’s pragmatic conservative radicalism. But though intermittently outdated, Taylor’s survey avoids irrelevance. Not the least important element in its appeal is Taylor’s failure to decide on his own final attitude towards the Habsburgs. Part of him—the larger part, it must be admitted—accepted the conventional Whig caricature of them as mere amusing dinosaurs. Part of him, more sensibly, respected their “sane internationalism”—a phrase coined by chronicler Sir Charles Petrie, no friend of Taylor—as a cherishable contribution to peace.
The Origins of the Second World War forms a rare example of an historian being honest enough to admit that he has discarded his original interpretation when confronted with contrary evidence. Attributing to Taylor a desire to scandalize from day one would be pardonable but false. An admirer of Churchill and still more of Churchill’s accomplice Lord Beaverbrook, Taylor fully expected that his volume would be the sort of rah-rah-rah Churchillian agitprop that these days would bring him honorary membership of the Leo Strauss Komsomol. Then his researches started to disturb his initial suppositions and force on him more nuanced appraisals. What if Hitler had indeed been capable of improvisatory Realpolitik? What if he operated within a national tradition formulated by Tirpitz, Hindenburg, and even Bismarck? What if Britain’s appeasers had in fact played a poor diplomatic hand with unsuspected skill?
Contemplate such appalling premises, and soon you can find yourself writing—as Taylor wrote—conclusions like this one, on the Sudetenland crisis: “Hitler, the supposed revolutionary, was simply reverting in the most conservative way to the pattern of previous centuries. Bohemia had always been a part of the Holy Roman Empire; it had been part of the German Confederation between 1815 and 1866 … . Independence, not subordination, was the novelty in Czech history.”
The response was predictable, not least among those who never read Taylor’s book or, like Trevor-Roper, only half-read it. Trevor-Roper’s references to it were so lazily misleading that Taylor could scarcely believe his luck: “The Regius Professor [Trevor-Roper]’s methods of quotation,” Taylor informed Encounter readers, accompanying his complaint with copious examples, “might do harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one.”
Half a century on, we can argue about whether Taylor did or did not soft-pedal Mein Kampf’s genocidal import, did or did not overestimate Chamberlain’s and Lord Halifax’s foreign-policy discernment, did or did not misrepresent prewar Poland’s ruling class. The point to emphasize here is that World War II historiography could never be the same after Taylor’s bestseller. We can no more return to a culture without this book than to a culture without Max Weber’s Protestantism-capitalism thesis or indeed without Seymour Hersh’s exposé of Camelot. For Taylor, merely suspecting that a genie might exist imbued him with an irresistible impulse to let it out of the bottle. (This eventually attracted such Holocaust deniers or Holocaust minimizers as Harry Elmer Barnes and David Hoggan, whom Taylor despised but who formed a rowdy fan club regardless.)
Taylor’s life ended sadly. Parkinson’s Disease is a peculiarly horrid affliction for sufferers much saintlier than he was. It trashed his memory, once so retentive. Having mocked with daring panache the 1948 Wroclaw Congress’s Stalinist goons, Taylor now credited Labour Party leader Michael Foot with Richelieu-like statesmanship and crusaded on behalf of Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. His death seemed like that of a king in banishment.
How to summarize Taylor at his best? The lines with which Clive James praised W.H. Auden seem suitable: “A mortal fear of talking through his hat, / A moral mission to be understood.” Or else Noël Coward’s self-description: “I have colossal pride, which is why I have absolutely no vanity.” To every dirigiste groveler who has wrapped himself in Clio’s mantle since 9/11, Taylor’s worldview offers a standing reproach: “You should never,” he warned, “ask a historian to predict the future—we have enough trouble predicting the past.”
Of anyone who could utter that, one thing is sure. His time will come again.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.