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TAC Bookshelf: On Rereading A.J.P. Taylor

State of the Union: Sweeping Grand History must come back, and is much needed.

NPG x15119; Alan John Percivale Taylor by Roger George Clark
Credit: WikiCommons

Sumantra Maitra, Director of Research and Outreach, American Ideas Institute: Of all the arguments in Vladimir Putin’s historical excursus with Tucker Carlson, the most baffling to Western ears was perhaps the argument of Polish cooperation with Hitler prior to the Second World War. Putin claimed, “Hitler offered Poland peace and a treaty of friendship. An alliance, demanding in return that Poland give back to Germany the so-called Danzig Corridor, which connected the bulk of Germany with East Prussia and Königsberg.” He added his classic Soviet historicizing: “Why was it Poland against whom the war started on September 1, 1939? Poland turned out to be uncompromising, and Hitler had nothing to do but start implementing his plans with Poland." 

This is, of course, absurd. Nothing in Hitler’s behavior demonstrated any urge to compromise, although his dubious personal sense of rationality and recklessness can be partially explained by the realist theory of international relations. Yet a key question in English historiography was always the question of why Poland led the British and French to war with the Germans. Why did the annexation of Czechoslovakia—then more liberal and democratic than Poland—not cause the war? The answer from the British side, as I wrote earlier, was a simple strategic calculation. Poland, though relatively small, was then the last balancing power left in Europe, and therefore the attack on it necessitated a war. That doesn’t answer the other side—how did Hitler view cooperation with the USSR, and what was the calculus of the Soviets? 


Putin may sound like an autistic anon history nerd on Twitter, but his interest in sweeping Grand History is what differentiates him from other political leaders of our time. I cannot for the love of all that is holy think of any other Western leader—barring perhaps Boris Johnson talking about the Greeks and Romans—who would even attempt to blather for 45 minutes on history, flawed or otherwise, much less be actually interested in such a grand historic arc, or worse, hold a grand historic grievance. 

Grand History is a declining area of interest in a discipline determined to self-destruct by laser-focus on pedantic minutiae of irrelevant human interest nonsense. Without understanding Putin's historicising, one cannot understand Russian reactions, or elite threat perceptions. As both Kenneth Waltz and Henry Kissinger wrote, information without theorizing is data without wisdom, and policy paralysis. The purpose of Grand History is to connect disjointed facts, and envision timeless patterns otherwise invisible to normie eyes. The world is complex. Good Grand History makes it simple, and easy to formulate ways forward. 

Enter A.J.P. Taylor. I have been re-reading his famous trilogy on the history of the English, the collapse of the Habsburgs, and the origins of the Second World war. These books remain timeless and peerless masterpieces, given our tumultuous times. There is no one like Alan John Percivale Taylor, because his discipline no longer exists. Grand History lacks the required funding or scholarship and research support; it is considered too elitist, hierarchical, and snobbish. There is no concentrated and detached ruling class in the West who are interested in such. There are no Edward Gibbons or Theodor Mommsens in the academy. Taylor was, and will perhaps remain for the time being, the last truly great historian, writing in the King’s language, doing history as history was supposed to be, but for the classes as well as the masses. 

Grand History remains without Grand Historians, allowing someone like Vladimir Putin to take a cut. It is therefore needed not just to understand “the other side” but to understand the grievances of “the other side,” especially as our world is looking qualitatively similar to the world prior to 1914, as older demons return to form. 

Consider our current debate about industrial policy and the loss of manufacturing to China. Here’s Taylor:


Austrian industrial achievement rested on the handicrafts and skill of Bohemia; and the Habsburg Monarchy lacked the plentiful supply of coal which was the secret of nineteenth-century strength. The two factors worked together; impossible to assess their weight or order. As in France, lack of coal and lack of a landless proletariat combined to produce a single result; and in the nineteenth century, France and the Habsburg Monarchy, the two traditional Great Powers of Europe, were both dwarfed by the chimneys of the Ruhr.

On elite overproduction and discontent, vis-a-vis a loyal cosmopolitan imperial officer class: 

Joseph broke, too, the Habsburg connection with the Roman Church. Many monasteries were dissolved; Protestants and Jews were freed of their disabilities; and the Church, deprived of its privileged position, was put under a state control more rigorous than that which Napoleon imposed on the French Church in 1801. Secular thought could at last begin to stir; the embers of Protestantism revived in Bohemia; and, by freeing the Jews, Joseph II called into existence the most loyal of Austrians. The Jews alone were not troubled by the conflict between dynastic and national claims: they were Austrians without reserve.

Putin’s rambling about the material cause between German and Polish differences would not have surprised Taylor, although he might not have wholly endorsed his view about causality. 

The eastern frontier put too many Germans in Poland—though it also put too many Poles in Germany. It could have been improved by some redrawing and by an exchange of populations—an expedient not contemplated in those civilised days. But an impartial judge, if such existed, would have found little fault with the territorial settlement once the principle of national states was accepted. The so-called Polish corridor was inhabited predominantly by Poles; and the arrangements for free railway-communication with East Prussia were adequate. Danzig would actually have been better off economically if it had been included in Poland. As to the former German colonies—also a fertile cause of grievance—they had always been an expense, not a source of profit.

Most importantly, his description of a pre-war “open border” Europe and the rest of the world will anger both libertarians and conservatives. While it is true that free movement was the norm prior to the First World War, it is also true that it was only for the socially flexible and educated upper and upper-middle class, thereby maintaining the economic calm among the more rooted working class. For the working-class cook in both Calcutta and London, there was no difference between serving a Rai Bahadur or a Viscount. They, however, never had to worry about someone from Aden coming to take their jobs. Conversely, a middle class Englishman could go and settle down anywhere where the Union Jack flew without the British government micromanaging his life. 

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent, of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

Truly neutral and detached Grand History is too important to leave to the stifling academic midwits, or to the ahistorical populist forces of both right and left. A.J.P. Taylor never attempted to make anyone “comfortable” or validate readers’ biases. That simply wasn’t his job.