Alan John Percivale Taylor—universally known as A.J.P. Taylor—was born in Southport, Lancashire, in 1906, and died in London in 1990. From the 1950s until his death, he was unquestionably the most famous historian in Britain, known to scholars for his thirty books and often controversial views, and also known to the general public for his frequent appearances on television at a time when Britain had only one or two channels, and long before other historians featured on television from the 1970s onward. After his death, Taylor was the subject of three full-length biographies, more than some British prime ministers have received. In his lifetime he was the recipient of three festschrifts, and the subject of countless reviews in newspapers and journals.
Like almost all historians, I greatly admired Taylor’s historical gifts, his originality, and his clipped, ironical writing style. Recently, I began to reread works by and about him, and the more I read, the more appalling he seemed. His political views were often odious; his historical insights were often deficient and sometimes flatly wrong. Now that more than thirty years have passed since his death, it is surely of interest to set out a more accurate assessment of an historian who has been termed “the Macaulay of our age”, among countless other encomia. (1)
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
A.J.P. Taylor was the son of Percy Lees Taylor, an affluent “cotton merchant and shipper to East Indies”, as the 1911 Census put it, whose income never fell below £5000 a year, a very substantial sum at the time which placed him in the higher regions of the upper middle class when his son, an only child, was growing up. A.J.P.’s mother Constance (née Thompson) had been a schoolmistress and was, throughout her life, an all-purpose radical, who had many extramarital affairs tolerated by her husband. Both parents were political radicals of Nonconformist background; the son was sent, not to a conventional public school, but to Bootham School, a Quaker boarding school in York, which reflected their radical views. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Taylor’s mother and his uncle became early members of the Communist Party of Great Britain; Taylor himself was briefly a member of the party, from 1924 until 1926, leaving it because it was not sufficiently radical during the General Strike. A brilliant student, he graduated from Oriel College, Oxford, with a First. He was a lecturer at Manchester University from 1930 until 1938, and then a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1938 until 1976.
By the late 1920s, the main characteristics he would show throughout the rest of his career as a historian and commentator were already in place, especially what might be termed an all-consuming perversity of judgment, which was very often brilliantly original—historians are praised in large measure for their originality—but which was often, it seems to me, wildly wrong, and his consistent leftism. The phrase “too clever by half” seems to be, as it were, tailor-made to describe Taylor. In 1919, when, at the age of forty-seven, F.E. Smith, the buccaneering right-wing politician, was made Lord Chancellor as Baron Birkenhead, one newspaper commented on the appointment that it was “carrying a joke too far”, another phrase which inevitably comes to mind to describe many of Taylor’s judgments.
Taylor’s perversity may be seen in the choice of the two men he idolised, both of whom, in view of his political outlook, would be totally unexpected in advance. The first was Sir Lewis Namier (né Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski, 1888–1960), the great Polish-born Anglo-Jewish historian of eighteenth-century British politics. Despite his exotic background, Namier managed to study at Balliol College, Oxford, and later taught there. He became a professor of history at Manchester University from 1931 until 1953, with the young Taylor as the only other member of the department, quite a two-man band. Namier was an extreme Tory who idolised the eighteenth-century British aristocracy and was responsible for creating the History of Parliament series, which provided biographies of all MPs down to 1832. According to Namier, English politics consisted of competing for lucrative positions and titles, and was largely devoid of ideological debate about the nature of governance, a claim which most radicals bitterly contested. For Namier, this was a good thing, for “no one bribes when he can bully”, as he put it, and evidence of British liberalism. Taylor idolised Namier until the late 1950s, when Namier failed to recommend him for the supremely prestigious Regius Professorship of History at Oxford, the post instead going to Taylor’s arch-rival Hugh Trevor-Roper. Apparently Taylor and Namier never spoke again.
Even stranger was the second object of Taylor’s hero worship, Sir Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (1879–1964). Aitken had made a fortune as a financier in his native Canada, often through dubious means. In 1910 he moved permanently to Britain, and spent his career backing Empire Free Trade, the enactment of a high tariff wall around the whole of the British Empire, which would, it was argued, protect British industry from foreign competition while providing the wealth to pay for a welfare state without taxing the rich. Aitken immediately made an impact, helping in 1911 to make the little-known fellow-Canadian Tory MP Andrew Bonar Law the Leader of the Conservative Party, and eventually Prime Minister in 1922-23. In 1917 Aitken was created a peer with the title Baron Beaverbrook for the government posts he held during the war. During the preceding year he had bought the struggling Daily Express, then with a circulation of 37,000, and soon threw himself into his new role as a “press lord”. By 1939 his newspaper had a circulation of 2.5 million, and by the late 1940s of 4 million, the highest circulation of any newspaper in the democratic world. In his politics, Beaverbrook was an extreme Tory, whose papers denounced “socialism” day and night.
Given Taylor’s extreme left-wing views, it would be difficult to think of any British public figure less likely than Beaverbrook to be admired by him. But in 1956 Taylor gave a glowing review to Beaverbrook’s account of British politics in the First World War, Men and Power, 1917-1918. Beaverbrook was pleased, met Taylor, and the two, the odd couple, became the best of friends. Beaverbrook ensured that Taylor was wined and dined, and made a regular contributor to the Daily Express. After the press lord’s death in 1964, Taylor became head of the newly established Beaverbrook Library, and wrote Beaverbrook: A Biography in 1972. He had last met its subject shortly before Beaverbrook’s death:
On his way out [of Beaverbrook’s eighty-fifth birthday party], he grinned “Hello, Alan,” as he passed my chair and I said “Hello, Max” to him. These were the last words we exchanged. A fortnight later he was dead. He had been to the end the master who never betrayed me. A light went out of my life.(2)
Taylor’s veneration for Beaverbrook was not universally shared on the British Left. When Beaverbrook died, reporters approached Clement Attlee, who had sat in the wartime cabinet with him, and then headed the great post-1945 Labour government, for a quotable tribute to the press lord. Attlee refused, stating that Beaverbrook “was the only evil man I ever met. I could not find any good to say about him.” (3) Once again, Taylor’s endemic perversity was his most notable feature.
On closer inspection, Taylor’s expressed political beliefs were as deplorable as they were often bizarre. In his autobiography, A Personal History (1983), after noting, “Nor had I the slightest illusion about the tyranny and brutality of Stalin’s regime”, he stated:
But I had been convinced throughout the nineteen thirties that Soviet predominance in eastern Europe was the only alternative to Germany’s, and I preferred the Soviet one. Moreover, I believed that East Europe states, even when under Soviet control, would be preferable to what they had been between the wars, as has proved to be the case. Hence, Soviet ascendancy of eastern Europe had no perils for me … I was dedicated to the cause of friendship and equality with Soviet Russia and preached this cause on the radio whenever I had an opportunity to do so. (4)
While “Soviet ascendancy in eastern Europe had no perils” for an affluent academic in a democracy, it held more than a few for the 100 million people condemned to live under the Soviet tyranny in its satellites. But it gets worse:
There was another political crisis in 1956 which had little impact on me but which deserves mention. This was the movement of Soviet troops into Hungary during the so-called Days of Liberty. In 1948 I had been bitterly troubled by the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, largely because it affected my friends. Later I came to see that these friends of mine had brought it on themselves by trying to achieve a Czech government in which Communists would have no part. In the Hungarian affair of 1956 I hesitated less. It seemed to me that the movement for liberty was falling into the hands of the Hungarian reactionaries who had supported Horthy. Better a Communist regime supported by Soviet Russia, I thought, than an anti-Communist regime led by Cardinal Mindszenty. Hence my conscience was not troubled by the Soviet intervention.” (5)
Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary from 1946 until 1973. In 1940, he denounced the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross movement as “diabolical”, and was imprisoned during 1944-45 when they were in power. When the Communists came to power in 1948, he was tortured prior to a Stalinist show trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the next seven years in prison, before being released, along with 7000 other political prisoners, during the 1956 Revolution. For the next fifteen years, he lived in the American embassy in Budapest, unable to leave for fear of being arrested by the Communist regime. Mindszenty held no office of any kind during his brief period of freedom in 1956. Its Prime Minister during that time was Imre Nagy, a lifelong Communist who had been Hungary’s Head of State from 1953 to 1955 before turning against the satellite government. After the Revolution failed, in 1958 Nagy was secretly tried for treason and hanged. His trial and execution were not made public until after he was dead. Taylor’s remarks here are plainly odious, as well as remarkably inaccurate for a world-famous historian. They again show his penchant for living in affluence in a democracy while being happy to condemn millions of others to slavery.
Taylor also held very definite views on the Irish question. According to Dan Payne,
His views on the conflict in Northern Ireland were extreme, to say the least. Firmly on the nationalist side, he … advocat[ed] the forced expulsion of Northern Ireland’s Protestant population, citing the forced movement of ethnic Germans out of eastern Europe after 1945 as a precedent. (6)
It is also worth noting that, although he visited the Soviet Union in 1925 and 1934, Taylor never set foot in the United States, despite numerous invitations which would have earned him what any British academic would have regarded as a fortune. The reasons for this are unclear. While he may have had political objections to visiting the homeland of the Almighty Dollar, it seems more likely that, as a former member of the Communist Party and an avowed leftist, Taylor feared that he would be denied entry. He may also have been worried about the ceaseless chorus of criticism which would follow him after the publication of The Origins of the Second World War. In any case, although he visited Canada with Beaverbrook, he never visited the United States.
Taylor’s most important work on British history was his volume in the Oxford History of England series, English History, 1914–1945, published in 1965. This distinguished series of fifteen volumes originated in 1934; it covers the whole of British history from Roman times and is, or was, as close to being an official history of Britain as there is. Taylor was an unusual choice to be commissioned to write its volume on the period from 1914 to 1945; he had written virtually nothing on British political history and nothing whatever on social and economic history, which was sure to loom large. In fact, around half of Taylor’s book concerned the two world wars and foreign policy. Perhaps the series editors thought his name would sell the book, which it has. In many respects the work is a magisterial survey, not dissimilar to what a more mainstream historian would have produced. Yet it was clearly written, consciously or not, from a view of inter-war Britain as teleological, as the forerunner to the triumph of the Left at the 1945 General Election.
Of course, historians will differ in their interpretations of an historical period, and Taylor, who was born in 1906, lived through these years, which no later historian could have done. Yet his interpretation of these years seems to me to be quite wrong-headed. The most salient political fact about Britain in this period was its almost total dominance by the Tories and their allies: the Conservatives formed the British government, alone or as the dominant coalition partner, for twenty-seven of the thirty-one years surveyed, usually by huge margins. This period was when, arguably, the British Establishment reached the zenith of its influence, as did the size of the British Empire, and the hegemony of traditional cultural values. This occurred despite universal suffrage and the rise of the Labour Party. The reasons for this Tory domination include the split of the left-wing vote between Labour and the Liberals, the removal of eighty-three southern Irish Nationalist MPs from the Westminster Parliament in 1922, and women’s suffrage, which benefited the Conservatives. Taylor thus understates the domination of the Conservatives, and exaggerates the importance of the adversarial Left. A telling example of this misrepresentation can be found in the following: “It would be hard to decide who was the strangest recruit to the anti-Fascist cause … [perhaps] Vaughan Williams, the composer, who abandoned folk music for anti-Fascist symphonies.” (7)
No one expects Taylor to be an authority on symphonic composition, but this statement is totally incorrect. Nor is it a trivial mistake: Ralph Vaughan Williams was a major cultural figure —Britain’s greatest composer—and any move to writing “anti-Fascist symphonies” would be a notable event. He wrote his Third Symphony, a tribute to the fallen in the First World War, in 1922, and his Fifth Symphony, a majestic work of great lyrical beauty, in 1943. His Fourth Symphony, which Vaughan Williams described it as “pure music” with no “meaning”, premiered in April 1935. But perhaps Taylor had in mind that composer’s non-symphonic music? This is also highly inaccurate; the only music Vaughan Williams composed in this period which might be seen as political was his Dona Nobis Pacem of 1936, which consists of six parts: a text from the Roman Catholic Mass, three poems by Walt Whitman, a speech made by John Bright during the Crimean War, and a setting of Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The most “political” section of the work, by Whitman, was first composed by Vaughan Williams in 1914. His other works in this period were entirely in his traditional style: Five Tudor Portraits (1936), the Festival Te Deum (1937, performed in Westminster Abbey at the Coronation of George VI), his Serenade to Music (1938), and so on. Taylor makes it seem as if Vaughan Williams wrote a choral symphony based on the speeches of La Pasionaria. (8)
Taylor’s best known—or perhaps most notorious—work was The Origins of the Second World War of 1961, which was discussed and debated around the world. Taylor’s controversial thesis was, first, that Hitler was a normal German ruler, whose foreign policies were similar to those of previous German rulers, and second, that Hitler did not want the war which broke out in September 1939. Taylor’s thesis was obviously as controversial as anything could be, and could easily be taken as a “revisionist” apologia for Nazism, despite the fact that the work was written by an avowed left-wing historian.
In my view, Taylor’s thesis is entirely wrong, and it is instructive to see why it is so mistaken. Basically, Hitler had two separate long-term plans in the foreign policy he pursued in the 1930s, which might be termed, first, a “rational” revisionist policy, and, second, a diabolical policy. The first policy was to reunify the German-speaking areas of central Europe under German rule. It was often admitted by the Allies that the Versailles settlement of 1919, which in effect made nationality and language the basis of Europe’s national boundaries, had not been fairly applied to Germany. In turn, Hitler took over the Rhineland (1935), Austria (1938) and the Sudetenland (1938), all German-speaking areas. The basis of the policy of appeasement pursued by Britain and France was that once these areas were incorporated into the Reich, Hitler would stop, and that the further conquest of Eastern Europe, with its millions of Slavs and Jews, was wholly inconsistent with Hitler’s Aryan racism. In March 1939, however, Hitler forcibly incorporated Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech-speaking remnant of Czechoslovakia, into the Reich.
The argument advanced by Taylor is that Hitler’s next target, the German-speaking port city of Danzig—a so-called “Free City”, but one where Poland had traditional rights as its only seaport—would be the final component of Hitler’s “rational” plan, and should have been accepted by the Allies, and that Hitler had no active plans at the time to extend his “rational” plan for the diabolical one of invading and conquering all of Eastern Europe. Instead, and wrongly, Britain and France mistakenly chose to declare war on Germany when it marched into Danzig. Virtually all historians disagreed with Taylor’s thesis, claiming that Hitler already had stated plans to invade Eastern Europe, in order to secure control over its petrol and food supply, and to eliminate or enslave its “inferior” populations.
The key question is thus whether Hitler expected a war to break out over his arguably justified takeover of Danzig. Taylor denied this; he is, in fact, completely wrong. Hitler invaded Danzig precisely because he thought that, unlike the Czechs at Munich, Poland would resist militarily, giving him an excuse to invade and conquer that country. Taylor completely misconstrued Hitler’s intentions: Hitler assumed, rightly, that Poland would fight, and would be easily defeated.
Taylor also makes a great deal of the fact that—according to the statistics he cites—Hitler allegedly cut Germany’s military budget in the years before 1939, ignoring the fact that Hitler increased the size of the German military from 500,000 men in 1935 to 4,220,000 when the war broke out in 1939, of whom 3,737,000 were in the German army: not exactly the policy of a misunderstood pacifist. Taylor’s view of Hitler as a “normal” German leader is also, obviously, very dubious. Bismarck stopped after 1871 when he formed the smaller German Reich. If Germany had won the First World War and conquered Eastern Europe, it would have been greeted as their relatively benign liberator from Tsarism by Poles, Balts and many Jews. Taylor also claimed that most Germans had always agreed, more or less, with Hitler, ignoring the fact that in the 1928 German election, the last before the Depression with its mass unemployment began, the Social Democrats and Communists received 41 per cent of the vote, the Nazi Party 2.6 per cent. Taylor’s perversity and inaccuracy could hardly be more extreme, and he brought down on himself an avalanche of criticism, much of it from American historians, some of whom had never heard of Taylor and knew nothing about his unique status among British historians.
Taylor’s main British opponent was Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003), his old nemesis who, in 1957, was appointed Regius Professor of History at Oxford instead of Taylor, who had expected the position. Trevor-Roper (who was given a peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, taking the title of Baron Dacre of Glanton) was a historian with a formidable range of interests. In 1983 he blotted his copybook in heroic style by endorsing the fraudulent “Hitler Diaries”. Nevertheless, his familiarity with Nazi Germany was far greater than Taylor’s. In the autumn of 1945 he was sent to Germany to provide an accurate account of Hitler’s death, and to thwart rumours that he was still alive in Argentina. In 1947 he published The Last Days of Hitler, one of the seminal works which has formed our definition of the dictator. The image of Hitler as the demented, hysterical maniac in the Führerbunker, now universally known through such depictions as the film Downfall, is entirely the work of Trevor-Roper, who led the British charge against Taylor in newspapers and television debates.
In recent years Taylor has probably been eclipsed in public notice by more recent historians. Ironically, for a leftist, Taylor wrote almost nothing on feminism—although he was a champion of women at Oxford—or on race and colonialism, his radicalism being based largely on perceptions of class conflict; he is thus seen, ironically, as irrelevant to today’s radical historians, most of whom have far less talent but even more ideological extremism than he did. One must also say that Taylor was invariably regarded by his students as an excellent teacher and mentor, friendly and approachable, and willing to learn, attributes perhaps very different from the hallmarks of his writings.
William D. Rubinstein held Chairs of History at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences, and of the Royal Historical Society of the UK. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant
(1) I should make clear that this article does not derive from some kind of ancient grudge of mine against Taylor. I never met him, and saw him only once, walking with another man near London University, probably in 1974. The only dealings I ever had with him occurred when he was head of the Beaverbrook Library. I was writing a biographical entry for Sir John Ellerman (1862–1933), Britain’s richest man, who was the subject of a continuing vendetta by Beaverbrook in the Daily Express, which continued towards his son, who died in 1973. I wrote to Taylor asking if he had any information about the reasons for the vendetta. Taylor replied in a friendly response that he did not. That is the sum total of my nexus with him.
(2) A.J.P. Taylor, A Personal History (Coronet edition, 1984), p. 312.
(3) Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, Beaverbrook: A Life (London, 1992), p. 524.
(4) Taylor, A Personal History, pp. 233-4.
(5) Ibid., p. 274. Admiral Miklos Horthy (1868-1957) was the so-called Regent of Hungary from 1920 until 1944, when he was deposed by the Nazis.
(6) Dan Payne, “Commemorating the Archetypal History Man,” 25 March 2016, on “Slugger O’Toole”, an online site (https://sluggerotoole.com/2016/03/25/commemorating-the-archetypal-history-man/).
(7) Taylor, A Personal History, p. 489.
(8) Moreover, in 1937 Vaughan Williams received the first award of the so-called Shakespeare Prize from the University of Hamburg; after taking advice, he accepted the award. In 1939, his music was banned in Germany by the Nazis. Concerning Taylor’s point, there is not much evidence that any other British composer wrote “anti-Fascist” music at that time. In 1937, Benjamin Britten wrote A Pacifist March, but it was anti-war, not anti-fascist.