Commemorating the archetypal History Man

The sub-title of a 1995 TV documentary said it all: he was an unusual kind of star. In his heyday he was capable of emptying pubs on a Friday night, simply by going on television and speaking his mind and explaining things clearly in plain, uncomplicated English. And how did this man make waves? By studying, writing and debating history.

Alan John Percivale Taylor was born exactly 110 years ago. Amid the various anniversaries being marked throughout this year, that of the birth of a Great British maverick academic who, more than any other last century, made history matter to the public, is perhaps worthier of note than most. He was the first bona fide TV historian, the fore-runner of Schama, Starkey, Roberts and others. What is more, the fact that, were he alive today, Taylor would almost certainly eschew the idea of his being celebrated or hero-worshipped, which paradoxically makes him even more fascinating.

A J P Taylor (1906-1990)
A J P Taylor (1906-1990)

A Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, who had given BBC radio talks during the Second World War, A J P Taylor was never meant to be a TV personality. Even in the 1950s, a time when TV bosses in Britain had less of a need to look over their shoulder and fret about ratings, it was still something of a left-field move to give an academic any kind of television platform. It was thus a bold move by ITV supremo Lew Grade to offer Taylor such an opportunity, even on a Sunday afternoon, as was originally the case. Taylor had originally come to the attention of television audiences in the BBC’s In The News debating series of 1950-54, in which he was a regular, alongside the politicians Robert Boothby and Michael Foot. Mid-way through one programme, he sparked controversy by turning his back to the other panellists and refusing to take any further part in the debate, complaining as he did of the others using the show just for petty party-political point scoring. The BBC briefly suspended Taylor from the show, and he acquired the nickname the “Sulky Don”.

As well as his numerous television lectures from the ’50s to the ’70s, Taylor also became known for his opinionated newspaper columns. From 1931 to 1982, he wrote first for what was then known as the Manchester Guardian, and then for the Observer, the Sunday Pictorial, the Daily Herald, and finally the Sunday Express. In his columns he ventured forth on topics as varied as the Common Market, drink laws, Britain’s relations with Germany, anti-smoking legislation, and transport.

Writing for popular newspapers certainly helped Taylor to hone up the punchy, taking-no-prisoners style that marked his books out as being considerably more readable than most works of professional historians of his day. His numerous columns and TV appearances did, however, grate on the nerves of his employers at Oxford, some of whom considered it beneath the dignity of any historian to strive to reach a popular audience – which makes you wonder how else they expected to attract either future students to their colleges, or more people to buy their books.

Taylor wrote more than thirty books on a range of historical subjects, beginning with 1934’s The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy 1847-49, and ending with 1985’s How Wars End. It was his 1961 book Origins of the Second World War, however, that sparked the most controversy, and which is considered to be his masterpiece. Doing exactly what it said on the tin, Origins sought to explain, in Taylor’s idiosyncratic way, the circumstances in which war broke out in Europe in 1939. At the risk of oversimplifying his argument, Taylor’s point was that Adolf Hitler did not have a grand plan for a major European war – despite what he had written in Mein Kampf, and despite his bombastic speech minuted by Col Graf Friedrich Hossbach in 1937. Rather, Hitler merely reacted to events rather than controlled them, and took advantage of the mistakes of other European leaders of the time (such as Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier). In Taylor’s view, after the Munich agreement Hitler assumed that the British and French were bluffing when they pledged to stand by Poland if the Germans demanded the Corridor – after all, why had they given way to his demand for the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, where fewer Germans lived than in Poland? Even Hitler’s take-over of the Czech half of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 could only be explained, Taylor argued, by a Slovak nationalist coup in Bratislava, of which the Fuehrer was simply taking opportunistic advantage. In his Introduction, and in several talks afterwards (of which more later), Taylor insisted that he was not offering an apologia for Nazism:

It seems to be believed nowadays that Hitler did everything himself, even driving the trains and filling the gas chambers unaided. This was not so. Hitler was a sounding-board for the German nation. Thousands, many hundred thousand, Germans carried out his evil orders without qualm or question. As supreme ruler of Germany, Hitler bears the greatest responsibility for acts of immeasurable evil: for the destruction of German democracy; for the concentration camps; and worst of all, for the extermination of peoples during the Second World War. He gave orders, which Germans executed, of a wickedness without parallel in civilized history. His foreign policy was a different matter. He aimed to make Germany the dominant Power in Europe and maybe, more remotely, in the world. Other Powers have pursued similar aims, and still do.

To a history-devouring British public, for whom the War was still a raw memory, this was profoundly shocking: as far as they were concerned, the German dictator was the chief and sole war-monger. The War was treated as a supreme battle between Good and Evil (as long as nobody spent too much time talking about the alliance with Stalin); the idea that blame might be more widely apportioned among the nations of Europe was shocking enough – it was another thing entirely to suppose (as Taylor did) that the conflict had come about more or less by accident. The controversy was famously thrashed out in a televised debate between Taylor and fellow Oxford academic Hugh Trevor-Roper, later on in 1961. The exchanges between the two men became steadily less and less dignified:

TREVOR-ROPER: I’m afraid that your book The Origins of the Second World War may damage your reputation as a historian.

TAYLOR: Your criticism of me would damage your reputation as a historian, if you had one.

Popular and engaging though the debate on television was, it did more harm to Taylor’s career than that of Trevor-Roper, and in 1964 Oxford refused to renew his lecturing contract. He then moved to London, and continued his three careers as a historian, journalist and TV lecturer, becoming very rich in the process. To the end of his days he continued to provoke and entertain, never shying away from controversy. His views on the conflict in Northern Ireland were extreme, to say the least. Firmly on the nationalist side, he went further than most English commentators pontificating on the problem by advocating 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. He first put the view forward in an interview on RTE Radio in April 1976:

Every day the British stay in Northern Ireland is likely to increase the number who will be killed in the end. Because there is no doubt, whatever British governments say now, there will come a time when the British people will not be prepared to go on having young Englishmen killed for a cause which does not concern them in the slightest.

In a thunderous letter to a critic in the Guardian who had taken him to task for ‘equat[ing] the leadership of the Provisionals with the colonial liberators‘, Taylor rhetorically asked:

What exactly are we waiting for in Northern Ireland? For the Protestants to renounce their supremacy? For the Catholics to acquiesce in it? Neither is likely to happen.

If British troops withdraw the two contending parties will arrive at a solution even if it be a solution imposed by one party on the other. As long as British troops remain there will be no solution and the bloodshed will go on.

Do you wish this situation to go on indefinitely? If not, make and end of it.

Taylor remained a popular speaker to both television and university audiences. In an appearance on BBC1’s Question Time in 1983, he scored a first, greatly irritating chairman Robin Day in the process, by saying of one issue that, effectively, he couldn’t care less (and to the best of my knowledge, no other guest on that programme has ever been so loudly apathetic, before or since). In response to a question about whether the then Labour-controlled GLC were trying to politicise the police, Taylor merely answered:

To tell you the truth, I don’t think anything about it at all!

Since his death from Parkinson’s Disease on 7 September 1990, Taylor’s star has, to put it mildly, dipped somewhat. His books no longer sell – at least not to the same degree as they did when he was alive. Moreover, he had done his reputation much harm with his 1983 autobiography A Personal History (he had to be persuaded by the publishers to change his original chosen title: An Uninteresting Story). While ever bit as entertaining as his history works, A Personal History is also marked by a considerably cantankerous tone, in which he spent several hundred words criticising other historians, particularly the ones who had taught him when he was an undergraduate. He also seemed to take a perverse pride in having spent 38 years at Oxford ‘without making a single intimate friend.’ He was still smarting from what he saw as a personal affront from the bigwigs at Oxford: though he revelled in his role as a maverick and an outsider, he could never forgive them for their role in 1957 in urging the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to award the Regius Professorship for History to Trevor-Roper instead of himself.

Quite apart from his personal failings, perhaps more serious from Taylor’s point of view is that his views on the main theme of his best-known book have arguably not stood the test of time (which, when you think about it, is something of a blow for a historian). Virtually nobody in academia supports the notion that Hitler was lured into war by accident in 1939: the most authoritative scholarship shows that he viewed the 1938 Munich agreement as a defeat and an embarrassment (he was reported to have said ‘That fellow Chamberlain has spoiled my entry into Prague.’), and that with or without appeasement or other expedient factors he would have pushed Germany and Europe towards war at some stage. Above all, virtually no academic backs the suggestion that Hitler was essentially no different from any other German leader, from Bismarck onwards.

For all his faults, however, A J P Taylor did much to popularise the study of history in his country, being a pioneer of its presentation for a popular audience. Whether on paper, or in an auditorium or TV studio, his simple, blunt style encouraged readers and viewers to sit up, take notice, and think about matters. To cap it all, he had few (if any) grand ideas about the power of historians, as is clear in this excerpt from Origins:

Historians often dislike what happened or wish that it had happened differently. There is nothing they can do about it. They have to state the truth as they see it without worrying whether this shocks or confirms existing prejudices. Maybe I assumed this too innocently.