The Canon: The Origins of the Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor

June 4, 2009

Few books have so shocked received opinion and been as influential as A.J.P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War. It was a classic exercise in the revisionism that is central to the historical discipline and, after its publication, the study of the diplomatic history of the 1930s would never be the same again.

Before its publication in 1961, there had been little controversy over the road to war in 1939. The origins of the conflict seemed obvious: the dark ambitions of one man, Adolf Hitler, and the failure to thwart his aim of overturning the Versailles Settlement. Taylor's famous coat-trailing comments, that Hitler was "just an ordinary German politician", and that Mein Kampf was just one of his "daydreams", gave his book an immediate notoriety, but encapsulated its main thesis - that Hitler's ambitions in the 1930s were essentially those of traditional German foreign policy. His criticism of the evidence produced at the Nuremberg trials, used to convict Hitler's associates and the Nazi regime of guilt for starting the war, further enraged established opinion.

The Origins is a far from perfect book, but it is a key text and has been massively influential. Taylor produced little in the way of new evidence but reinterpreted the existing evidence in the light of his previous work on German and European diplomatic history, which had convinced him that Prussian and then German foreign policy had long been expansionist. Hitler was, he thought, like Bismarck, whom he had studied in depth, not a man with a carefully worked-out plan, but one who was, although an expansionist, an opportunist.

Few historians swallowed the whole Taylor thesis but the book had a tremendous impact. It reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles. The whole question of appeasement was re-opened, for Taylor's views pointed to the obstacles that lay in the way of any alternative policies that could have prevented the demolition of the Versailles Settlement, and historians were subsequently to make a more resolute defence of Neville Chamberlain.

The importance of ideology was demoted in favour of national interests and the idea of a "war against fascism" or the conception of political philosophies as the dominant force in 20th-century world politics became difficult to sustain. Subsequent studies of Hitler have debated not only the consistency of his intentions, but whether he exercised absolute power within the Nazi state or was contained by it, and all have been influenced by Taylor.

What so affronted established opinion was not just the revisionism, but the delight Taylor clearly took in it. He had always been a mischievous radical - perhaps indeed a radical and troublemaker because he was mischievous - who loved to pull the tail of the Establishment, and that tendency is both a flaw in the book and part of its delight. His love of a clever paradox inclined him sometimes to stretch an argument to accommodate a brilliant phrase, but it was a combination of his literary ability with the sharp scalpel of his intellect that gave the book its long-term impact. Few works have been so fruitfully provocative and, although not without faults, this is a great historical study.

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