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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||25th March 1906
|Place of Birth:
||Birkdale, Lancashire, England, UK
- For others named John Taylor, see John Taylor.
Alan John Percivale Taylor (March 25, 1906 – September 7, 1990) was a renowned British historian of the 20th century. Taylor was probably the best-known British historian of the century and was certainly one of the most controversial.
Taylor was born in Birkdale, brought up in Lancashire, and educated at various Quaker schools and the Bootham School in York. In 1924, he went to Oxford to study modern history. His wealthy parents held strongly left-wing views, which Taylor inherited. In the 1920s, Taylor's mother was a member of the Comintern. In his youth, Taylor had been a member of the British Communist Party. After leaving the Communists, Taylor was an ardent Labour Party supporter for the rest of his life, though this did not stop him from writing a gushing and fawning biography of the Conservative Lord Beaverbrook. Despite his break with the Communists, Taylor visited the Soviet Union in 1925 and again in 1934, and was much impressed on both visits.
Throughout his life, Taylor was basically sympathetic to the Soviets. Likewise, Taylor was bitterly anti-American, blaming the United States for the Cold War, which he was opposed to. In the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor was one of the leading lights of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Despite his pro-Soviet feelings, Taylor was not entirely blind to the crimes of the Soviet regime. In 1948 he attended and did his best to sabotage a Stalinist cultural congress in Wroclaw, Poland. However, despite this act of dissent, Taylor always felt that the United States was the principal threat to world peace and that the Americans were guilty of far worse acts than the Soviets. For this reason, Taylor never visited the United States, despite receiving many invitations.
Taylor graduated from Oriel College, Oxford in 1927. After working briefly as a legal clerk, Taylor began his post-graduate work, went to Vienna to study the impact of the Chartist movement on the Revolution of 1848 in Vienna. When Taylor's topic turned out to be unfeasible, he switched to studying the question of Italian unification over a two year period, which resulted in his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–49. Taylor's main mentors in this period were the Austrian-born historian Alfred Francis Pribham and the Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier. The opposing influences of Pribham and Namier can be seen in Taylor's writings on Austria-Hungary until the publication of his 1941 book The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918, which was published in a revised edition in 1948. Taylor's earlier writings reflected Pribham's favorable opinion of the Habsburgs; his later writings show the influence of Namier's unfavorable views about the Habsburgs. In The Habsburg Monarchy, Taylor stated that the Habsburgs saw their realms entirely as a tool for foreign policy and thus could never build a geniune nation-state. In order to hold their realm together, the Habsburgs resorted to playing one ethnic group off against another, and promoted German and Magyar hegemony over the other ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary.
Taylor went on to lecture in history at Manchester University before becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1938, a post he held until 1964. After 1964, Taylor was a lecturer at the Institute of Historical Research in London, University College of London, and the Polytechnic College of North London. At Oxford, Taylor was an extraordinary popular professor who had to give his lectures at 8:30 AM in order to prevent over-crowding in his classroom.
Until 1936, Taylor was an opponent of British rearmament, as he felt that a re-armed Britain would ally itself with Germany against the Soviet Union. After 1936, Taylor fervently criticized appeasement, a stance he would disavow in 1961: in 1938, Taylor denounced the Munich Agreement at several rallies; later he would compare the relatively smaller number of Czechoslovak dead with the number of Polish dead.
During World War Two, Taylor served in the Home Guard, and befriended emigré statesmen from Eastern Europe such as the former Hungarian President Count Mihály Károlyi and the Czechoslovak President Dr. Edvard Benes; these friendships helped to enhance Taylor's understanding of the region.
Taylor's speciality was Central European, British and diplomatic history, especially the Habsburg dynasty and Bismarck. Taylor held fierce Germanophobic views. In 1944, he was temporarily banned from the BBC following complaints about a series of lectures he gave on air in which he gave full vent to his anti-German feelings. In his 1945 book, The Course of German History, Taylor argued that National Socialism was the inevitable product of the entire history of the Germans going back to the days of the Germanic tribes. Taylor was an early champion of what has since been called the Sonderweg (Special Way) interpretation of German history; namely that German culture and society developed over the centuries in such a way as to make Nazi Germany a preordained conclusion.
Taylor was a prolific writer who wrote dozens of books and hundreds upon hundreds of articles and book reviews. Starting in 1931, Taylor worked as book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian, and from 1957 onwards, Taylor served as a columnist with the Observer newspaper. From these writings, Taylor helped to popularise the term the Establishment to describe Britain's elite. Taylor often took stands on the great issues of his time. As a Little Englander, he was opposed to the British Empire, against Britain's participation in the European Economic Community and NATO, and he demanded British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Taylor argued in a 1976 speech in Dublin that it would be best for Britain if London would agree to letting the IRA, whom Taylor regarded as freedom-fighters, expel the entire Protestant population of Ulster in the same manner that the Czechoslovak government had expelled the ethnic Germans of the Sudetenland after World War Two. In international affairs, Taylor was opposed to the existence of West Germany (which Taylor saw as a dangerous neo-Nazi state), demonstrated against the Suez War of 1956 (though not the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution), and condemned the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Taylor was fearless in championing unpopular people and causes. In 1980, Taylor resigned from the British Academy to protest against the expulsion of the art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, which Taylor saw as an act of McCarthyism. Closer to his work as an historian, Taylor championed less government secrecy and more open access to government archives, and, perhaps ironically for a staunch leftist, fought for more privately-owned television stations.
He was one of the first television historians. In 1957, 1957-1958 and in 1961 Taylor starred in a number of TV shows on ITV in which he lectured for a half-hour per show without the benefit of notes and with perfect delivery on a variety of topics such as the Russian Revolution and the First World War. Taylor had a famous rivalry with Hugh Trevor-Roper, whom he often debated on television. One of the more famous exchanges between Trevor-Roper and Taylor took place in 1961. Trevor-Roper had stated “I’m afraid that your book [The Origins of the Second World War] may damage your reputation as a historian”. To which, Taylor replied “Your criticism of me would damage your reputation as a historian, if you had one”.
Another frequent sparring partner for Taylor was the writer Malcolm Muggeridge. The frequent television appearances helped to make Taylor the most famous British historian of the 20th century. It was a measure of Taylor's fame that he was featured in a cameo in the 1981 film Time Bandits. Historians normally do not possess sufficient fame with the general public to be offered movie cameos. He was also mentioned by name in the cult classic, Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, more evidence of his fame with the general public. Through Taylor possessed great charm, charisma, and a sense of humor, as he aged, he presented himself as and came to be seen as cantankerous and irascible by the public.
In 1954, he published his masterpiece, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918, and he followed it up with The Trouble Makers (1957), a critical study of British foreign policy. The Trouble Makers was a celebration of those who had criticized the government over foreign policy issues, a subject dear to Taylor's heart. In 1961, he published by far his most controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War, which earned him a reputation as a revisionist.
Taylor saw the existing capitalist system as wrong on both practical and moral grounds. He felt that the status quo in the West prevented an international system that would be just and moral from coming into being. In particular, Taylor saw the status quo as incredibly unstable and prone to accidents. A recurring theme in Taylor's writings was the role of accidents in deciding history. In Taylor's view, leaders did not make history; instead they reacted to events. In Taylor's view, what happened in the past was due to sequences of blunders and errors that were largely outside anyone's control. To the extent that anyone made anything happen in history, it was only through their mistakes. Thus, in his biography of Bismarck, Taylor argued that the Iron Chancellor had unified Germany more by accident then by design.
These ideas were most clearly expressed in The Origins of the Second World War, where Taylor argued that the widespread belief that the outbreak of war in 1939 was Hitler's fault was wrong. Taylor's thesis was that Hitler was not the demoniacal figure of popular imagination, but in the field of foreign affairs, just a normal German leader. The foreign policy of the Third Reich was the same foreign policy of the Weimar Republic and the Second Reich. As a normal Western leader, Hitler was no better or worse then Stresemann, Chamberlain or Daladier. Taylor's argument was that Hitler wished to make Germany the strongest power in Europe, but he did not want or plan war. The outbreak of war in 1939 was an unfortunate accident caused by mistakes on everyone's part. The Origins of the Second World War set off a huge storm of controversy and debate that lasted for years.
Having noted this much, it is fair to add that Taylor did think that individuals sometimes could play a positive role in history. Taylor's heroes were Vladmir Lenin and David Lloyd George. But for Taylor, individuals like Lloyd George and Lenin were the exceptions, not the rule. Another individual Taylor admired was the historian E.H. Carr, who was Taylor's favorite historian and a good friend.
In his 1969 book, War by Timetable, Taylor examined the origins of World War One. In this book, Taylor concluded that through all of the great powers wished to increase their own power relative to the other great powers, none of the great powers consciously sought war before 1914. Instead, Taylor argued that all of the great powers believed that if they possessed the ability to mobilize their armed forces faster then any of the other great powers, this would serve as a sufficient deterrent to avoid war and allow them to achieve their foreign policy goals. Thus, all of the general staffs of the major powers developed elaborate timetables to mobilize faster then any of the rival great powers. When the crisis broke in 1914, through none of the statesmen of Europe wanted a world war, the need to mobilize faster then could potential rivals, created an inexorable movement towards war. Thus, in this way, Taylor claimed that the leaders of 1914 became prisoners of the logic of the mobilization timetable, and the said timetables that were meant to serve as deterrent to stop war instead relentlessly brought war instead.
Taylor also wrote significant introductions to British editions of Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed, and The Communist Manifesto, writing from a virulently anti-communist position. It might be noted that Taylor was an advocate of a treaty with the Soviet Union, something that has been tied to his apparent support of Appeasement in his work on the road to the Second World War.
Taylor lived in Disley, Cheshire for a while, where Dylan Thomas (who was his first wife's lover) was his guest; he later provided Thomas with a cottage in Oxford so he could recover from a breakdown. Taylor was married three times. His first wife was Margaret Adams who Taylor married in 1931 (divorced in 1951) and whom he had 3 children by. She was frequently unfaithful towards her husband, but she was the love of Taylor's life. His second wife was Eve Crosland whom Taylor married in 1951 and divorced in 1974; he had two children by her. Even after divorcing his first wife, Taylor continued to live with her in a common-law relationship while maintaining a household with his second wife; this was a virtually bigamous marriage. Much of Taylor's prolific output was motivated by his need to both support his legal and common-law wives. Taylor's third wife was the Hungarian historian Éva Haraszti whom he married in 1976.
Taylor possessed a magnificent literary style, which allowed him to get away with many of his more frivolous ideas, such as that the major cause of the First World War was the wrong turn taken by the chauffeur of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Taylor's views were those of a quirky, idiosyncratic, and flamboyant individualist who adopted the stance of a professional contrarian and gadfly in order to challenge orthodoxies and thus move society towards what he regarded as more humanist behavior.
- The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918, 1941, revised edition 1948.
- The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918, 1954.
- The Origins of the Second World War, 1961.
- War by Timetable, 1969.
- Beaverbrook, 1972.
- Bismarck: The Man and Statesman, 1955.
- The course of German history: A survey of the development of Germany since 1815, 1945.
- Europe: Grandeur and Decline, 1967.
- The First World War: an illustrated history, 1963
- Germany's first bid for colonies 1884–1885: a move in Bismark's European policy, 1938.
- How wars begin, 1979
- How wars end, 1985.
- The Italian problem in European diplomacy, 1847–1849, 1934.
- The last of old Europe: a grand tour, 1976.
- A Personal History, 1983.
- Politicians, socialism, and historians, 1980.
- An Old Man's Diary, 1984.
- Revolutions and revolutionaries, 1980.
- The Second World War: an illustrated history, 1975.
- The Trouble makers: dissent over foreign policy, 1792–1939, 1957.
- The War lords, 1977
- English History 1914–1945 (Volume XV of the Oxford History of England), 1965.
- Letters to Eva: 1969–1983, edited by Eva Haraszti Taylor, 1991.
- From Napoleon to the Second International: essays on nineteenth-century Europe edited with an introduction by Chris Wrigley, 1993.
- From the Boer War to the Cold War:essays on twentieth century Europe, edited with an introduction by Chris Wrigley, 1995.
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