A. J. P. Taylor was once a household name. A fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and a member of the British Academy, he was treated as an authority on history and politics, and his books were sometimes compared to those of Gibbon or Macaulay. Appearing on BBC television, a natty little man sporting a bow-tie, he lectured without notes in a voice that had a cocksure snap to it. He published a prodigious number of articles, especially in the Beaverbrook press. And all this was mystifying, because he was scandalously wrong and deceitful about almost everything. The reader will be further mystified by Kathleen Burk’s biography.[1] A former pupil of his, she maintains that he still deserves respect.

Taylor was a rich man’s son. When in 1919 his father sold his share of the family’s Lancashire cotton business, he received £100,000, which, as Kathleen Burk says, is £20 million in 1995 prices. Good fortune generated guilt, and many people between the wars tried to cover it up by proclaiming themselves to be left-wing. Sure enough, Taylor joined the Communist Party, and in 1925 visited the Soviet Union. A tourist’s trip was enough to convince him that Soviet Russia was paradise. All his life he remained the daftest sort of fellow-traveler, notorious for once writing, “In the end, Stalin was a rather endearing character” (omitted by Kathleen Burk). Needless to say, he bought fast cars for himself, insisted on the best wines, quarrelled with Magdalen College over his housing, and kept the list of his shares on his desk, for regular consultation with his brokers.

In his youth he had admired the work of Bernard Shaw whose fame depended on standing generally accepted opinion on its head. This was Taylor’s trick too. For him, the Habsburg and British empires were bad, while the nationalisms which destroyed them were good. British statesmen who made peace were incompetent, while Germans who made war, like Bismarck and Hitler, were defensible. In his most characteristic book, The Origins of the Second World War, he argued that Hitler was a politician like any other, taking his chances where he found them. Nazism, then, was a set of accidents, and not a deliberate program of conquest and mass-murder. Not surprisingly, Taylor is the darling of neo-Nazis and revisionists. It takes a very clever man to be quite such an idiot.

Taylor was my tutor at Magdalen. His teaching consisted of indoctrination. Conceit and self-promotion had long since replaced scholarship. Taylor spoke no Russian, and I came to doubt the standards of his German and French. One day he told me that diabolical White Russian exiles in the Baltic had invented the idea of Gulag and Soviet death camps, and there were no such things. Soviet Russia, he liked to assert, was not an aggressive power, and Britain should form an alliance with it. When I argued, he hit out at me with a poker. He who had made sure to be exempt from war service regularly humiliated another of his pupils who had won the Military Cross in Kenya against the Mau Mau. During one tutorial, he pulled out a thick bundle of the old five-pound notes and began counting. Shortly before, a messenger from the Beaverbrook press had delivered his earnings. With meaning, he said, “This is what it is all about.”

More than money, though, he admired power. This was the overriding snobbery which led him to fabricate apologies for the likes of Bismarck and Hitler and Stalin, and to become the sycophant of Lord Beaverbrook and Sir Oswald Mosley, themselves lesser power-maniacs. When I told him that his depiction of Hitler was contradicted by the documents, he answered with that snap, “I trod on their toes this time,” as though that were a serious defense. One maddened BBC producer was exactly right when he objected to Taylor’s “stating his conjectures and opinions as objective facts.”

Kathleen Burk downplays the irresponsibility of Taylor’s fellow-traveling and his power snobbery. Although better at describing how lonely and pitiful his life was, she resorts to many fine euphemisms, calling Taylor “not altogether a mean man,” while dwelling on his money-spinning contracts and fees. She speaks of sexual frustration in his three marriages. His first wife took up with Dylan Thomas, and that gifted sponger comically managed to extract lots of Taylor money. But Kathleen Burk fails to appreciate how fatal to the man it was to have no moral structure, and how fatal to the historian to have no sense of truth. His books have withered, but he himself remains an archetype of the intellectual whose self-deception and hypocrisy degraded the period.

Notes
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  1. Yale University Press will publish Troublemaker in the United States this coming spring. Go back to the text.

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