Curriculum Vital

History in the taking
The Origins of the Second World War
By A.J.P. Taylor

I thought I knew how and why the Second World War began. Germany, all of Germany, every German, felt humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. The crippling economic effects of this treaty allowed a bloodthirsty, Jew-hating demagogue, Adolf Hitler, to seize power and launch a pre-planned campaign for global domination. Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland were minding their own business when suddenly they were invaded and annexed by Germany as part of Hitler’s master plan.

The complex truth of the matter is the subject of AJP Taylor’s masterful book, The Origins of the Second World War. Published in 1961 to much controversy, Taylor’s account of the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 was, as he points out, the first of its kind: while there were many books on the conflict itself, there were none about how it started, precisely because everyone thought the truth was so obvious as not to need restating. This ground-breaking work has done much to help lift the fog of myth that enveloped Britain for decades after the conflict had ended, and sits in the minds of many still. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in the field of historical research has so much been revealed to so many in so few words.

Taylor’s overriding theory is that Hitler was an opportunist, not a planner. He waited for circumstances to change to his liking, sometimes using bluff and bravado to hurry things along, then gratefully seized whatever fell into his lap. In every important event in the 1930s – Hitler’s rise to Chancellor, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, Anschluss, the Munich agreement and the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland – where others see a master plan, Taylor sees, and has plenty evidence of, a chancer being gifted opportunities through the bungling of others and a few helpings of good fortune. In all of this, Hitler showed that he had learnt from his failed ‘Beer Hall’ putsch in 1923 not to move too quickly, or sometimes at all, for his objectives. Destiny, he believed, would come to him.

True, Hitler wanted to reoccupy the Rhineland, absorb Austria (the land of his birth), the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and Danzig (now Gdansk) into a Greater Germany, but, as Taylor points out, this was the continuation of German policy since Bismarck – domination of Mitteleuropa. In evil ambition, Taylor writes, Hitler was no worse than his predecessors. ‘In evil deeds he outdid them all.’

Taylor, the most well known British historian of his day, writes with calm and measured prose, guiding you comfortably along the great trench of historical research and occasionally glancing above the parapet with a daring observation, such as this on the three million Germans living in Czechoslovakia in 1938,

The Anschluss stirred them into ungovernable excitement. Maybe they would have been wiser to remain contented with their lot – free, though not equal, citizens in a democratic community. But men are not wise when they hear the call of nationalism.

A few lines later comes an example of the startling clarity of Taylor’s case:

Hitler did not create this [German national] movement [in Czechoslovakia]. It was waiting for him, ready – indeed eager – to be used. Even more than in the case of Austria, Hitler did not need to act. Others would do his work for him. The crisis over Czechoslovakia was provided for Hitler. He merely took advantage of it.

It might seem odd, certainly for serious historians, to write a critical review of such a famous book in 2017. I intend this more for people like me, born in the mid 1980s (Taylor died in 1990), fascinated by history, particularly WWII, but not a student, teacher or scholar of it. If I was ignorant of Taylor and this masterpiece until about two years ago I am quite sure others will be too. Educational standards in Britain have been in terminal decline roughly since the publication of The Origins of the Second World War. One should not consider any book, no matter how famous, too obvious for renewed recognition.

By Ross:

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