Disputation: An imp, but not a great historian

The AJP Taylor industry has got going again, laments Gareth Stedman Jones
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The Independent Online
It is astonishing how green the memory of AJP Taylor remains. Taylor died in 1990 and Parkinson's disease ended his public career almost a decade before that. Yet such has been the attention paid to an intemperate and petty attack on Taylor by the 91-year-old All Souls historian AL Rowse that it would be easy to imagine Taylor was still performing on television and writing his weekly column in the Express.

According to Rowse, Taylor was "wanting in integrity" and had "no judgement". "There should have been more people to tell him to stop talking (and writing) nonsense."

Rowse's feeble remarks have enabled Taylor's admirers yet again to spring into action. Adam Sisman's large and readable biography of Taylor, which appeared in 1993, ranked him among the best three English historians of this century. A television programme, Reputations, earlier this year, added fulsome praise from the Conservative former minister Kenneth Baker. Norman Stone in the Sunday Times described Taylor as "the most influential historian of his time" and saluted him as "a rude historian of genius".

Taylor at his best was a compelling lecturer who also possessed a concise and witty prose style. His judgements were quick, when possible epigrammatic, and usually mischievous. But that did not mean that they were especially wise or even true. Nor in the judgement of most historians are these the qualities which would entitle him to be ranked among the greatest historians. Unlike other great 20th-century historians - Namier, Tawney or EP Thompson in Britain, Bloch or Braudel in France - Taylor left no followers and founded no school. He is not remembered for any striking new insight into the historical process, nor for bringing new types of historical material to the attention of the world.

Champions of Taylor usually argue that the misadventures of his personal life should be disregarded, along with his chat-show performances and his journalism in the Beaverbrook press. His greatness, they argue, rests firmly upon his serious historical works.

But in Taylor's case the distance between his serious historical research and his occasional journalism was not very great. The positions he adopted in his historical work were scarcely more complicated than those he championed in his newspaper columns. The main argument of his most controversial work, The Origins of the Second World War, was that Hitler's foreign policy was simply a continuation of a tradition of German expansionism that went back at least to 1848.

In pursuit of this argument, Taylor blithely pushed to one side all the special and horrible features of Nazism. He contributed nothing new to the vast literature attempting to understand the origins and character of the Third Reich, mainly because he considered the whole phenomenon of Nazism to be a problem peculiar to Germans. In his first major book, Struggle for the Mastery of Europe, German expansionism was ultimately related to the specificities of German national character.

Greatness in a historian is a contentious and ambiguous quality to isolate. But it surely might include the capacity to illuminate historical problems by placing them in a new light and perhaps to replace comfortable myths by more awkward forms of self-understanding. Despite an impish show of iconoclasm, these were not Taylor's qualities.

For all his years abroad and his linguistic gifts, Taylor in his historical work did nothing to assuage traditional English mistrust of all things German. He was happy to fan it. Whatever our admiration for Taylor's skills as a story-teller, we should not confuse the writing of great history with the skills and wit of a clever Europhobe.

The writer is reader in modern history at Cambridge University.