LETTER: A historian of the people

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A historian of the people

From Dr Brian Hill

Sir: Gareth Stedman Jones (Disputation, 4 April) rightly defends the late AJP Taylor against an "intemperate and petty" attack, but he still refuses him the accolade of a great historian. It depends on what criteria are used.

Mr Stedman Jones finds fault with Taylor's treatment of German history, and it is true that The Origins of the Second World War attracted much criticism, but this was not quite for the reason offered. In my recollection, the shock that greeted its publication centred more upon its playing down of Hitler's responsibility than on any indictment of the German people. The book is a period piece in its antagonism to Germany, but Taylor was surely correct in showing that the Nazi phenomenon was the outcome of earlier history since Bismarck's time. If Taylor was suspicious of the German character, he was typical of most people then. He did not rise above his time, but people rarely do.

The case for Taylor is that he brought history to the people, through the media of the press, radio and television, and professional historians surely owe him their gratitude for this. Even today the recollection of "Alan Taylor" brings a warm glow of appreciation of history to the ordinary people who read, heard or watched him. Some historians thought that he should not have revealed history's complexities to the vulgar, but these were in a minority. He made history popular and met a deep-seated need for "lessons from history". If professionals do not meet this need, others less impartial will do so.

Gareth Stedman Jones does recognise that Taylor was a professional of some stature. The two Oxford Histories brought stimulus to fellow historians as well as to general readers, and they still provide a measure against which later works are judged. Taylor's English History 1914-1945 is one of the best of that series and is a classic of near-contemporary history. His many popular illustrated books bring lively instruction and enjoyment to a wide public. Even without the more serious contributions, Taylor deserves to stand beside Stedman Jones's nominees as great 20th-century historians, the flawed Namier and the now little-known Tawney and Thompson.

To say that he "left no followers and founded no school" is true of the company of his fellow historians, but it ignores the armies of ordinary readers and viewers whom he converted to an appreciation of history at its best, bringing the past into full view.

Yours faithfully,


Reader in History

University of East Anglia


5 April