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The Last Liberal Historian: A. J. P. Taylor, March 25, 1906-Sept. 7, 1990

Samuel Edward Konkin III

Alan John Percivale Taylor, Fellow of Magdalen College in Oxford, may not have shared the religion of his co-Fellow, C. S. Lewis, but he turned into a similar lamp-post of unyielding virtue. For Taylor, a Labour Party supporter and vigorous supporter of “preparedness” and opposition to Third Reich aggression, his moment of conversion came as he rummaged through the files of the captured Reichstag, trusted by the new Atlee government to come to the correct conclusions concerning responsibility for the largest orgy of death and destruction in mankind’s history, known as World War II. Taylor found that nearly everything that had been told to him up through 1939 by the English Establishment was a lie.

He said so, and published the exhaustive analysis of British and German diplomacy leading up to the conflagration in The Origins of The Second World War in 1961. Diehard Isolationists and revisionist historians, such as Harry Elmer Barnes, were thunderstruck that such a work could come from the highest court of the Court Historians. Taylor himself was uneasy with the embrace of these unpleasant “American” revisionists, but stuck to his guns and fearlessly used his cachets in Polite society to defend his thesis in academe and even on the BBC. His well-established dislike of Germany made his heresy toward casting sole blame on it for World War II impossible to dismiss.

Amazingly, he survived and continued to publish one of the longest lists of historical works — and one of the broadest, ranging throughout British history (Beaverbrook, Lloyd George, Essays in English History) to Russian, German, Italian and Austrian histories.

Taylor seemed a paradox (he loved and used paradox stylistically as much as Lewis and G. K. Chesterton), but the solution was to realize he was a classical liberal who had survived into an age where the few remaining political Liberals could not make up their minds whether to emulate Conservatives or Socialists. The Economist portrayed him, in their obituary, as a useful gadfly or “troublemaker."[1] It dismissed his devastating critique of the Western responsibility for World War II with “A bad-tempered controversy over the origins of the second world war did not seriously dent his reputation.” It does note his support for “radical causes, notably the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,” but mentions nothing about his on-the-money analysis in the Guardian (read by this writer when it was published) of the Irish Question, concluding that the British go home and leave the Northern Irish to resolve their own political fate.

Taylor won no favor with Establishment Left or Right Oxford refused to promote him to a professorship and terminated his special lectureship in international history. When asked if history is cyclical (Oswald Spengler’s view), Taylor replied that it was not history which repeats itself but historians who repeat each other.

It is highly doubtful as to whether History will repeat itself with anyone else like A.J.P. Taylor, who gave up the struggle with Parkinson’s disease on September 7, but never gave up the struggle for historical accuracy and truth.

  1. “Puck of Magdalen,” The Economist, September 15, 1990, page 119

[This article originally appeared in New Isolationist, 215 Long Beach Blvd., No. 427, Long Beach, CA 90802.]

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 509-510.