29 August, 2006

History Today

I was bemused by an article David Cannadine wrote for the BBC News website, "A Tale of Two Historians". He talks about two well-known but now deceased historians, A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. He mentioned how since their deaths, the reputation of one has soared and the other nose-dived. But bizarrely, it seems to be Taylor's stock which has fallen while suddenly everyone apparently loves Trevor-Roper.

The contention is interesting, but Mr Cannadine has little to say in favour of Trevor-Roper, apart from claiming that his collected letters are a cracking read. Big mickey, especially given that they seem to largely deal with the puerile university politics that kept him away from producing anything to rival Taylor's works.

Er, not that I am actually that familiar with Taylor's oeuvre in its totality. Years and years ago I read an entertaining book about British foreign policy dissidents, but the one big book of Taylor's I have read is his Origins of the Second World War. That is a cracker, a book covering interstate politics in Europe from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second, with the sense of pace and drama that makes it a page turner to rival the most exciting thriller.

One very odd thing about that book is the way people keep saying that it is some kind of apologia for Hitler. This is bollocks, basically. Taylor treats Hitler as an actual person pursuing goals rather than the kind of dehistoricised monster some are more comfortable with. And the focus of the book is on relations between the states of Europe, meaning that their internal affairs are largely outside its concern. That said, Taylor is quite clear on how Kristalnacht and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia were important events, in that they made the British public realise that Hitler really was a maniac and not someone who could be appeased. Taylor is quite clear on Hitler's boundless appetite, even if he does not believe that Der Fuhrer came into office in 1933 planning to launch a European war in September 1939.

Mmmm. I think I will add The Struggle for Mastery in Europe and Taylor's book about the Habsburgs to my mountain of unread books.

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