Intensely controversial in its day, this book is now recognised as being an important piece of historical research which lay bare the reasons for the cataclysm that defined the twentieth century.
It suited those involved to present the 2nd world war as a result of the evil machinations of Hitler, a view reinforced in the public's mind by Churchill's own account of the war. In this book Taylor presents the alternative view that it wasn't pre-planned, but we fell into it almost by accident. At the time of publication the war was still a raw memory and Churchill was a public hero, lauded for his prescience before the outbreak of war and leading the nation through its darkest days, so this view which directly challenged the great man and brought back so many bad memories was controversial.
In this book we are presented with a wealth of evidence to support this radical view, a careful evaluation of all the available evidence, presented in a clear and readable fashion. The research is authoritative, but the real joy of this book is its readability. Unlike some accounts of tangled world affairs, this is incredibly accessible, and not just for scholars.
A must read for anyone interested in this era of history. 5 stars.
on 6 January 2000
'The Origins of the Second World War' is one of the finest works of modern revisionism in European History. The controversial ideals propounded therein contiue to cause consternation among many academics. It is, to a degree, the continuation of his previous volume in the Oxford History of Europe (The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918), perhaps a criticism of 'Origins' is that it centres on Europe. But 'Origins' became his apotheosis vis-a-vis revisionism: questioning the apparently sacrosacnt ideal that Hitler had single handedly planned and caused the War. He blamed the controversy the book caused for his 'removal' from Oxford. Whether or not this is the case, one cannot say. 'Origins', however, will an important historical for years to come.
on 14 July 2015
The reviewer who has read the book in the English Penguin edition of 1991 was surprised to note that while the book was translated into German soon after its first British edition some 50 years ago the Germans never seem to have given it much attention, in spite of the fact that what the author has to say about Germany is much more positive than historiography in general and German historiography in particular would have it.
By now, the book is some fifty years old and one wonders whether it is still an interesting read. In a foreword ("Second Thoughts") to the 1991 edition, the author takes up this question and does not significantly alter his views; on the subject of the 'Austrian Anschluss' of early 1938 (p. 8), he says: "the Austrian crisis was launched by Schuschnigg, not by Hitler" he muses about the German occupation of the Czech lands a year later (p. 9) and says that for many years he had been under the impression that Hacha, the president of Czechoslovakia had been ordered by Hitler to come to Berlin, whereas the files available at Prague document that the trip was undertaken at Hacha's initiative who was wondering what to do in the face of the obvious break-up of the country once Slovakia had claimed independence and unrest was brewing among the Hungarian and other minorities.
Taylor also raises the question why Hitler, if he did have the intention to secure living space in the East should go to war against Britain and France and discards the idea that Hitler was nothing but a power-hungry maniac. He rather considers Hitler to have been a politician who, whenever new situations arose, would rely on his instincts to profit from a given constellation.
The author is also sceptical as to the thesis that Hitler went out of his way to make war; he underlines the fact that the often-quoted "Hossbach-Protokoll" is a very weak basis for such a view and, materially speaking, a highly questionable document. Far from depicting Hitler as an angel of peace and judging him very harshly in his foreword, he does say that "in international affairs there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was a German".
The main portion of the book is devoted to the various phases of the inter-war period and describes the fate of the Treaty of Versailles and its long agony over the decade following its signature; he reviews the various stages of its demise, the conferences and agreements that could not prevent the Treaty from becoming a worthless piece of paper on account of its inherent contradictions and tensions which affected the signatories in various ways (including the former Allies among themselves). Here, Taylor shows that once Hitler had been brought into the Reich government, he toed the line of his predecessors as far Germany's foreign policy was concerned while, internally, turning the country itself upside down.
According to Taylor, Hitler never wanted a war in the West, his primary aim was a return in the East to the status after the peace of Brest-Litovsk, the treaty which the victorious Central Powers had concluded with the nascent Soviet Union in 1917/18; for Taylor, anything beyond that is speculation. To reach his goal, Hitler employed two means, words and patience, and, for years, was succesful in his efforts.
The mid-1930s caused profound changes on the continent of Europe, the consequences of which the author - while not going so far as to make the British say "rather Hitler than Baldwin" - expresses as "rather Hitler than Stalin". He does, however, identify a feeling of "rather Hitler than Léon Blum" among the bourgeois (and catholic) French in the face of the successes of the "Front populaire" in 1936. Everybody knows that what happened in Spain was even more dramatic and menacing, since the Soviet Union, in this case, became involved in Western Europe for the first time.
The penultimate of the many crises of the 1930s affected Czechoslovakia, and here, too, the author does not identify any evil machinations by the Germans: the German chancellor simply made use of a situation in which that country, a shaky and articifial construct of Versailles, was bound to end up in, once the calls for the independence of its constituent ethnicities (not only the Sudeten Germans) had become louder and louder after the events in Austria.
The Munich conference attempted to consolidate what was left, but the country fell apart under its own weight over the following months, not least, because the Polish military invasion into and annexation of the Teschen area - without any reaction in the West - had shown that the country as such meant nothing to its erstwhile creators.
What Taylor does not mention in this connection (but which is mentioned in the memoirs, "Dernier Rapport", of Jozef Beck, the last Polish foreign minister) is that once the Sudeten lands had been tranferred to Germany, Poland approached the Reich on the subject of the Oderberg/Bohumin rail hub which was now German, asking for traffic rights. Hitler not only gave Poland such an authorization but ceded the whole region to Poland retaining only such traffic rights for Germany against payment of a fee.
Taylor's assessment of the British guarantee for Poland, given in early 1939 when the question of Danzig and the Polish Corridor became acute, is devastating: London gave Poland the unrestricted right to push Britain (and France) into a war with Germany (but not with the Soviet Union!) in the ludicrous expectation that Hitler would thus be more cautious than Chamberlain himself and that Stalin, too, would accept obvious disadvantages. Chamberlain had gone so far in this guarantee as to involve France as well, without ever consulting Paris - France had to follow suit, whether she wanted to or not.
Everything else now followed automatically: Poland refused any concessions and began harrassing her German minority, Hitler could hardly go back with respect to Danzig, and Europe slid into an abyss. The constellations became so absurd that Taylor is able to state that Hitler's diplomatic initiative launched on 29 August should have been launched the day before if war was to be avoided. On 1st September 1939 Europe crumbled, never really being able to reshape itself. Poland went under in three weeks of fighting although Taylor makes a point of saying (p. 267) that the state of Germany's armaments in 1939 proved that Hitler did not want a major war, if any war at all.
In view of such unorthodox opinions it is not surprising that Taylor, in post-war Germany, was regarded as a non-entity, for if influential circles in Germany had accepted his theses, the policy of the Allies after the war would have become unacceptable - be it the Nuremberg trials, the eradication of Prussia or the expropriation and expulsion of 12 Million Germans from their rightful lands. It is much easier for today's Germans to accomodate themselves to the status quo than to ask questions.
on 29 March 2015
When I took history 'A' level in the late 1970s, Alan Taylor's books were very much on the reading lists, if only to provide an 'alternative view' to the generally accepted interpretations of the various periods and topics covered in European history. Interestingly, when reading history at University, the tutors took a more unsympathetic view of Taylor's works. Even the mention of his name would result in deep sighs and the shrugging of shoulders by some, and consequently Taylor's works did not receive the degree of attention they deserved.
How wrong they were then, and how wrong they are now. Taylor's 'Origins' has gained increasing prescience over time, and today stands as one of the most, if not the most important, work on this very important topic in history. The historian Kathleen Burk has suggested that 'Origins' is the most important work of history of the second half of the twentieth century, but I would go further and say it is the most important work of the entire twentieth century.
It's insightful 'balancing of the books' with regard to political and diplomatic history of the period places many of the events covered in a much clearer and more convincing context. To start with, Taylor was not an 'apologist' for Hitler. Taylor recognises the evil barbarity of the National Socialist regime, and makes no apology for the virulent anti-Semitism which provided one of the energetic 'engines' for National Socialist success. But what Taylor also emphasises is the opportunistic nature of Hitler's rise to power, the opportunistic way in which he achieved his aims and ambitions through the 1930s, leading up to war declared by the western powers (and not Germany) in 1939. Also, Taylor rejects his work as 'revisionist', stating that events should be recorded the way they happened and why they happened, rather than the way we would like them to be recorded and explained. Inevitably, according to Taylor, various 'legends' (what a lovely and diplomatic way to put it) need to be dispelled. For example, the often-held opinion that Hitler was hell-bent on war should be set against the other players on the diplomatic chess board: the constant 'Appeasement' approach of the British (weak), the totally ineffectual French (very weak), the isolationist stance of the United States (strong but selfish), the chaos of the Soviet regime (weak and selfish). In this way Taylor explains that Hitler simply exploited the weaknesses of his opponents and achieved his aims with the least effort, and would rather have not gone to war at all to achieve his further aims and ambitions. Above all, Taylor emphasises that Hitler was acting simply as the typical German statesman like any other down the ages - whether it be Charlemagne, Charles V, Frederick the Great, or Bismarck - to preserve or restore Germany as a Great Power on the European stage.
In summary, this is a must read for all students of history, and for those seeking a more balanced approach to the origins of the second world war, than may perhaps be found elsewhere. It is conducted in Alan Taylor's typically lucid and flowing style, very easy to read and understand, without the stuffiness so readily found by the productions of the typical Oxford don. Also, I can highly recommend the Folio Society edition of this book, published from 2008, which is a beautifully bound hard back edition with the bonus of additional photographs.
on 19 December 2011
Taylor attempts to do what Fritz Fisher did to the study of the origins of the First World War, to the study of the Second World Wars origins. His work has generated controversy, spurred on countless historians to engage his work, but more importantly has made everyone take another look at the evidence to establish what happened and why. Taylor attacks what he describes as the myths that, by the 1960s, had been built up and the accepted view of what happened in the years following the Treaty of Versailles and the start of fighting in 1939.
Taylor's work is very accessible and easy to read, riddled with jokes and sarcastic remarks, he makes his way through the relevant events and treaties that took place between 1919 and 1939 that created the mosaic, which are the origins of the war. In places this paints a very depressing picture due the failure of the statesmen on all sides to resolve the issues created by the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles; in two lines Taylor sums up the interwar period and his work: "The purpose of political activity is to provide peace and prosperity; and in this every statesman failed, for whatever reason. This is a story without heroes...".
While dated, with numerous works authored with the sole object of debunking Taylor's, or actually relooking into the subject; the book is still a classic, a must read to understand the post war debates that are still taking place. Taylor makes some excellent points however I do not agree with all the issues raised by Taylor siding mainly with his critics who highlight, in issues on inter-war Germany and reparation payments to name a few areas, how wrong he was. For example in both Gordon Martel's and Esmonde Robertson's collection of essays, several historians note how Taylor misused evidence or interpreted it a way that could not be supported, ignored information that was readily available at the time of him writing that contradicts points he made, or simply missed the point why events happened. This creates the impression that Taylor's work is deeply flawed and Martel makes the point that an undergraduate student, or anyone for that matter, let loose on the book will be left with the revelation that no one inside the Nazi regime was to blame for the events that took place, that appeasement was not necessarily a bad thing (not to mention how Taylor does not really explain the point of it) and that fascism had no impact on the interwar years.
Regardless for anyone studying the origins of the war or needing to contrast the differing opinions that have been made since, this is a must have book. For general reading or personal study, that does not want to completely engage in the debate, I would suggest looking elsewhere; PMH Bell's The Origins of the Second World War is an excellent book covering the competing theories as well as tackling the issue of why the war broke out.
History is always being rewritten.Yesterday's perspective is no longer 'correct' or more evidence has come along to challenge the previously held majority view: either way views change and interpretations vary,allowing us to see the past in a new way.Hence every generation will have it's 'take' on the past.Even so 'The Origins...' is still an absorbing and largely persuasive piece of work,despite it's venerable age.
Taylor makes three central points - firstly that Hitler despite the rhetoric was really a 'chancer' who distinguished himself from his counterparts by his steely nerves and willingness to ask for more, just when the other side thought they had done enough to pacify him.Hitler played his hand brilliantly but only because he was allowed to by the French, British and Russians. This goes against the idea that Hitler was bent on World or at least European domination, simply because he much prefered to get what he wanted through threat rather then force -so much easier,especially as the German military was not really up to a prelonged campaign as in the First World War. He was happy to have client states like Romania or lap dogs like Italy to do his bidding rather then conflict, as this would inevitably bring Britain and France to bear in his direction. His motive was to expand into the East-where the pickings were much easier and richer,rather then get involved in a draining war with Britain and France.This seems a very convincing argument,although somewhat nullified by Hitler's own ramblings in 'Mein Kampf'. The coming with war over Poland then according to Taylor was a classic example of over-stretch by Hitler- now he was forced to use force where previously intrigue and power politics -as in Austria had done him handsomely.
Secondly,Germany had considerable sympathy in Britain and elsewhere for it's territorial losses in the Versailles treaty,in fact the British often had more time for German concerns then those of it's supposed ally, France.In a sense he says, Britain, France , Russia and Italy although wary of Hitler could see him as useful- either as a bulwark against Communism, or as a guardian of mutual security or helping to fulfill specific territorial ambitions that particular countries might have had themselves.So as long as Germany didn't get too powerful or greedy,she could be a way of maintaining peace in Central Europe. This too is persuasive - leading us to consider that unlike in conventional histories, no-one was innocent in all of these political manoeuvrings.
Thirdly that the Poland issue was simply a mistake.Hitler did not want a World war, but given his character,once forced into one (as he saw it), Germany could and would take on all comers.This proved true even to the extent of declaring war on the USA in 1941.He was slow for instance unlike the British to turn the whole economy over to war production,his hope was to quickly defeat his enemies rather then get into a never-ending slug-fest.
So, whether you agree with Taylor or not - his book is a rattling good read,and he keeps up a steady pace and allows us to see the various threads of activity clearly, despite the complexity of the diplomatic situation.However, there are a few negatives to consider: most importantly- where is Japan in all this?
I think also that Taylor underplays the economic situation -given that Germany was running large balance of payments deficits with its trading neighbours and the expansion of the military must have been costly,it must have been the case that Hitler had to find a way to pay for increased state spending - hence the toadying up to the major industrialists,the removal of the trade unions and the fleecing and eventual displacement of the Jews in German economic life.In short,once he had done all he could do bleed the domestic front dry whilst at the same time trying to remain popular, annexation and sequestration by whatever means-even war, was the only way Hitler was going to pay for his ambitions. He took a gamble and in the end lost.
I also found after awhile Taylor's lofty tone somewhat irritating.Given the lack of trust,information and common policy amongst the various countries concerned, was it any surprise that a focused and ultimately unknowable individual such as Hitler could play divide and rule for so long without being caught out? Taylor shows I feel insufficient understanding of how difficult it must have been to deal with Hitler, a man who many of the statesmen involved often had admiration and sympathy for, despite his foibles.
'The Origins...' remains an important book, even if as a work of scholarship it is somewhat limited. Recommended,despite its shortcomings.
on 2 August 2014
Taylor was perhaps the first celebrity historian and in his lifetime was known to a huge audience. This was as much because of his communication skills and an awareness of how to present himself as for his gifts as a historian, prodigious though these gifts were. He had an uncanny ability to present complex arguments in a way which allowed a general audience to understand the arguments and a wonderful literary style which was very tight, fluid and concise or what might be called very readable. Taylor was passionate that the word history included "story" and that his books should present this story in a way which encouraged people to read it. That another highly regarded historian could write a biography of him entitled "Troublemaker" in itself is a good indicator of his impact as a historian and also his ready willingness to court controversey. This book remains controversial even today, over half a century after it was published and even those who criticise the book would have to concede that it has left a lasting impact.
Taylor's essential argument is that the fundamental issue was the position of Germany within Europe and how the other powers of Europe would accomodate this. Starting with the defeat of Germany in 1918 and the settlement of Versailles the book moves through the Weimar Republic, hyper inflation, the diplomacy of Stresemann and the great economic depression before examining the role of Hitler. This sets a context which is essential and often ignored as whilst Hitler's methods and beliefs on issues such as anti-semitism were clearly appalling his determination to restore Germany to the position of being a great power and to reverse the settlement of Versailles were no more than a continuation of those who had gone before and were certainly not the policies of a lunatic fringe bent on war. Once Germany was restored as a great power then it was almost inevitable that the existing order of Europe would have to be revised with Germany again developing a dominant position over much of the continent. Taylor believed that whilst Hitler's methods were reprehensible, his ambitions to restore Germany to this position of dominance within Europe were both rational and consistent with German history. He upset many by his comments that Germany was no more wrong in pursuing such ambitions than other powers such as Britain and France were in denying them. At a time when the consensus of opinion was that Hitler was a demonic mad man who deliberately wanted war Taylor presented a human picture of a rational man who was an opportunist and who wanted the fruits of victory but who wanted to achieve these fruits without a great war. Many words have been written about the arguments around opportunism and planning, and in some ways this is an argument over nuances and what is understood by the word "plan". Taylor took a very narrow view that "plan" indicates something which has been worked out in detail, his critics have pointed towards various speeches, writings and diplomatic records to present these as plans. Tellingly, after the book was published the concept of consistent aims achieved through flexible means became widely accepted as a way of describing Hitler's career, which in effect is a way of reconciling both positions and recognising that whilst Hitler had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve his execution was opportunistic. Perhaps one of Taylor's weaknesses was an adherence to official records, his insistence that for meetings to be considered as actal events that formally recorded, agreed and archived minutes were needed is questionable given the ad-hoc nature of Hitler's methods and his methods of giving subordinates broad outlines ideas to implement. There is a sense that Taylor should have been more receptive to less official records, although the flip side of this is that his adherence to a strict methodology did help to debunk records such as the Hossbach memorandum. His opinion that the record of German re-armament and economic policy shows that Hitler did not want a general war was lambasted at the time (it should be noted Taylor was not the only person to present such a view at the time, nor was he the first) yet it is inarguable that if Hitler was really determined to fight a great war then this is not supported by economic planning and armament. The German armed forces re-armed in breadth but not depth and this itself indicates that whilst Hitler may indeed have wanted short, sharp victorious limited wars he was not planning a general war against the great powers, at least not a war in 1939. He does appear to have dreamt of a war of conquest in the East and he greatly underestimated Soviet power, but he was hardly alone in either sense. Turning away from Hitler and Germany, Taylor stimulated a re-appraisal of appeasement and showed that far from being a small clique acting against public opinion that appeasement represented the consensus position and further courted controversey by presenting appeasement as considered and well intentioned efforts to avoid war. Hindsight has made appeasement a dirty word but those who attack appeasers should first consider the alternatives, was a European war really justified as a response to the Anschluss, or the re-militarisation of the Rhineland, or of Hitler's claims on behalf of ethnic German's in neighbouring countries when many in the rest of the world felf that these minorities had justified grievances?
The book maybe described as revisionist, but it could more accurately be described as one of the first attempts to step outside simplistic assumptions of war guilt and demonic representations of Hitler and to try to understand Hitler as a deeply unpleasant man who implemented the most appalling crimes against humanity yet who was (at least in the 1930's) a rational and considered human being who whilst possessing some hideous views such as his anti-semitism was also representative of a wider German tradition in foreign policy. I certainly would not advocate that this book be read in isolation or accepted without reading other views but the book cannot be ignored. Those who argue that Taylor was just being wilfully contrarian and causing mischief just to generate book sales do the book a huge disservice. The book made a lasting impression and one of the principal reasons it was so controversial was precisely because Taylor presented an argument that cannot just be dismissed lightly. He challenged perceptions and the book created a historical debate with lasting consequences (such as the shift towards a centrist idea of consistent aims achieved by flexible means to reconcile the arguments over opportunist vs. planner) and if nothing else made people re-think the causes of the second world war. Very highly recommended and quite simply an essential book for anybody with an interest in the subject.
on 19 August 2013
Taylor's thesis that Hitler was a typical German statesman in his foreign policy has been shocking to many but it is not so radical at all a view. Most Germans, certainly the elites, after WWI were horrified that they had lost a war they considered theirs, and a war that they had won on the eastern front and only came to a stalemate on the western front owing to American intervention. The Versailles treaty offended them by blaming Germany for the war, when all the Great Powers and Serbia were equally guilty, and by destroying their hope for hegemony in eastern Europe. Hitler shared these views, with of course a bitter Austrian touch which made him hate Czechs and generally dislike all eastern Europeans to some extent. As long as France and Britain were willing during the 1930's to entertain revisions to Versailles Hitler was willing to go along. He knew that Britain and France had no will to fight and felt guilty, Britain more than France of course, about the territories populated by Germans which were now in the Czech state and Poland. The diplomacy about the Sudentenland was Hitler's strong point and he allowed Chamberlain and Daladier to give him what he wanted, remaining seemingly reasonable. The subsequent absorption of Austria and the destruction of the Czechoslovak state was also reasonable to the West. But when Hitler thought he could play the same game with Poland -- to get the city of Danzig and some territory linking Germany to East Prussia the Poles didn't play the game. Arrogant and stupid, the Polish military dictatorship thought they could stick it to Stalin and Hitler simultaneously and get away with it; it also thought the French and British would defend Poland according to their treaty obligations, but France had no intention of aiding the Poles with whom it had gotten tired and Britain had no means of helping the Poles even had it wished to. When Hitler's reasonable approach got him nowhere with the Poles (despite British attempts to compel the Poles to yield) he resorted to war. Nobody could help the Poles and he had already arranged an alliance with Stalin to divide Poland. So angry was Hitler with the Poles that he treated them brutally in comparison with his easy-going attitude towards the Czechs once they had surrendered. So Hitler was, as long as it was possible, a reasonable foreign policy player. With Poland his harsh, messianic, utopian side came to the fore and no longer could he or would he be reasonable. Taylor deals with Hitler's reasonable period. He did not mean to write that Hitler was not brutal, genocidal, and destructive. He only meant that until WWII Hitler behaved himself diplomatically like any German nationalist. His Austrian roots made him a but more violent at times, but this was verbal -- until the Second World War began. Had Hitler focused not on Poland but on attacking Russia the West might have continued to appease him, since they also feared Bolshevism to a lesser extent. A Nazi-Bolshevik war might have been preferable to WWII. Had the Poles cooperated with Hitler he would have made them into a satellite and they would have not suffered as they subsequently did.
Taylor therefore has written a fine book and made a good contribution; not his fault many have misunderstood him.
on 6 January 2016
Written over half a century ago it is still a fascinating read and essential for those interested in how the Second World War came about. Taylor challenges a lot of the assumptions about Hitler but is in no way an apologist for him. It is more that he reflects upon the actions of people like Chamberlain.
on 2 March 2014
A J P Taylor's analysis of the events prior to the outbreak of war is a masterful piece of work. The political machinations and his presentation and interpretation fills out our understanding of a complex period. It also looks past the hype that we have been fed regarding how war came about.
The saying "war is diplomacy by other means" certainly holds true here in that with the evidence Taylor has presented the Germans were in no more a state to begin a war than any of the allies France, great Britain or Poland. The Soviet Union had the largest armaments program whilst the German one was comparable to the British and French.
Some of the information is dated. Taylor does write off the Polish effort in a way which was typical of historians of his generation. The Poles were behind in re-equiping with modern arms, but the Polish 7tp tank was a match for the Panzer iv, though only available in limited quantaties. The Polish airforce also acquited itself well during the opening week of the campaign as did Polish armed forces at some moments during the campaign and in some instances inflicting severe reverses on the German effort. German tank losses in the Polish campaign were comparable to that in the assault on the West in 1940.
This work was published in 1963 and would have been highly provocative in those times to present this view of the facts, though it is highly plausible that Taylor's view which is that the war came about after diplomatic and political manouvers failed and partly through accidents or mistakes is in large measure correct.
This is not to say that the German's are less guilty of starting the war just that in Taylor's view there was not in 1939 the grandiose scheme in place - or the war resources - in place for a conquest of Europe.
One of Taylor's chief evidence for this is the German armaments industry figures which continued to show lower output than his protaganists for much of the war.