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A flawed classic and a must read to understand the origins of the war and post-war debates
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.