TROUBLEMAKER: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor
TROUBLEMAKER: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor. By Kathleen Burk. Yale Univ. Press. 491 pp. $35
In a biography of a celebrated Oxford University historian, one doesn’t expect to find a table charting the scholar’s annual income or a chapter titled "The Business History of the History Business." In the case of A. J. P. Taylor, however, the accountancy is more than apposite, for it measures the distinction of the popular historian who invented a profession. The son of wealthy radicals, Taylor (1906-90) was the first of what Britain dubbed the "telly-dons," an intellectual whose TV shows and radio talks and articles in the popular press made him a public institution.
His Oxford colleagues, naturally, hated his eminence almost as much as they envied it. Lesser men, but better placed, conspired to deny him the promotions he deserved. There were excuses enough. In the 1930s, he had briefly dallied with communism. In the late 1940s, he had argued that Britain could neither trust nor rely on the United States, and should seek national security through an alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the 1950s, he helped found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Burk, an American who was Taylor’s last graduate student, has mastered the vicious subtleties of the British class system and managed to produce a biography that is fair and well judged. She comprehends both Taylor’s resentments and the attitudes of his enemies, including the unholy glee they took in his wife’s infidelities (with, among others, Dylan Thomas). Above all, she conveys Taylor’s dis-tinction as a historian, a career to which he came late, after a false start in law.
His Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 (1954) remains the outstanding diplomatic history of the decades leading up to the First World War. It was the first study in English to take account of the diplomatic documents in German (which he learned in Vienna in the late 1920s), French (which he learned at school), and Russian (which he taught himself). British historians had done superb work in the British archives; Taylor was perhaps the first to take these forensic skills to archives abroad. His most infamous book, The Origins of the Second World War (1961), argued that Hitler, though indisputably wicked, acted as a rational statesman in European affairs, pursuing logical and traditional German goals and then pushing his luck when he realized the feebleness of the French and British responses. From, in Taylor’s words, "all that was best and most enlightened in British public life" came the disastrous policy of appeasement. As controversy raged over the book, Alec Douglas-Home, a loyal appeaser at Neville Chamberlain’s side in Munich, was Britain’s foreign secretary; in 1963, he became prime minister. No wonder Taylor sneered that the British establish-ment always won in the end, however grievous its mistakes.
Well sustained by the documentary record, his argument was formidable, and "all that was best and most enlightened" never forgave him. His students saw nothing to forgive and much to admire in the only Oxford lecturer who could fill a hall at 9 a.m. and still have standing room only at the end of term. His TV audience marveled at a man who could deliver, without a note or a pause, 30 polished minutes of witty, anecdotal, and informed scholarship and end, with a perfect epigram, on the dot of time. He was a performer who made history fun, and, as this admirable biography shows, history gave him a great deal of pleasure in return. Moreover, the money was good. From teaching, books, broadcasting, and freelance journalism, he earned the equivalent in today’s values of well over $250,000 a year from the late 1950s into the 1980s. No wonder he always looked forward to the day he would spend making out his income tax returns.