November 25, 2003

Books: A.J.P. Taylor: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe

A.J.P. Taylor (1954), The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 0198812701).

A.J.P. Taylor writes too well. Here are two examples, both from page xxxiv:

In the last analysis the First World War was brought about by the coincidence of two opposite beliefs. The rules of Austria-Hungary believed that there would be revolution if they did not launch a war; the rulers of Germany were confident that there would not be a revolution if they did. Both beliefs would have astonished Metternich.

When Victor adler objected to Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, that war would provoke revolution in Russia, even if not in the Habsburg monarchy, he replied: "And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein* sitting over there at the Cafe Central?"

You have to keep reminding yourself, "Just because he says it beautifully doesn't mean that it is true! Just because he says it beautifully doesn't mean that it is true!

It's unfair.

*Lev Davidovitch Bronstein was better known as Leon Trotsky.

Posted by DeLong at November 25, 2003 04:12 PM | TrackBack

Comments


You do have to remind yourself that just because he says it beutifully doesn't mean that it is true. However, in the first case, it should be easy, since his beatiful statement makes no sense logically.

Opposite beliefs might be

"The rules of Austria-Hungary believed that there would be revolution if they did not launch a war; the rulers of Germany were confident that there would not be a revolution if they did NOT LAUNCH A WAR."

The stated beliefs are not opposite but similar. In each case rulers did not want a revolution and did not realise that the war would cause three. I think Taylor's desire for a nice symmetry in the sentence leads him to write nonsense. In this case his desire to write well interferes whith his ability to think logically. I suspect there are other such cases in Taylor's writings.

Oddly, he could have avoided the logical nonsense just be deleting the work opposite. The rhythm and symmetry and contrast with Metternich do not require this word which makes no sense.

Now as to the case of Taylor. I know that Brad thinks his view of history is completely unreasonable and inconsistent with the facts (see very old post on David Irving). Oddly many people seem to agree that Taylor's explanations, predictions and proposals are almost willfully perverse, but also say that he is a very great historian (I forgot where I read that). IMAO this seems to show something not so great about historians and historiography. The case of Taylor (given what others say about him) seems to suggest that to be a great historian you have to know the facts and write well. Nothing about interpretations which are consistent with the body of facts (or logically consistent see above). I think the problem is that history is too close to politics. That historians have had to ignore anything but knowledge of facts and style in order to avoid discrimination on the basis of political orientation. How many right wing Marxists are there ? The problem is that if you refuse to judge people on anything which might be construed as ideology, there is nothing left in historiography except for facts and style.

So how many right wing Marxists are there ? Hmmm Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz ... OK how many right wing marxists are there who know or care what happened outside of St Petersburg before 1945 and how many of them can write ?

Posted by: Robert on November 25, 2003 04:32 PM

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Brad's point about the prose qua prose is closer to the mark.

Taylor and his "popular historian" counterpart, Arthur Bryant, were both regarded as humbugs by the British academic establishment, but they were forgiven their perverse (in the one case) or slipshod (in the other) grasp of their materials partly for the way they wrote. The thought seems to have been: these are good storytellers, they can get people to listen; perhaps the stories are not always quite right, but anyone whose interest is genuinely awakened will find that out for themselves in due course; whereas if they wrote poorly, their possible readership would be driven back into the arms of the Harmsworth newspapers, and anything's better than that, isn't it?

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on November 25, 2003 05:35 PM

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My favorite bit of A J P Taylor comes from his memoirs when he recalls sitting with his grandfather at the beginning of the First World War. His family were wealthy Manchester cotton magnates and his grandfather's comments about the war were roughly "Don't they know that every time they kill a german they kill a customer!". Taylor commented that that was the true voice of Manchester free trade!

Posted by: Matthew on November 25, 2003 10:32 PM

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My favorite bit of A J P Taylor comes from his memoirs when he recalls sitting with his grandfather at the beginning of the First World War. His family were wealthy Manchester cotton magnates and his grandfather's comments about the war were roughly "Don't they know that every time they kill a german they kill a customer!". Taylor commented that that was the true voice of Manchester free trade!

Posted by: matthew on November 25, 2003 10:35 PM

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