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OriginsoftheSecondWorldWarbyA.J.

PTaylor
JackHardcastle

TaylorsseminalpieceontheoriginsoftheSecondWorldWar,shookthehistoriographical
landscapeofthesubject.Whatpredominatedpreviously,wasageneralagreementoverthe
broadcausesofthewar,whichfocusedonHitlerasasingularcause.Thisechoedthemood
oftheNurembergtrialsandtheevidencecollectedforitbytheAlliedpowers,whichTaylor
largelynegatesasbeingconvenientlyselectiveandthusunabletoformthebasisofareliable
judgmentonHitlerswarguilt.TaylorseekstodebunkthelongheldmythofHitlerasan
inherentlyevildictatorwithlongheldambitionsontotalwarandcontinentaldomination.He
promotestheimageoftheleaderasamorerationalstatesman,inthemouldofthewell
establishedGermannationalist,muchlikehispredecessorBismarckandevenfigureslike
GustavStresemann,asTaylorisquicktopointoutinthebook.

Ontheextremesofcriticalresponsestothebook,TaylorisregardedasaNaziappeaser,
seentobevindicatingHitlerandtheNazis.ControversydidnotstopwithHitlerhowever.
TaylorforexamplerecasttheimageofChamberlaininthebook,notasacowardlyappeaser
butapoliticianofmuchskillandastrongdomesticsupportbase.LikewiseTaylorbriefly
brushesupontheroleofStalinasaconservativefigurepromotingthestatusquowithin
Europe.Alltheseissuesweretherootofmuchdisagreementformanyintheearly1960s.
ThiswasalsotheperiodinwhichtheColdWarwasreachingitspeakintensity.FortheWest
thenitwasadvantageousforthemtoviewtheSecondWorldWarasawarfoughtforlofty
idealsoflibertyinaunitedfrontagainsttotalitarianism.ThroughTaylorsthesiswhichstated
thatthewarwasnotcausedbyaconflictofgrandprinciplesandHitler,infacthadno
structuredplanfordomination,butinsteadstumbledintowarthroughopportunism,itisnot

hardtounderstandtheflurryofcontroversythatthebookcausedfollowingitsrelease.
Astimeprogressedhoweverandthedustallowedtosettle,amorenuanceddebatehas
ensued,fromapreTaylorviewofaprecipitatedwarbytheNazisintoonethatinvolvesa
myriadoffactors.MorecontemporarystudieshaveappreciatedTaylorscontributiontothe
increasingcomplexitybehindNaziforeignpolicybuthaverejectedthenotionthatitwas
reactionaryagainsttheEuropeanandInternationallandscape.Instead,studiessuchasthat
undertakenbyMaioloandBoyceandtheirpublicationin2003onthetopic,haveemphasised
thelongtermexpansionistpoliciesheldbybothHitlerandMussolinioffascistItaly.Yetthere
remainsimportantfacetstocontemporaryopiniononNaziforeignpolicythatremaininaccord
withTaylorsthesis,largelyovertheflexiblenatureofHitlersforeignpolicyandhisshortterm
decisionmakinginresponsetounfoldingeventsonthecontinent.

ForsuchboldargumentsputforwardbyTaylor,oneexpectsthemtobebackedbya
systematicanalysisofthesourcesavailable.Whatbecomesaregularoccurrencewithinthe
pageshoweverisalackofinsightandmisinterpretationfromsuchsources.Oneexamplein
caseiswiththeissueregardingHitlersintentionsoverAustria.Hedrawsattentionto
documentsfromameetingbetweenHitlerandMussoliniinwhichaccordingtoTaylor,Hitler
sincerelydenouncesanydesiretoannexAustria.Instead,Taylordirectstheissueof
Germanyspoliciestowardsthelatterstagesofthe1930s,ontheerrorsandmisjudgmentsby
figuressuchastheAustrianchancellorKurtSchuschniggandthesubsequentopportunismof
thesituationbyHitler,asopposedtoanylongtermexpansionistambitionsinregardstothe
country.
Itsstronglysuggestivethat,asinthesamelightthathediscreditstheevidencemountedat
NurembergagainsttheleadingNazis,Taylorselectshismaterialandinterpretstheminaway

whichsuitshiscontentioustheories,whileignoringthosethatdonot.MeinKampf,Hitler's
grandioseautobiographicalmanifesto,laysoutmoreclearlythananyotherdocument,his
longtermplansforGermanexpansion.InregardstotheAustrianexample,itisstatedclearly
thatHitlersintentionswereforthefullincorporationofAustrianterritoryintotheGerman
empire.AsaconsequenceTaylorseekstominimisethesignificanceofsuchdocumentswhile
promotingother,lesssignificantpieces.ContraryevidenceagainstTaylorsargumentof
Hitlersalmostaccidentalslideintowar,alsoextendsbeyondAustriatoothercountries.
PlanscommunicatedbetweenFieldMarshalWilhelmKeitelandHitlerrevealhowHitlerheld
considerationsforajointGermanItalianwaragainstthewestasearlyas1938forexample.
ThesepiecesofevidencearemoreexamplesthatTaylorseekstominimize.Thisselective
natureofthesourcematerialthusarguablypushesmanyofTaylorsargumentsintotherealm
ofconjecture,amajorweaknessofthebook.

Amongstthemanycontroversialclaimsaresweepingstatementsthatfuelthecontroversy
evenmoreso.Inregardstothese,IthinkitmoreareflectionofTaylorscharacterasa
contrarian,tobecontraryforthesakeofbeingcontrary.Undoubtedlytheyaddentertainment
valueandreadabilitytothenarrativeofthebook,butequallyso,areweakenedwhen
confrontedwithseriousacademicinquiry.Forsuchthemagnitudeofhisclaims,manywithin
thebookaremadeparadoxically,rathertentatively.Aculminationofhisargumentabout
Hitlerslackofpreparationforawarresultsinhimstatingthatheprobablydidnotintendfor
awar.ThisaddsweighttotheideathatTaylorisawareofthelackofanysubstantial
groundinginmanyofhisarguments.Inspiteofthis,onestrengthcanbedrawnfromthe
analysisoftheWesternpowerspositioninrelationtoGermany,notablyFranceandBritain.
Taylordoeswelltodrawattentiontoweaknessesintheirpolicy.Hehighlightsatrendof

sympatheticopinionbytheBritishtowardstheGermansituation,stemmingfromarecognition
thattheywereunfairlytreatedattheVersaillespeacesettlementandthuswouldworkto
revisethetermsinGermanysfavour.Ultimatelyhoweverthisdoesnotprove,asTaylor
concludessointhebook,thatHitlerhadnorealplan.Thebookthuslargelyignoresthe
aggressiveandexpansionistfacetsofHitlersactions.
Inregardstoeachcountriessusceptibilitytoblamefortheoutbreakofthewar,thereisalsoa
lackoffocusontheSovietUnion,thuseffectivelyvindicatingtheirroleintheoutbreakofthe
war.Britain,throughtheirheedlesspolicyofappeasementandtoalesserextentFrance,
remaintheauthorsmainfocusofattack.

DespitetheclearflawsandomissionsinTaylorswork,itisundeniabletheimportanceithas
playedinpushingthehistoricaldebateonthethewarsoriginsforward.Tothisdaystill,it
remainscentraltoanyseriousstudyonthetopic.Heopenedupthedebatefromitsone
dimensionalfocusthatcenteredonthesingularfigureofHitlerinthedescenttowar,and
shedlightupontheactionsofotherfiguresandpowers,notablyBritainandFranceandthus
wideningtheperspectiveuponhowtheSecondWorldWarbegan.

Bibliography

Boyce,W.,Maiolo,J.,(2003)TheOriginsofWorldWarTwo:TheDebateContinues.
Basingstoke:Macmillan

Hobsbawm,E.,(1994)AgeofExtremes:TheShortTwentiethCentury19141991.London:
Abacus

Martel,G.,(1986)OriginsoftheSecondWorldWarReconsidered.London:Allen&Unwin

Overy,J.,(1994)TheInterWarCrisis19191939.NewYork:LongmanInc.

Robertson,E.,(1971)TheOriginsoftheSecondWorldWar:historicalinterpretations.
Basingstoke:Macmillan

Taylor,A.J.P.,(1961)TheOriginsoftheSecondWorldWar.Ringwood:PenguinBooks