After reviewing the text edited by Gordon Martell I to heart his invitation to “let loose a class … on AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War” for the first time in over 10 years. Happily, I found that the book has not aged; it is still a charge to historians to do their job well – and not leave historical judgment to our contemporaries.
Happily I find that students still enjoy the book – they like his style and are amazed by his flippancy. One of my students felt that this was the zenith of the profession – to be witty while making excellent points. They find him both thought provoking and entertaining. They are intrigued by the fact that a text could lead one to lose a teaching position and happy to hear that he found his way into British homes through BBC series and guest lecturing.
For their part, the ‘reconsiderers’ did justice to their subject. The list of authors is a ‘who’s who’ of prominent historians who have addressed Taylor vis-a-vis their areas expertise.
These works remain seminal; while there are criticisms of Taylor and the successors to his ideas, they are thoughtful and well supported. The arguments presented show the students how elegant, reasoned arguments can be formed and how historians can have an agenda and still produce good history. The stain of bias may be all over Taylor’s work, but his arguments – and objective – are clearly laid out for all to see. There is little hidden in the text.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is the treament of the Hossbach Memorandum. As Taylor notes in the first chapter, the job of historian differs from that of a lawyer, yet historians accepted the data gathered for the Nuremberg trials uncritically – they ignored the use for which the Memorandum was selected. He does not question the evaluation of the source but its purpose. The Allied lawyers used it in one way that he questions. This is a clear directive to our students to consider the purpose as thougtfully as the value and limiations.