War Classics – The Second World War: An Illustrated History

MHM Editor Neil Faulkner recalls one of the great works of military history.

When he wrote it, 30 years after the war’s end, A J P Taylor thought it ‘about the right time to look at the Second World War with detachment’. But, as he also explained in the book’s preface, he had been composing the book ‘for more than 30 years’ – in fact, ever since he had begun giving monthly commentaries in Oxford and other towns on the war as it unfolded.

Here, then, is a masterpiece rooted in the war itself, yet refined by three decades of further study and reflection; a masterpiece written by one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century.

Alan Taylor – usually known as A J P Taylor – was born in Lancashire in 1906 into a solidly middle-class but also strongly left-wing family. Educated at Bootham School, York, and Oriel College, Oxford, he was recruited into the British Communist Party in the early 1920s, but soon left to join the Labour Party, of which he remained a staunch member for the rest of his life.

He taught at the University of Manchester from 1930 to 1938, then at Magdalen, Oxford, until 1964, thereafter at University College London and the Polytechnic of North London until his retirement in 1976. By this time, he had a stellar reputation. His lectures were always packed, he was a prolific journalist, and he had become an unlikely TV celebrity, most notably perhaps with his series of half-hour lectures on key historical topics in which he would simply talk unscripted into the camera.

He was stalked by controversy, but seemed to relish it, being naturally opinionated and combative. His great rival was the old-fashioned Tory don Hugh Trevor-Roper, a rivalry embittered by the fact that Trevor-Roper had been awarded the Regius Professorship for History at Oxford in preference to Taylor – a politically motivated decision.

It was his principled defence of his own version of the truth that ended his teaching career at Oxford. Publication of The Origins of the Second World War in 1961 – in which Taylor argued that Hitler’s foreign policy had been essentially rational from a German great-power perspective – caused a storm, and Oxford’s conservative academic administration took the opportunity to rid themselves of a turbulent priest.

Style and insight

Taylor was a phenomenally productive historian of 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Notable works include The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918; The Course of German History since 1815; The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918; Bismarck: the man and statesman; and English History, 1914-1945; as well as The First World War and The Second World War.

Alan John Percivale Taylor

All are characterised by crisp, clear, staccato prose, by vivid one-liners, and by bullish, uncompromising assertion. They are a joy to read, and deceptive in their apparent simplicity, for Taylor’s breadth of scholarship and brilliance of insight come packed into the tightest of formulations. Consider, by way of example, the way in which he characterises the Soviet Army in 1943.

This was not the same army as that of 1941, when it suffered a succession of catastrophic defeats, largely due to strategic and tactical incompetence following the Stalinist purges, which had destroyed the Soviet officer corps in the late 1930s, liquidating anyone and everyone of intelligence and imagination. The Soviet Army had been reforged in the fires of war and rearmed by a fully mobilised total-war economy. It had become a steamroller of manpower and machines. Here is Taylor’s pen-portrait:

The Soviet Army was of a kind never before seen in modern warfare. At the head came the elite forces, often honoured with the name of guards’ divisions: tanks, artillery, rockets, men of high professional competence and technique. Once a breakthrough had been achieved, the inexhaustible mass of infantry followed like a barbarian horde on the march: ill-trained, often undisciplined, and living off the country. Crusts of bread and raw vegetables were their only food. They could advance for as much as three weeks without receiving supplies, and when the Germans tried to cut their lines of communications, they found that there were none to cut. These Russians slaughtered the German infantry, pillaged the towns and villages through which they passed, and raped the women… After the infantry came another elite corps: the military police, who restored order, shot the worst offenders out of hand, and drove the infantry forward to fresh assaults.

…a masterpiece rooted in the war itself, yet refined by three decades of further study and reflection…

No less impressive are the pithy one-liners, countless in number. The Holocaust? ‘The gas chambers of Auschwitz represented National Socialist civilisation as truly as Gothic cathedrals represented the civilisation of the Middle Ages.’ There is no voyeuristic moping over the grisly details. No need, for they are so well-known and what could be more damning than that single sentence?

Nor is there any cynical detachment here. Taylor lived through the war and supported the war (he served in the Home Guard), and the final sentence of the book, written 30 years later, is unequivocal: ‘Despite all the killing and destruction that accompanied it, the Second World War was a good war.’

Stumbling into war

Taylor’s power of synthesis, his ability to reduce the greatest of matters to their essence in a paragraph or a sentence, is characteristic of the whole of his history of the Second World War. Again and again, he cuts through cobwebbed layers of misconception.

When did the Second World War start? Not in 1939, for this was merely a European war, and one reduced from June 1940 to a conflict between just three states: Germany and Italy on one side, Britain on the other; states, moreover, that could not really land proper blows, for the Axis was dominant on the Continent, but Britain was an island and a maritime power.

If we think of it, instead, as a series of more localised conflicts that eventually coalesced into world war (in December 1941), then 1939 is not the proper starting point, for we have a succession of prior aggressions – the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931, for example, or the Italian attack on Ethiopia in 1935.

Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, 1943. Taylor had been scathing about some aspects of the Allies’ conduct, such as their refusal to arm European Resistance forces.

No one really intended a world war. The belligerents stumbled into it. Hitler thought he would keep getting away with it. He was ‘an opportunist who took gains as they came. His aim was no doubt clear: to transform Germany into a world power. The means were to be provided by events.’ Far from preparing for a great war, he ‘operated on a narrow margin and counted on quick victories achieved at little cost.’

This was true even of Barbarossa. When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, Germany was still not on a full war footing. He expected another Poland or France. He assumed the Soviet Union was a paper tiger. So did almost everyone else, even Stalin. Only in 1942 did it become clear that Russia was again a great power. By then, it was too late: Hitler was committed to a war of attrition which involved 75% of his army, one he could not possibly win.

It was the same in the Far East. The Americans and the Japanese were competing for resources in the Pacific. Roosevelt put the squeeze on (an oil embargo), hoping that economic pressure would avoid armed confrontation. The Japanese responded with a military Blitzkrieg to grab what they needed while they could.

No one was more surprised than the Japanese at their own success. Already at war with China – the Japanese ‘Eastern Front’, where 75% of their army was committed – they managed to destroy the British, French, Dutch, and American empires in the Far East in a whirlwind campaign waged by highly mobile but low-tech and heavily outnumbered armies.

Then they sat tight. There was nothing else they could do. They were already at maximum extension. The Japanese strategy henceforward was a dogged defensive to impose such cost on their enemies that they would accept the fait accompli.

There were no master conspiracies for world domination; no hawkish relishings of war for its own sake. Despite the repellent fascist ideologies of the Axis powers – the German Nazis, the Italian Fascists, the Japanese Militarists, all three: their ideologies culminating in genocidal mass murder in both Eastern Europe and China – central to Taylor’s argument is that they nonetheless acted more or less rationally in the established framework of global geopolitics.

History from above?

Perhaps this touches on a weakness in Taylor’s perspective – a partial blindspot consequent on the fact that he was, first and foremost, a historian rooted in the study of modern European diplomacy. Perhaps he sometimes underestimated the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy – the strength of the impulsion to predatory aggression inherent in the nationalist-racist fantasies of interwar fascism.

Perhaps, too, he was sometimes too fixated on statesmen and generals, and missed the potential impact of popular struggle. A completely different history of the Second World War ‘from below’ might be written, one in which the role of the anti-fascist Resistance might be given full weight. Why, after all, were there 350,000 German troops in Norway in May 1945 – a third of a million still there after the fall of Berlin – but for the existence of the Resistance? How come a string of major European cities were liberated by their own people as the Nazi Empire disintegrated in the final months of the war?

It would be wrong to overstate the matter. Taylor can be scathing about the Allies’ refusal to arm and mobilise the Resistance, even in the most pressing of circumstances. ‘The Resistance was given no guidance and few arms,’ he remarks of the Normandy campaign. ‘Yet Patton discovered to his astonishment that his incursion into Brittany was unnecessary. The French Resistance had already taken over the province.’ And he is right about the reasons: the manoeuvring for post-war power had begun, and communist-led Resistance groups were hardly welcome at top table.

Taylor is usually right. Even when he is wrong, he leaves the academic plodders fumbling to work out why. Despite mountains of scholarship in the decades since, Taylor’s Second World War remains a seminal work of exceptional clarity and insight, a rare work of brilliant historical synthesis. •

Alan John Percivale Taylor
Born: 25 March 1906
Died: 7 September 1990
Nationality: British

A contemporary of Taylor’s at Bootham School, Geoffrey Barraclough, remembered him as ‘a most arresting, stimulating, vital personality, violently anti-bourgeois and anti-Christian’. Outside his prodigious working life, Taylor married three times, including to Eve Crosland, the sister of Labour MP and writer Anthony Crosland. Taylor died in London in 1990 and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.