LI is writing a review of Niall Ferguson’s new book for the National Post. And so we’ve been thinking about vedette English historians. And that got us thinking about AJP Taylor. We are shamefully ill versed in Taylor, and so we’ve been eagerly making up for our ignorance. He is a famously wonderful writer, who favors a crisp military organization of the sentences in his paragraphs. They have that imperative ring, like Napoleon’s dispatches to his troops. Except the imperatives, here, are about sorting through the on-coming mass of historical detail to charge through the progress of characters and their downfalls in endless traps of irony, accident and misunderstanding. Taylor is Rorty’s kind of historian – he has a weather eye for contingency. For him, the story of what caused WWI has to take into account that, on a simple level, it was caused by the assassination of a non-descript archduke and his frowsy wife in a peripheral town. The great structure of underlying causes remains, in Taylor’s view, petrified if the contingent act – and its prolongation in other contingent acts – does not come to free them. An essay on Taylor by John Boyer puts it well: Namier [ Taylor’s mentor] enabled Taylor to use the ‘great men and nation state” model of Central European political history in a way which revolutionized it twice over, once by the idea of catastrophe rather than progress as the principle mode of continuity and evolution in Central Europe, and again by contingency and accident as a new kind of individualism in political history. For what Taylor did to central European history of he neo-Rankean mode was to stand it on its head. He retained the idea of evolution but converted it into a catastrophic pattern for Germany rather than an optimistic providential one…”
Taylor begins one of his essays with a parable/joke that explains a little bit how a catastrophe can be a mode of continuity. A man is asking his parish priest about miracles, and he says, well, if I fell off the cathedral to the ground and was unhurt, what would that be? The priest replies, an accident. Well, says the man, what if I did it a second time. It would still be an accident, the priest replied. Okay, said the man, what if I did it a third time. Then it would be a habit, says the priest.
Such a view, at the moment, is in heavy disfavor. We live in a moment in which all the lumbering, bogus historical models that had their great moments in the 19th century, and after WWI, have been dusted off. Representative of this: a few years ago, Paul Kennedy wrote an essay in the Atlantic about Taylor that was an assault on the anti-generalist history he represented. The causes, in this return to a romantic historical philosophy, discover their moments, lurking underneath, as Intentional as the Furies, and only the shallow mind claims it is all accident or habit.
Well, too much looking for what is underneath or above does tend to distract one from what is right before one’s eyes. When Spain, this week, pretty much signaled that it is an unwilling member of the coalition of the willing, much rightwing indignation was spilled about appeasement. We thought the appeasement charge was bogus, but we also thought of Taylor’s description of a proposed alliance between Germany and England in 1905: ‘What the British wanted was an ally against Russia in the Far East. They would provide a navy, and the ally would provide the men. Very nice for the British. But from the German point of view it was an insane proposition… to commit themselves to a largescale war, a war of life and death, for the sake of British investments in Shanghai and the Yangtse valley.”
Exactly. Only a nation that mistakes the interests of its policy elite for morality itself would ask such a thing. We won’t draw the parallels any further.