‘Historians often dislike what happened or wish that it had happened differently,’ wrote AJP Taylor, the great British historian-provocateur of the last century. He concluded: ‘There is nothing they can do about it.’
It doesn’t stop them trying, of course.
Taylor was responding to criticism of his infamous book, The Origins of the Second World War (1961). In this book, Taylor sought to overturn conventional wisdom. Provoking angry international debate, as much on TV as among scholars, he argued that Hitler was not a rapacious lunatic, but a rational statesman in the Bismarckian mould. The war was a blunder, a malfunction of the international system, not an inevitable consequence of a pre-planned genocidal scheme.
The emphasis of Taylor’s argument was wrong. But not all of it. Take the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939.
For Taylor, the Soviet Union turned to Germany in the summer of 1939 after it failed to agree a treaty of collective security with Britain and France. Such a treaty would have been directed against Germany, the undisputed threat to all the other powers, but it failed because the British and French were obstructive. As the clock ticked in the weeks that followed the Nazi occupation of Prague, the only way left for the Soviets to defend themselves against Germany was by allying with — Germany.
So when Germany invaded Poland in September, the Red Army followed up with an invasion from the East. A dreadful occupation of the Baltic and Eastern Polish region followed. Its worst aspects, such as the massacre at Katyn, bear comparison with Nazi crimes. But was this risky foreign adventure really Stalin’s first choice? The evidence suggests it was not. After all, he was usually risk-averse in international affairs.
Although he didn’t always exercise it, Taylor had the gift of seeing the past on its own terms. When some commentators today argue that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was nothing more than Stalin’s plan for importing totalitarianism to eastern Poland and the Baltic States, they are confusing cause and side-effect. In forgetting such moments as the Nazi-Poland Pact of 1934 to 1939, and insisting on tendentious moral frameworks that are too weak to explain international events, they push a presentist agenda that dramatically exaggerates the danger Russia poses to European peace today.
‘I have never seen any sense in the question of war guilt or war innocence,’ Taylor wrote. He went on: ‘As a private citizen, I think that all this striving after greatness and domination [one could add ‘mass destruction’] is idiotic[.] […]. As a historian, I recognize that Powers will be Powers.’
AJP Taylor was not a humble man, but he was more humble than those who turn history into a crusade.