by H. Stuart Hughes
The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918. By A. J. P. Taylor. Oxford. 638 pp. $7.00.
Ever since an explosive book entitled The Course of German History appeared in 1946, Mr. A. J. P. Taylor has been regarded as the enfant terrible of British historical writing. “Brilliant,” “contentious,” “provocative”—all the customary adjectives have been applied to him—and usually with an undertone of deep annoyance. The older generation of historians has taken offense at his exaggerations and the air of sovereign contempt with which he has appeared to regard his professional colleagues. The younger generation (with its own special brand of intellectual seriousness) has found his work glib and unphilosophical and has been inclined to dismiss it as entertaining “outside reading,” primarily suited for enlivening the drab existence of graduate students. As the years have passed, Mr. Taylor’s anti-Germanism and Slavophilia have appeared ever quainter and—at the very least—out of tune with the temper of the times.
Against this background it comes as something of a surprise that Alan Bullock and F. W. D. Deakin—both, like Mr. Taylor himself, Oxford dons—should have chosen him to launch their new series, “The Oxford History of Modern Europe,” with a full-dress diplomatic history of the period 1848 to 1918. The assignment was an implicit challenge. It offered an opportunity for the hotheaded, cantankerous scholar to win uncontested respectability. And this is the way Mr. Taylor appears to have taken it. His book is thorough, conscientious—quite evidently the product of enormous labor. It is a work of historical synthesis in the best tradition.
Yet like so many reformed characters, Mr. Taylor now displays an excessive zeal in the path of virtue. His book is not only solid and scholarly: it is frequently conventional and even boring. Surely diplomatic history must be the most arid of the several pastures in which the devotees of Clio toil. And Mr. Taylor has not escaped the vapors of scholastic abstraction that hover over it. Perhaps unintentionally, he has slipped into the well-worn formulas of the diplomatic historian’s craft. The bulk of his book consists of the detailed recapitulation of endless conversations and conferences—some of them decisive, the majority simply confused and inconclusive. Even the professional reader frequently gets lost in the thicket. The layman may well give up in despair. An ambassador reports and a foreign minister answers him. But whose ambassador is it and to what country is he accredited? The identification came two pages back, but the reader in the meantime has lost it. And the confusion is compounded by the perhaps laudable cosmopolitanism of 19th-century diplomatic personnel: their names so often bear little relation to the linguistics of the nation they ostensibly represent.
Of course, a number of these difficulties arise from the character of Mr. Taylor’s assignment. Basically he has been obliged to write a handbook of seventy years of diplomatic history suitable for advanced students. To digest in 550-odd pages the product of the massive scholarly labors that have gone into this subject is a task to make the most courageous quail. At the same time any historian with a mind as lively as Mr. Taylor’s cannot escape writing a work of personal interpretation. But this aspect of the book tends to get crowded out. The author’s judgments are tucked away in the concluding sentences of paragraphs and chapters where the inattentive reader may fail to notice them. And the human detail that might have given life and actuality to the account has similarly been sacrificed. Even the major actors receive only the briefest identification: Louis Napoleon alone stands out in his full complexity. One would give a great deal to have a few more peeps into the revealing eccentricities of statesmen—like the glimpse of the athletic Magyar, Andrássy, doing “three hand-stands on the table” in jubilation over a diplomatic triumph.
Moreover, Mr. Taylor has not quite conquered his own literary mannerisms. Traces of his Slavophilia remain—in the innocent hut disconcerting form of a penchant for the Slavic rendering of names that historians and diplomats have customarily written in German (“Olomouc” for “Olmütz,” etc., etc.). A more bizarre example is the indomitably Anglo-Saxon “Sleswick” for “Schleswig.” (In The Course of German History, Mr. Taylor tried out the Danish form “Slesvig,” for which he now apologizes.) This objection may sound trivial, but the insistence on following local usage rather than accepted historical convention in regard to place names adds to the difficulty of reading a book that is already sufficiently taxing. There are also eccentricities of style: statesmen and diplomats are constantly described as “dreaming”—a threadbare metaphor at best. And in the big moments of his story Mr. Taylor cannot resist a return to his old vice of over-statement. Thus we learn that the Siege of Plevna (1877), at which the Turks held the Russians at bay for four months, “not merely gave the Ottoman empire another forty years of life. In the second half of the twentieth century the Turks still control the Straits, and Russia is still ‘imprisoned’ in the Black Sea; this was all the doing of Osman Pasha, defender of Plevna.”
When all this has been said, one must honestly recognize that Mr. Taylor has written a very valuable book. Despite the overcrowding of detail, a careful reading reveals that it has a coherent structure and that at his best Mr. Taylor knows how to marshal his material to good effect. I have already suggested that his treatment of Napoleon III is uniformly excellent. The discussion of the Crimean War is the most informative that I have ever encountered; Mr. Taylor has at last enabled us to understand–in terms of the convergence of two radically contrasting reasons for opposing Russia on the part of Britain and of France—a struggle that has usually appeared inconclusive and purposeless. Above all, in an introductory essay entitled “The Great Powers of Europe,” he has given us a tantalizing taste of the sort of book he might have written if he had not been confined within the strict framework of a historical handbook. Here we find the sub-structure, the material underpinning of conventional diplomacy—figures and rates of growth for population and industrial productivity, the meaning of army strengths, the social realities behind the concept of national power. The more’s the pity that the author chose to leave this approach to a free-standing essay—a forethought or an afterthought—rather than to integrate it more fully with the main body of his book.
Mr. Taylor’s old hostility to Germany—and more particularly to Bismarck—has become greatly attenuated. His book is as “objective” as any history can be that springs from a deeply held conviction of the contemporary relevance of the subject matter. It is true that he does not offer sufficient evidence for his contention that Germany after the turn of the century aimed at “predominance over the Continent.” But he qualifies this by giving due weight to the familiar thesis that it was confusion rather than deliberate planning that was most characteristic of Wilhelminian diplomacy. “Who rules at Berlin?” the Austrian foreign minister queried, half in amusement and half in despair, in the tense days at the end of July 1914.
The outbreak of the First World War naturally provides the climax of Mr. Taylor’s narrative. And he handles it in masterly fashion. In no more than ten pages he cuts to the center of the long and wordy controversy that has surrounded the immediate origins of the war. The bulk of the responsibility he puts back where it originally rested—on the Central Powers. And now that virtually all the relevant documents have been published (one must recall that in the 1920’s the Germans had the advantage of getting theirs out first), few American historians, I think, would quarrel with him. If the Austrians and Germans, he argues, together bear the primary responsibility, it is for differing reasons. The former were afraid, the latter were confident. “The only point of agreement between them was in believing that [their] problems could be settled by war.” The Germans “did not decide on war; but they did decide . . . to use their superior power either to win a war or to achieve a striking success.”
“It would be wrong,” Mr. Taylor further argues, “to exaggerate the rigidity of the system of alliances or to regard the European war as inevitable. . . . The existing alliances were all precarious.” Nor could the British have averted the war by defining their policy more precisely. “The German general staff had long planned to invade France through Belgium and would not have been deterred by any British threat.” Such statements as these represent Mr. Taylor’s work at its best—direct and hard-hitting, but at the same time eminently sensible.
The final chapter—on the diplomacy of the war itself—is necessarily somewhat anticlimactic. But it has its own internal logic. It enables Mr. Taylor to bring his account to an artistic conclusion by suggesting that at the beginning of 1918—with the advent of Wilson and of Lenin—“all the old ambitions . . . became trivial and second-rate, compared to the new struggle for control of the world. . . . Henceforward what had been the centre of the world became merely ‘the European question’.” The verdict is not dissimilar to the one rendered by Hajo Holborn in The Political Collapse of Europe (Knopf, 1951). But Professor Holborn chose to make it in the form of an interpretative essay—judiciously selecting from the diplomatic record of the past century only those elements that “continue to be alive” today. Mr. Taylor made the opposite choice—to unroll the whole record as fully as space allowed. The result could not fail to be less clear and cogent than Professor Holborn’s slim volume.
One may regret the choice that Mr. Taylor has felt obliged to make. But one may also gladly concede that in so doing he has written a book that promises to hold its place for many years as the standard diplomatic history of the last era in which Europe was the center of the world.