The Origins of the Second World War

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Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005. 278pp.

Alan John Percivale Taylor was never comfortable with his book The Origins of the Second World War being regarded as a contribution to historical revisionism. He was ill at ease with the embrace of Harry Elmer Barnes and denounced accusations that he himself was a revisionist. Yet he remained unable to escape the label if only because the aim of his work so closely resembled the aim of Barnes and others like him. Historical revisionism is best known for its challenging of state war propaganda after the smoke clears, and that is precisely what The Origins does. It rejects the widely held view that Hitler possessed a great scheme for total war and global dominance, and instead puts forth a thesis that the German chancellor "exploited events far more than he followed precise coherent plans." Moreover, and perhaps most controversial, it challenges the notion that Hitler is to take total responsibility for the war. This manner of "spreading the blame" is valuable not only with regards to its historical accuracy concerning the origins of World War II, but also in the principle it lays down, in the need for historians to understand that war is rarely a struggle between good and evil.

Taylor's revisionism also deals a critical blow to American nationalism, which rests heavily on World War II mythology. The goodness of American involvement in World War II is crucial to the "holy" perception of American imperialism and of the American state. If the Allies are to shoulder any blame for the largest bloodletting in world history, then the clarity of purpose in contemporary American foreign policy becomes clouded. After all, the American Empire owes its existence to Allied victory in World War II.

"Powers will be powers." And perhaps it is telling that Americans are uneasy with the notion that America is an empire. Churchill displayed no hesitation when referring to the British Empire. Yet, rarely does the American political class refer to the United States as an empire, or anything of the sort. Though Americans have been praised for their pragmatism, the reality is that Americans are an ideological people who, especially in terms of diplomacy, demand that the American state act in a morally virtuous manner. Because a distinction is rarely drawn between the American state and America as a country and a people, revisionism which casts either a grim shadow over American foreign policy, a similar shadow over American allies, or purports to in some way explain a rationale behind America's enemies, is seen as an attack not only on the policies of the American state, but on the virtue of the American people. Thus, any attempt to erase the "good versus evil" motif of the "Last Good War" is met with scorn. If one compounds this reality with the jingoistic pride associated with World War II, the historian who treads upon the illusions of the war finds himself in a perilous and tabooed era of history. Yet Taylor bravely does just that.

The Origins of the Second World War is a source as indispensable as it is irrepressible. The fact that it rests as a quintessential piece of revisionist history is made all the more ironic by the fact that it comes from the halls of the establishment, from the highest court of the court historians. Taylor is one of the greats, and his willingness to risk his academic status in the name of his work only serves to extol his legacy. Historians, wrote Taylor, must in the end "state the truth as they see it without worrying whether this shocks or confirms existing prejudices." And that, in the final analysis, is the greatest value of The Origins. It is an inexorable work of history that puts in the dock Allied civic heroes. It spares no one, and never relents in pursuing its original argument. It does not seek revision for revision's sake, but for the sake of those who lost their lives in the Second World War, a great and utterly avoidable blunder.

Brandon Harnish [send him mail] is a student at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana.

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