Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: A. J. P. Taylor's The Struggle For Mastery In Europe: 1848-1918

Alan John Percival Taylor has been dead for almost a quarter century.  His near 600 page work on the decades leading up to World War I will turn 60 this year.  Furthermore, Taylor was born into a family of Communists and remained a committed socialist his entire life.

Nevertheless, The Struggle For Mastery In Europe is worth reading for anyone looking to gain information and insight into the murky and twisting turns taken by each major power leading up to the war.

In his writings, Taylor despised pomp and loved irony.  No one knows if he would have laughed at the fate of his work and genre.  Taylor wrote of leaders, their accomplishments, and, most often and pleasurably, their blunders.  Past generations of historians embraced the "Great Man Theory," but Taylor was more comfortable with the "Great Clumsy Man Theory."  In his world, leading men stumbled more often than calculated.  Success usually came either by accident or by skillful definition after the fact.

Modern left wing academics, however, despise the emphasis on individuals, male or female, skillful or blundering.  They interpret history as a flowing tide in which all people ride.  If there had not been a George Washington, they theorize, someone else with a different name would have done the same thing.  Leftist historians concentrate heavily on the story of the common man (not a bad thing, necessarily) and care much less for traditional diplomatic, political, or military history.

Taylor's work does not reflect agreement with these leftists.  In fact, Struggle returns again and again to the powerful impact of Napoleon III on the second half of the 19th century.

Leftists generally do not refer to him, or even remember him.  After his death, conservatives more often celebrated his contribution to scholarship.  The American Conservative magazine last September trumpeted that "A. J. P. Taylor Is History."

Struggle combines Taylor's best attributes of thorough research and telling as much of the story as possible.  He uses dry humor and generalizations more than most academics would like.  His work, however, goes much more in depth than most studies.

In this book, the reader gets a twisting turning tale that somehow ends up coherent and even entertaining.  An endless parade of royalty, ministers of state, ambassadors, generals, and others march past. It takes talent to collect all of the varied moves of diplomacy and its actors in one nation, much less all of Europe's Great Powers of the time.

Repeated themes include the discord between traditional empires and what Taylor called "revolutionary" national states.  He appreciated the oddness of traditional empires such as Austria-Hungary and Russia ending up allied to nationalist Germany and France.  This interpretation encouraged him to pry into the uncomfortable relations that afflicted these alliances right down to the end of World War I.

The main theme, however, is that wars come about through a logical, rational process.  This notion earned him scorn when his Origins of the Second World War ended up explaining Hitler as a traditional power politics player instead of an abnormal malevolent beast.  Taylor even discusses how Europe by World War I had come to see war as abnormal and irrational, something to be cured instead of understood.  His explanations of each nation's conduct leaves the reader understanding how each nation could have stumbled into the pit.

Likely, Taylor would have rather have a reader understand war in this way.  If war is understood as the culmination of a logical process, it can be better averted.  Wars happen because of reasonable decisions, they just don't fall out of the sky.

Not one commoner, however, makes an appearance.  Smaller nations receive some mention, but not much specific description.  Even Japan and the United States only assume bit parts in this production.  There is no use crying over who got excluded because the title explains all.  Common people, Japan, the United States, Portugal, etc. had almost no say in the unfolding of this story.

Taylor, like many writers and speakers, had a talent for the wry remark.  Unlike most, his wit formed the tip of the iceberg of research and knowledge that lay beneath.  Most of the footnotes in his works come from primary sources in vastly separated locations.  New scholars, consider this was a time prior to electronic communications of any sort.

Most importantly, Taylor's work remains mostly objective.  Any interpretations or themes rely on copious evidence to back them up.

Struggle is an excellent book that describes the machinations of diplomats and leaders during these decades.  When combined with Robert Massie's Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War , one can get a very complete and powerful look at the story.  Massie's work, which will be reviewed later, combines the Taylorian history with stunningly deep personal profiles of the major figures involved.

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