The recent 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict that consumed so many tens of millions of lives naturally provoked numerous historical articles, and the resulting discussion led me to dig out my old copy of Taylor’s short volume, which I reread for the first time in nearly forty years. I found it just as masterful and persuasive as I had back in my college dorm room days, and the glowing cover-blurbs suggested some of the immediate acclaim the work had received. The Washington Post lauded the author as “Britain’s most prominent living historian,” World Politics called it “Powerfully argued, brilliantly written, and always persuasive,” The New Statesman, Britain leading leftist magazine, described it as “A masterpiece: lucid, compassionate, beautifully written,” and the august Times Literary Supplement characterized it as “simple, devastating, superlatively readable, and deeply disturbing.” As an international best-seller, it still surely ranks as Taylor’s most famous book, and I can easily understand why it was still on my college required reading list nearly two decades after its original publication.
Yet in revisiting Taylor’s ground-breaking study, I made a remarkable discovery. Despite all the international sales and critical acclaim, the book’s findings soon aroused tremendous hostility in certain quarters. Taylor’s lectures at Oxford had been enormously popular for a quarter century, but as a direct result of the controversy “Britain’s most prominent living historian” was summarily purged from the faculty not long afterwards. At the beginning of his first chapter, Taylor had noted how strange he found it that more than twenty years after the start of the world’s most cataclysmic war no serious history had been produced carefully analyzing the outbreak. Perhaps the retaliation that he encountered led him to better understand part of that puzzle.
Taylor was hardly alone in suffering such retribution. Indeed, as I have gradually discovered over the last decade or so, his fate seems to have been an exceptionally mild one, with his great existing stature partially insulating him from the backlash following his objective analysis of the historical facts. And such extremely serious professional consequences were especially common on our side of the Atlantic, where many of the victims lost their long-held media or academic positions, and permanently vanished from public view during the years around World War II….
We may easily imagine that some prominent and highly-regarded individual at the peak of his career and public influence might suddenly take leave of his senses and begin promoting eccentric and erroneous theories, thereby ensuring his downfall. Under such circumstances, his claims may be treated with great skepticism and perhaps simply disregarded.
But when the number of such very reputable yet contrary voices becomes sufficiently large and the claims they make seem generally consistent with each other, we can no longer casually dismiss their critiques. Their committed stance on these controversial matters had proved fatal to their continued public standing, and although they must have recognized these likely consequences, they nonetheless followed that path, even going to the trouble of writing lengthy books presenting their views, and seeking out some publisher somewhere who was willing to release these.
John T. Flynn, Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles Beard, William Henry Chamberlin, Russell Grenfell, Sisley Huddleston, and numerous other scholars and journalists of the highest caliber and reputation all told a rather consistent story of the Second World War but one at total variance with that of today’s established narrative, and they did so at the cost of destroying their careers. A decade or two later, renowned historian A.J.P. Taylor reaffirmed this same basic narrative, and was purged from Oxford as a consequence. I find it very difficult to explain the behavior of all these individuals unless they were presenting a truthful account.
If a ruling political establishment and its media organs offer lavish rewards of funding, promotion, and public acclaim to those who endorse its party-line propaganda while casting into outer darkness those who dissent, the pronouncements of the former should be viewed with considerable suspicion. Barnes popularized the phrase “court historians” to describe these disingenuous and opportunistic individuals who follow the prevailing political winds, and our present-day media outlets are certainly replete with such types….
World War II ended nearly three generations ago, and few of its adult survivors still walk the earth. From one perspective the true facts of that conflict and whether or not they actually contradict our traditional beliefs might appear rather irrelevant. Tearing down the statues of some long-dead historical figures and replacing them with the statues of others hardly seems of much practical value.
But if we gradually conclude that the story that all of us have been told during our entire lifetimes is substantially false and perhaps largely inverted, the implications for our understanding of the world are enormous.
This is why it is vital to read, collect, and preserve history. If it were not so important, the Year Zeroes would not place such importance on discrediting and disappearing the historians of yesteryear.