Alan John Percivale Taylor (March 25, 1906 – September 7, 1990) was a renowned English historian of the 20th century. He was probably the best-known British historian of the century and certainly one of the most controversial.
Born in Birkdale, near Southport of Scottish descent, Taylor was brought up in Lancashire and educated at various Quaker schools and the Bootham School in York. As a student he was said by his headmasters to be brilliant and rebellious. Initially interested in archaeology, as a young man he was an amateur expert in the history and archaeology of churches in northern England. His interest in archaeology led in turn to a strong interest in history. In 1924, he went to Oriel College, Oxford to study modern history. His wealthy parents held strongly left-wing views, which he inherited. His parents were both pacifists who vocally opposed World War I, and sent their son to Quaker schools as a way of protesting against the war.
In the 1920s, Taylor's mother was a member of the Comintern and one of his uncles a founding member of the British Communist Party. Taylor's mother Constance Taylor was a suffragette, feminist, and advocate of free love who practised her teachings via a string of extra-marital affairs, most notably with Henry Sara, a communist who in many ways became Taylor's surrogate father. Taylor himself was a member of the British Communist Party from 1924 to 1926, though he broke with the Party over what he considered to be its ineffective stand during the 1926 General Strike. After leaving the Party, he was an ardent Labour Party supporter for the rest of his life. Despite his break with the Communists, he visited the Soviet Union in 1925 and again in 1934, and was much impressed on both visits. For a time in the 1930s, he and his wife shared a home with the writer Malcolm Muggeridge and his wife. During this period, Muggeridge and Taylor began a life-long disagreement over the Soviet Union, though this dispute did not seriously affect their friendship.
Taylor graduated from Oxford in 1927. After working briefly as a legal clerk, he began his post-graduate work, going to Vienna to study the impact of the Chartist movement on the Revolution of 1848 in Vienna. When his topic turned out to be unfeasible, he switched to studying the question of Italian unification over a two-year period, which resulted in his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–49 in 1934. His main mentors in this period were the Austrian-born historian Alfred Francis Pribram and the Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier. The opposing influences of Pribram and Namier can be seen in Taylor's writings on Austria-Hungary until the publication of his 1941 book The Habsburg Monarchy 1809–1918, which was published in a revised edition in 1948. Taylor's earlier writings reflected Pribram's favourable opinion of the Habsburgs; his later writings show the influence of Namier's unfavourable views. In The Habsburg Monarchy, Taylor stated that the Habsburgs saw their realms entirely as a tool for foreign policy and thus could never build a genuine nation-state. In order to hold their realm together, they resorted to playing one ethnic group off against another and promoted German and Magyar hegemony over the other ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary.
Taylor went on to lecture in history at the University of Manchester before becoming a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1938, a post he held until 1964. After 1964, when Oxford refused to renew his term, he was a lecturer at the Institute of Historical Research in London, University College London, and the Polytechnic College of North London. At Oxford he was an extraordinarily popular professor, who had to give his lectures at 8:30 a.m. in order to prevent over-crowding in his lecture room.
In the early 1930s, Taylor was in a left-wing pacifist group called the Manchester Peace Council, for which he frequently spoke in public. Until 1936 he was an opponent of British rearmament, as he felt that a re-armed Britain would ally itself with Germany against the Soviet Union. After 1936 he fervently criticized appeasement, a stance he would disavow in 1961. Also after 1936 he resigned from the Manchester Peace Council, urged British rearmament in the face of what Taylor considered to be the Nazi menace, and advocated an Anglo-Soviet alliance to contain Germany. In 1938 he denounced the Munich Agreement at several rallies and may have written several leaders in the Manchester Guardian criticizing the Munich Agreement; later he would compare the relatively smaller number of Czechoslovak dead with the number of Polish dead.
In October 1938, Taylor attracted controversy by a speech he gave at a dinner held every October to commemorate a protest by a group of Oxford dons against James II in 1688, an event that was an important prelude to the Glorious Revolution. He denounced the Munich Agreement and those who supported it warning the assembled dons that if action was not taken immediately to resist Nazi Germany, then they might all soon be living under the rule of a much greater tyrant than James II. Taylor's speech was highly contentious in part because in October 1938 the Munich Agreement was popular with the public, though subsequently it was to be reviled, along with the policy of appeasement. Further controversy arose because he used an occasion when it was normal to deliver non-partisan and non-political historical speeches to make a highly partisan, politically charged attack on government policy.
During World War Two, Taylor served in the Home Guard and befriended émigré statesmen from Eastern Europe, such as the former Hungarian President Count Mihály Károlyi and the Czechoslovak President Dr. Edvard Beneš; these friendships helped to enhance his understanding of the region. His friendship with Beneš and Károlyi may help explain his friendly portrayal of them, in particular Károlyi, whom Taylor portrayed as a saintly figure. Taylor was later to claim proudly that he advised Beneš to embark upon the expulsion of the entire German population of Czechoslovakia after the war. During the same period, Taylor was employed by the Political Warfare Executive as an expert on Central Europe and frequently spoke on the radio and at various public meetings. During the war, he lobbied for British recognition of Josip Broz Tito‘s Partisans as the legitimate government of Yugoslavia. World War II further increased Taylor's pro-Soviet feelings as he was always profoundly grateful for the Red Army's role in destroying Nazi Germany. After 1941, he was overjoyed to have the Soviet Union as Britain's ally as this was the realisation of his desire for an Anglo-Soviet alliance. After 1945, he was very disappointed to see Britain choose the United States not the Soviet Union, as its major ally. Moreover, Taylor was enraged by the decision of the Western powers, which he blamed on the U.S., to re-build and establish the West German state in the late 1940s, which Taylor saw as laying the foundations for a Fourth Reich that would one day plunge the world back into war.
Throughout his life, Taylor was sympathetic to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, though he was strongly critical of Communism. He blamed the United States for the Cold War, and in the 1950s and 1960s, was one of the leading lights of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Though he preferred that the United Kingdom be neutral in the Cold War, he felt that if Britain should have to align itself with a major power, the best partner was the Soviet Union rather than America, which in Taylor's opinion was carrying out reckless policies that increased the risk of World War Three. Taylor was nonetheless critical of repression within the Soviet Union. In 1948 he attended and did his best to sabotage a Stalinist cultural congress in Wrocław, Poland. His speech, which was broadcast live on Polish radio and via speakers on the streets of Wrocław, about the right of everyone to hold different views from those who hold power, was enthusiastically received by the delegates and was met with thunderous applause. The speech was clearly intended as a rebuttal of a speech given by the Soviet writer Alexander Fadeyev the previous day, who had demanded obedience on the part of everyone to Joseph Stalin. Taylor never visited the United States, despite receiving many invitations.
Taylor's speciality was Central European, British and diplomatic history, especially the Habsburg dynasty and Bismarck. He held fierce Germanophobic views. In 1944, he was temporarily banned from the BBC following complaints about a series of lectures he gave on air in which he gave full vent to his anti-German feelings. In his 1945 book, The Course of German History, he argued that National Socialism was the inevitable product of the entire history of the Germans going back to the days of the Germanic tribes. He was an early champion of what has since been called the Sonderweg (Special Way) interpretation of German history, that German culture and society developed over the centuries in such a way as to make Nazi Germany inevitable. Moreover, he argued that there was a symbiotic relationship between Hitler and the German people, with Adolf Hitler needing the Germans to fulfill his dreams of conquest and the German people needing Hitler to fulfill their dreams of subjection of their neighbours. In particular, he accused the Germans of waging an endless Drang nach Osten against their Slavic neighbours since the days of Charlemagne. For Taylor, Nazi racial imperialism was a continuation of policies pursued by every German ruler. The Course of German History was a bestseller in both the United Kingdom and the United States; it was the success of this book that made Taylor's reputation in the United States. Its success also marked the beginning of the breach between Taylor and his mentor Namier, who wanted to write a similar book. By the 1950s, relations between Taylor and Namier had notably cooled and in his 1983 autobiography, A Personal History, Taylor, though acknowledging a huge intellectual debt to Namier, portrayed him as a pompous bore.
Taylor was a prolific writer, who wrote dozens of books and hundreds of articles and book reviews. Starting in 1931, he worked as book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian, and from 1957 he was a columnist with the Observer. From 1963 until the death of his friend and patron Lord Beaverbrook in 1964, he was also a columnist with the Daily Express. His first column in that paper was "Why must we soft-soap the Germans?", in which he complained that the majority of Germans were still Nazis at heart and argued the European Economic Community was little more than an attempt by the Germans to achieve via trade what they failed to accomplish through arms in World War I and World War II.
From these writings, he helped to popularise the term "the Establishment" to describe Britain's elite. Some have credited him with coining the phrase in a 1953 book review, but this is disputed. On August 29, 1953, in reviewing a biography of William Cobbett in the New Statesman, Taylor wrote "The Establishment draws in recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment—and nothing more corrupting". Taylor often took stands on the great issues of his time. As a Little Englander, he was opposed to the British Empire and against Britain's participation in the European Economic Community and NATO and he demanded British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. He argued in a 1976 speech in Dublin that it would be best for Britain if London would agree to let the IRA, whom he regarded as freedom-fighters, expel the entire Protestant Unionist population of Northern Ireland in the same manner that the Czechoslovak government had expelled the ethnic Germans of the Sudetenland after World War Two.
Earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor befriended and wrote the biography of Lord Beaverbrook, a Conservative who believed strongly in the British Empire and whose entry into politics was in support of Andrew Bonar Law, a Conservative leader strongly connected with the establishment of Northern Ireland. Despite the disdain for most politicians expressed in his writings, Taylor was fascinated by politics and politicians and often cultivated relations with those who possessed power. Beside Lord Beaverbrook, whose company Taylor very much enjoyed, his favourite politician was the Labour Party leader Michael Foot, whom he often described as the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had.
In international affairs, Taylor was opposed to the existence of West Germany, which he saw as a dangerous neo-Nazi state; he demonstrated against the Suez War of 1956, though not the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which he believed had saved Hungary from a return to the rule of Admiral Miklós Horthy; he championed Israel, which he saw as a model socialist democracy threatened by reactionary Arab dictatorships; and he condemned the Korean War and Vietnam War. In 1950 he was again temporarily banned by the BBC when he attempted to deliver a radio address against British participation in the Korean War. After a public outcry, the BBC relented and allowed him to deliver his address.
Taylor was fearless in championing unpopular people and causes. In 1980, he resigned from the British Academy in protest against the expulsion of the art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, which he saw as an act of McCarthyism. Closer to his work as a historian, Taylor championed less government secrecy and perhaps ironically for a staunch leftist, fought for more privately-owned television stations. His experiences with being banned by the BBC had led him to appreciate the value of having many broadcasters.
In regard to government archives, Taylor's lobbying campaign was partly successful as he helped persuade the British government to replace the 100-year rule with a 30-year rule. Taylor had wanted a 20-year rule, but was satisfied with the 30-year rule as a vast improvement.
Taylor's approach to history was a populist one. He felt that history should be open to all and was fond of the "People's Historian" and the "Everyman's Historian" monikers applied to him. He usually favoured an anti-Great man theory, of history being made for the most part by towering figures of stupidity rather than being dominated by towering figures of genius. He specialized in narratives suffused with irony and humour that were meant to entertain as much as inform. He was fond of examining history from odd angles and exposing what he considered to be the pomposities of various historical characters. In particular, he was famed for "Taylorisms": witty, epigrammatic, and sometimes cryptic remarks that were meant to expose what he considered to be the absurdities and paradoxes of modern international relations. An example is in his television piece 'Mussolini' (1970), in which he said the dictator "kept up with his work - by doing none." His determination to bring history to everyone helps explain his frequent appearances first on radio and later on television.
He was one of the first television historians. His appearances began with his role as a panellist on the BBC show In The News between 1950 and 1954. During his time on In The News, he was noted for his argumentative style and in one episode he declined to acknowledge the presence of the other panellists. The press came to refer to him as the "sulky don" and in 1954 he was fired. From 1955 Taylor was a panellist on ITV's rival discussion programme Free Speech, where he remained until the series was cancelled in 1961. In 1957, 1957-1958 and 1961 he made a number of half-hour programmes on ITV in which he lectured without notes and with perfect delivery on a variety of topics, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the First World War. These shows were huge ratings successes. Despite earlier strong feelings against the BBC, he lectured for a BBC historical series in 1961 and hosted more series for it in 1963, 1976, 1977 and 1978. He also hosted additional series for ITV in 1964, 1966 and 1967. In Edge of Britain in 1980 he toured the towns of northern England. Taylor's final TV appearance was in the disastrous series How Wars End in 1985 where the effects of Parkinson's Disease on him were all too apparent.
Taylor had a famous rivalry with the right-wing historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, with whom he often debated on television. One of the more famous exchanges took place in 1961. Trevor-Roper said "I'm afraid that your book [The Origins of the Second World War] may damage your reputation as a historian," to which Taylor replied "Your criticism of me would damage your reputation as a historian, if you had one."
The origins of the dispute went back to 1957 when the Regius Professorship for History at Oxford was vacant. Despite their divergent political philosophies, Taylor and Trevor-Roper had been friends since the early 1950s, but with the possibility of the Regius Professorship both men lobbied. The Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan awarded the chair to the Tory Trevor-Roper rather than the Labourite Taylor. In addition, a number of the other Oxford dons had felt that Taylor's profile in journalism was "demeaning" to the historian's craft and lobbied against him.
In public, Taylor declared that he would have never accepted any honour from a government that had "the blood of Suez on its hands". In private, he was intensely disappointed and furious with Trevor-Roper for holding an honour that Taylor considered rightfully his. Adding to Taylor's rancour was the fact that he had arrived at Oxford a decade before Trevor-Roper. From then Taylor never missed a chance to disparage Trevor-Roper's character or scholarship. The famously combative Trevor-Roper reciprocated. The feud was given much publicity by the media, not so much because of the merits of their disputes but rather because their acrimonious debates on television made for entertaining viewing. Likewise, the various articles written by Taylor and Trevor-Roper denouncing each other's scholarship, in which both men's considerable powers of invective were employed with maximum effect, made for entertaining reading. Beyond that, it was fashionable to portray the dispute between Taylor and Trevor-Roper as a battle between generations. Taylor, with his populist, irreverent style, was nearly a decade older than Trevor-Roper, but was represented by the media as a symbol of the younger generation that was coming of age in the 1950s-1960s. Trevor-Roper, who was unabashedly old-fashioned (he was one of the last Oxford dons to lecture wearing his professor's robes) and inclined to behave in a manner that the media portrayed as pompous and conceited, was seen as a symbol of the older generation. A subtle but important difference in the style between the two historians was their manner of addressing each other during their TV debates: Trevor-Roper always addressed Taylor as "Mr. Taylor" or just "Taylor", while Taylor always addressed Trevor-Roper as "Hugh".
Another frequent sparring partner on TV for Taylor was the writer Malcolm Muggeridge. The frequent television appearances helped to make Taylor the most famous British historian of the 20th century. It was a measure of his fame that he was featured in a cameo in the 1981 film Time Bandits - historians are not normally sufficiently famous to be offered movie cameos. He was also mentioned by name (and subsequently slain by a mounted knight resembling King Arthur) in the cult classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Another foray into the world of entertainment occurred in the 1960s when he served as the historical consultant for both the stage and film versions of Oh, What A Lovely War!. Though he possessed great charm and charisma and a sense of humour, as he aged he presented himself as and came to be seen as cantankerous and irascible.
In 1954, he published his masterpiece, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918 and followed it up with The Trouble Makers in 1957, a critical study of British foreign policy. The Trouble Makers was a celebration of those who had criticized the government over foreign policy, a subject dear to his heart. The Trouble Makers had originally been the Ford Lectures in 1955 and was his favourite book by far. Ironically, when invited to deliver the Ford Lectures, he was initially at a loss for a topic, and it was his friend Alan Bullock who suggested the topic of foreign policy dissent. In 1961, he published by far his most controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War, which earned him a reputation as a revisionist.
As a socialist, Taylor saw the existing capitalist system as wrong on practical and moral grounds. He felt that the status quo in the West prevented an international system that would be just and moral from coming into being. In particular, he saw the status quo as incredibly unstable and prone to accidents. A recurring theme in his writings was the role of accidents in deciding history. In his view, leaders did not make history; instead they reacted to events - what happened in the past was due to sequences of blunders and errors that were largely outside anyone's control. To the extent that anyone made anything happen in history, it was only through their mistakes. Thus, in his best-selling biography of Bismarck, Taylor argued that the Iron Chancellor had unified Germany more by accident than by design.
These ideas were most clearly expressed in The Origins of the Second World War, by which he meant the war between Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and France which broke out in September 1939, where Taylor argued that the widespread belief that the outbreak of war in 1939 was Hitler's plan was wrong. He began his book with the statement that too many people have accepted uncritically what he called the "Nuremberg Thesis", that World War II was the result of criminal conspiracy by a small gang comprising Hitler and his associates. He regarded the "Nuremberg Thesis" as too convenient for too many people and claimed that it shielded the blame for the war from the leaders of other states, let the German people avoid any responsibility for the war and created a situation where West Germany was a respectable Cold War ally against the Soviets.
Taylor's thesis was that Hitler was not the demoniacal figure of popular imagination but in foreign affairs a normal German leader. Citing Fritz Fischer, he argued that the foreign policy of the Third Reich was the same as those of the Weimar Republic and the Second Reich. Moreover, in a partial break with his view of German history advocated in The Course of German History, he argued that Hitler was not just a normal German leader but also a normal Western leader. As a normal Western leader, Hitler was no better or worse than Stresemann, Chamberlain or Daladier. His argument was that Hitler wished to make Germany the strongest power in Europe but he did not want or plan war. The outbreak of war in 1939 was an unfortunate accident caused by mistakes on everyone's part.
Notably, Taylor portrayed Hitler as a grasping opportunist with no beliefs other than the pursuit of power and anti-Semitism. He argued that Hitler did not possess any sort of programme and his foreign policy was one of drift and seizing chances as they offered themselves. He did not even consider Hitler's anti-Semitism unique: foreshadowing the arguments that Daniel Goldhagen was to make decades later, he argued that millions of Germans and Austrians were just as ferociously anti-Semitic as Hitler and there was no reason to single out Hitler for sharing the beliefs of millions of others.
Taylor argued that the basic problem with an interwar Europe was a flawed Treaty of Versailles that was sufficiently onerous to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Germans would always hate it but insufficiently onerous that it failed to destroy Germany's potential to be a Great Power once more. In this way, Taylor argued that the Versailles Treaty was destabilizing, for sooner or later the innate power of Germany that the Allies had declined to destroy in 1918-1919 would inevitably reassert itself against the Versailles treaty and the international system established by Versailles that the Germans regarded as unjust and thus had no interest in preserving. Though Taylor argued that the Second World War was not inevitable and that the Versailles treaty was nowhere near as harsh as contemporaries like John Maynard Keynes believed, what he regarded as a flawed peace settlement made the war more likely than not.
The reaction to The Origins of the Second World War was almost unanimously negative when it was published in 1961. The book set off a huge storm of controversy and debate that lasted for years. At least part of the vehement criticism was due to the confusion in the public's mind between Taylor's book and another book published in 1961, Der Erzwungene Krieg (The Forced War) by the American neo-Nazi historian David Hoggan. Taylor criticized Hoggan's thesis that Germany was the innocent victim of an Anglo-Polish conspiracy in 1939 as nonsense but many critics confused Taylor's thesis with Hoggan's. Most of the criticism was over Taylor's arguments for appeasement as a rational political strategy, his mechanistic portrayal of a world destined for another world war by post-war settlement of 1918-1919, his depiction of World War Two as an "accident" caused by diplomatic blunders, his portrayal of Hitler as a "normal leader” and what many considered his flippant dismissal of Nazi ideology as a motivating force. Leading the charge against Taylor was his arch-enemy Trevor-Roper, who contended that Taylor had wilfully and egregiously misinterpreted the evidence. In particular, Trevor-Roper criticized Taylor's argument that the Hossbach Memorandum of 1937 was a meaningless document because none of the scenarios outlined in the Memorandum as the prerequisite for war such as the Spanish Civil War leading to a war between Italy and France in the Mediterranean or civil war breaking out in France occurred. In Trevor-Roper's opinion, what really mattered about the Hossbach Memorandum was that Hitler clearly expressed an intention to go to war sooner rather than later and it was Hitler's intentions rather than his plans at the time which mattered. Other historians who criticized The Origins of the Second World War included; Isaac Deutscher, Louis Morton, Barbara Tuchman, Ian Morrow, Gerhard Weinberg, G.F. Hudson, Elizabeth Wiskemann, W.N. Medlicott, John Lukacs, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Frank Freidel, Harry Hinsley, John Wheeler-Bennett, Golo Mann, Lucy Dawidowicz, Gordon A. Craig, A. L. Rowse, Raymond Sontag, Andreas Hillgruber and Yehuda Bauer. Rowse, who had once been a close friend of Taylor's, attacked him with an intensity and vehemence that was second to only Trevor-Roper's. In addition, several historians wrote books on the origins of the World War II with the aim of refuting Taylor's thesis. Some notable examples include Gerhard Weinberg's two-volume The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany and Andreas Hillgruber's Deutschlands Rolle in der Vorgeschichte der beiden Weltkriege, translated as Germany And The Two World Wars.
As angry as the reaction in Britain was to The Origins of the Second World War, it was greater when the book was published in January 1962 in the United States. With the exception of Harry Elmer Barnes, every American historian who reviewed Taylor's book gave it a negative review. Perhaps ironically, Taylor had indirectly criticized Barnes when he wrote contemptuously of certain self-styled American Revisionist historians whose work Taylor characterized as marked by obsessive loathing for their own country, nostalgia for isolationism, hatred for the New Deal and a tendency to engage in bizarre conspiracy theories. Despite the best efforts of Barnes and his protégé David Hoggan to recruit Taylor to their cause, Taylor always made clear that he wanted nothing to do with either Barnes or Hoggan. Much to Taylor's intense discomfort, various neo-Nazi groups claimed that The Origins of the Second World War "acquitted" Hitler of responsibility for World War II and tried to claim Taylor. Taylor always disowned the support of the neo-Nazis, making clear that he held their politics in extreme distaste.
Another criticism is of Taylor's views on Italy. Taylor drew a picture of Benito Mussolini as a great showman but an inept leader with no beliefs. The first part of this picture has not been generally challenged by historians but the second part has been questioned. Taylor argued that Mussolini was sincere when he helped forge the Stresa Front with Britain and France to resist any German challenge to the status quo in Europe and that only the League of Nations sanctions imposed on Fascist Italy for Italian invasion of Ethiopia drove Mussolini into an alliance with Nazi Germany. Recently, a number of specialists in Italian history have challenged this by arguing that Mussolini possessed a belief in the spazio vitale (vital space) as a guiding foreign policy concept in which the entire Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa were regarded as rightfully belonging to Italy. It has been argued that given the scale of the ambitions envisioned by the spazio vitale concept and that the two dominant Mediterranean powers were Britain and France, the Italians were bound to clash with them.
Finally, Taylor has been criticized for promoting the La décadence view of the French Third Republic. This historical concept portrays the Third Republic as a decadent state, forever on the verge of collapse. In particular, advocates of the La décadence concept have asserted that inter-war France was riven by political instability; possessed a leadership that was deeply divided, corrupt, incompetent and pusillanimous which ruled over a nation rent by mass unemployment, strikes, a sense of despair over the future, riots and a state of near-civil war between the Left and the Right. Of all the French governments of the interwar era, only the Popular Front government of Léon Blum was presented sympathetically by Taylor, which he praised for carrying out what he regarded as long overdue social reforms. Many experts in French history have admitted that there is a kernel of truth to Taylor's picture of France but have complained that Taylor presented French politics and society in such a manner as to border on caricature.
The opinion of most historians is to side with Taylor's critics rather than Taylor in this debate. However, The Origins of the Second World War is regarded as a watershed in the historiography of the origins of World War Two. In general, historians have praised Taylor for the following:
In the aftermath of the controversy occasioned by The Origins of the Second World War, many felt that Taylor was discredited forever as a historian, a point reinforced by the University of Oxford's refusal to renew his teaching term in 1964. However in 1965 he rebounded with the spectacular success of his book English History 1914-1945, his only venture into social and cultural history, where he offered a loving, affectionate portrayal of the years between 1914 and 1945. English History 1914-1945 was an enormous bestseller and in its first year in print sold more than all of the previous volumes of the Oxford History of England combined. Though he felt there was much to be ashamed of in British history, especially in regard to Ireland, he was very proud to be British and more specifically English. He was fond of stressing his Non-Conformist Northern English background and saw himself as part of a grand tradition of radical dissent that he regarded as the real glorious history of England.
Though Taylor normally preferred to portray leaders as fools blundering their way forward, it is fair to add that he did think that individuals sometimes could play a positive role in history - his heroes were Vladmir Lenin and David Lloyd George. But for Taylor, people like Lloyd George and Lenin were the exceptions. Another person Taylor admired was the historian E.H. Carr, who was his favourite historian and a good friend.
Another important step in Taylor's "rehabilitation" was a festschrift organized in his honour by Martin Gilbert in 1965. He was honoured with two more festschriften, in 1976 and 1986. The festschriften were testaments to his popularity with his former students, as to receive even a single festschrift is considered to be an extraordinary and rare honour.
One of Taylor's finer moments occurred in the 1960s when he became the first English language historian and indeed the first historian after Hans Mommsen to accept the conclusions of the book The Reichstag Fire by journalist Fritz Tobias, that the Nazis had not set the Reichstag on fire in 1933 and that Marinus van der Lubbe had acted alone. What Tobias and Taylor argued had happened, was that the new Nazi government had been looking for something to increase its share of the vote in the elections of March 5, 1933, so as to activate the Enabling Act and that van der Lubbe had serendipitously (for the Nazis) provided it by burning down the Reichstag. Even without the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were quite determined to destroy German democracy. In Taylor's opinion, van der Lubbe had made their task easier by providing a pretext. Moreover, the German Communist propaganda chief Willi Münzenberg and his OGPU handlers had manufactured all of the evidence implicating the Nazis in the arson. In particular, Tobias and Taylor pointed out that the so-called "secret tunnels" that supposedly gave the Nazis access to the Reichstag were in fact tunnels for water piping. At the time Taylor was widely attacked by many other historians for endorsing what was considered to be a self-evident perversion of established historical facts. In particular so-called "new evidence" suddenly emerged that seemed to implicate the Nazis in the crime and was taken as proving the falsity of Tobias-Taylor thesis. Unfortunately for the proponents of the 'Nazis as the arsonists' theory, all of the "new evidence" turned out to be forged by the Soviet secret police, the KGB and the East German secret police, the Stasi. Today, it is universally accepted by historians that Tobias and Taylor were correct about van der Lubbe as the sole arsonist.
In his 1969 book War by Timetable, Taylor examined the origins of World War I. He concluded that though all of the great powers wished to increase their own power relative to the others, none consciously sought war before 1914. Instead, he argued that all of the great powers believed that if they possessed the ability to mobilize their armed forces faster than any of the others, this would serve as a sufficient deterrent to avoid war and allow them to achieve their foreign policy. Thus, the general staffs of the great powers developed elaborate timetables to mobilize faster than any of their rivals. When the crisis broke in 1914, though none of the statesmen of Europe wanted a world war, the need to mobilize faster than potential rivals created an inexorable movement towards war. Thus Taylor claimed that the leaders of 1914 became prisoners of the logic of the mobilization timetables and the timetables that were meant to serve as deterrent to war instead relentlessly brought war. Many have argued that Taylor, who was one of the leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, developed his "Railway Thesis" to serve as a thinly-veiled admonitory allegory for the nuclear arms race.
Taylor also wrote significant introductions to British editions of Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed and The Communist Manifesto, writing from a virulently anti-communist position. He was an advocate of a treaty with the Soviet Union, something that has been tied to his apparent support of appeasement in his work on the road to the Second World War. In 1963, the British Communist Party, which held the copyright to Ten Days that Shook the World in the United Kingdom, had offered Taylor the opportunity to write the introduction to a new edition. The introduction Taylor wrote was fairly sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks but also pointedly tweaked the Kremlin's nose by pointing out certain contradictions between Reed's book and the official historiography in the Soviet Union - for instance Leon Trotsky played a very prominent and heroic role in Ten Days That Shook The World while in 1963 Trotsky was almost a non-person in Soviet historiography, mentioned only in terms of abuse. The British Communist Party rejected Taylor's introduction as anti-Soviet. He was somewhat annoyed by this rejection and when the copyright expired in 1977 and a non-Communist publisher re-issued Ten Days That Shook The World and asked for Taylor to write the introduction, he strengthened some of his criticisms. Other books that Taylor wrote the introductions for include Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton in 1970 and The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias in 1964.
Taylor lived in Disley, Cheshire for a while, where Dylan Thomas (who was his first wife's lover) was his guest; he later provided Thomas with a cottage in Oxford so that he could recover from a breakdown. Taylor married three times. He married his first wife Margaret Adams, in 1931 (divorced in 1951) and with her he had three children. She was frequently unfaithful to him but was the love of his life. His second wife was Eve Crosland, whom Taylor married in 1951 and divorced in 1974; he had two children by her. Even after divorcing Margaret, Taylor continued to live with her in a common-law relationship while maintaining a household with Eve. Much of Taylor's prolific output was motivated by his need to support both his legal and common-law wives. His third wife was the Hungarian historian Éva Haraszti, whom he married in 1976.
Taylor was badly injured in 1984 when he was run over by a car while crossing the street. The effect of the accident, coupled with the effects of a stroke, led to his retirement in 1985. In his last years, he endured Parkinson's disease, which left him incapable of writing. His last public appearance was at his 80th birthday, in 1986, when a group of his former students, including Sir Martin Gilbert, Alan Sked, Norman Davies and Paul Kennedy, organized a public reception in his honour. He had, with considerable difficulty, memorized a short speech, which he delivered in a manner that managed to hide the fact that his memory and mind had been permanently damaged by the stroke. In 1987 he entered a nursing home in London, where he died in 1990.
Taylor possessed a magnificent literary style, which allowed him to get away with many of his more frivolous ideas, such as that the major cause of the First World War was the wrong turn taken by the chauffeur of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. His views were those of a quirky, idiosyncratic and flamboyant individualist who challenged orthodoxies.