A. J. P. Taylor

English historian (1906-1990)

Alan John Percivale Taylor (25 March 19067 September 1990) was a British historian, journalist, broadcaster and scholar. His approachably written and sometimes contentiously revisionist studies of 19th and early 20th-century subjects brought academic history to a new audience.


  • A racing tipster who only reached Hitler's level of accuracy would not do well for his clients.
    • The Origins of the Second World War ([1961] 1962), Ch. 7, p. 134
  • The First World War had begun — imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age.
    • The First World War ([1963] 1970) p. 20
  • In 1917 European history, in the old sense, came to an end. World history began. It was the year of Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom repudiated the traditional standards of political behaviour. Both preached Utopia, Heaven on Earth. It was the moment of birth for our contemporary world.
    • The First World War ([1963] 1970) p. 165
  • Like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.
    • Referring to Napoleon III, in "Mistaken Lessons from the Past", The Listener (6 June 1963)
  • In the second World war the British people came of age. This was a people's war. Not only were their needs considered. They themselves wanted to win. Future historians may see the war as a last struggle for the European balance of power or for the maintenance of Empire. This was not how it appeared to those who lived through it. The British people had set out to destroy Hitler and National Socialism—"Victory at all costs". They succeeded. No English soldier who rode with the tanks into liberated Belgium or saw the German murder camps at Dachau or Buchenwald could doubt that the war had been a noble crusade. The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilized people, tolerant, patient, and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in. The British empire declined; the condition of the people improved. Few now sang "Land of Hope and Glory". Few even sang "England Arise". England had risen all the same.
    • English History 1914–1945 (1965), p. 600
  • History gets thicker as it approaches recent times: more people, more events, and more books written about them. More evidence is preserved, often, one is tempted to say, too much. Decay and destruction have hardly begun their beneficent work.
    • English History 1914 – 1945 ([1965] 1975), "Revised Bibliography", p. 729
  • Taylor's Law states: "The Foreign Office knows no secrets."
    • English History 1914 – 1945 ([1965] 1975), "Revised Bibliography", p. 730
  • The greatest problem about old age is the fear that it may go on too long.
    • An Old Man's Diary ([1981] 1984) p. 39
  • I was a narrative historian, believing more and more as I matured that the first function of the historian was to answer the child's question, "What happened next?"
    • A Personal History ([1983] 1984) p. 301
  • Why should knowledge of where I came from tell me where I am going to?
    • 'Moving with the Times', The Observer, 22 October 1961

The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy, 1792-1939 (1957)

Conformity may give you a quiet life; it may even bring you to a University Chair. But all change in history, all advance, comes from the nonconformists. If there had been no trouble-makers, no Dissenters, we should still be living in caves.

Comprises the text of the Ford Lectures on English History (1956); quotations are cited from the 1985 edition, ISBN 0140225757

  • Every historian loves the past or should do. If not, he has mistaken his vocation; but it is a short step from loving the past to regretting that it has ever changed. Conservatism is our greatest trade-risk; and we run psychoanalysts close in the belief that the only "normal" people are those who cause no trouble either to themselves or anybody else.
    • "The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett", p. 14
  • Conformity may give you a quiet life; it may even bring you to a University Chair. But all change in history, all advance, comes from the nonconformists. If there had been no trouble-makers, no Dissenters, we should still be living in caves.
    • "The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett", p. 14
  • In my opinion we learn nothing from history except the infinite variety of men’s behaviour. We study it, as we listen to music or read poetry, for pleasure, not for instruction
    • "The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett", p. 23.
  • The present enables us to understand the past, not the other way round.
    • "The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett", p. 24.
  • The worker is by nature less imaginative, more level-headed than the capitalist. This is what prevents his becoming one. He is content with small gains. Trade Union officials think about the petty cash; the employer speculates in millions. You can see the difference in their representative institutions. There is no scheme too wild, no rumour too absurd, to be without repercussions on the Stock Exchange. The public house is the home of common sense.
    • "Dissenting Rivals: Urquhart and Cobden", p. 55
  • American statesmen might like some Europeans more than others and even detect quaint resemblances to their own outlook; but they no more committed themselves to a particular group or country than a nineteenth-century missionary committed himself to the African tribe in which he happened to find himself.
    • "The Great War: The Triumph of E. D. Morel", p. 157

Quotes about A. J. P. Taylor

  • The fine line, it seems to me, goes thus: there has to be a plausibility in your story. A history book—assuming its facts are correct—stands or falls by the conviction with which it tells its story. If it rings true, to an intelligent, informed reader, then it is a good history book. If it rings false, then it’s not good history, even if it’s well written by a great historian on the basis of sound scholarship.
    The best-known example of the latter was A. J. P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War. It is a beautifully written tract, the work of a consummate diplomatic historian: an expert in the relevant documents, a competent linguist and highly intelligent. At first sight, all of the constituent parts of a good history book were present. So what was missing? The answer is hard to pin down. Perhaps the issue is one of taste. To claim—as Taylor did—that Hitler was not responsible for World War II is absurdly counterintuitive. However subtly expressed, the argument is so implausible as to be poor history.
    • Tony Judt, in Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012), Chap. 7 : Unities and Fragments: European Historian
Wikipedia has an article about: