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HALL OF FAMEon November 7, 2000
In what is often considered the most controversial of his many scholarly books, this exploration into the putative causes of World War Two by renowned British historian A.P.J. Taylor caused great controversy and discussion when published in the sixties. I remember as a college student the arguments regarding his scholarship, sympathies for Hitler, and somewhat simplistic approach in trying to mount an ardent and convincing argument demolishing the conventional wisdom holding that one man, Adolph Hitler, was uniquely responsible for the outbreak of the most horrific conflict in modern history. Amazingly, upon rereading this wonderfully written, entertaining, and erudite tome again recently, one walks away still impressed by his ability to marshal a wall of facts that seemingly support his incendiary ideas.
On the surface Taylor's general thesis that, given the poorly constructed and patently unfair peace treaty levied by the victorious allies onto Germany at Versailles, the war was inevitable is well-taken, as is his contention that many besides Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for the increased tensions and resort to force of arms in the 1930s both through acts of commission such as the peace treaty, and also through acts of omission, in particular referring to the failure of any of the allies to act responsibly and thoughtfully to the provocative acts of rearming Germany. Certainly the policies of appeasement, willful ignorance, and benign neglect of the international agreements so painfully wrought with the blood of millions of soldiers on the battlefields of France in WWI led to such a level of indifference and anarchy that it became an ideal environment for the incubation of the kinds of tyranny that arose in Italy, Germany, and Spain in those years. As Taylor points out, the fact of this indifference did much to sow the seeds of what would be reaped so painfully later.
Yet while any thoughtful student will heartily agree that the whole western world's blind indifference and acts of craven appeasement to the rising tides of murder and mayhem did much to encourage the excesses and bloody dreams of the Nazis, one finds it more difficult to excuse or ignore Hitler's own role in steering Germany toward confrontation and fatal conflict with all of its European neighbors. While one can argue that he never intended a war against England and France, that he misunderstood their resolve regarding Poland and the declaration of war against Germany, it is simply silly to argue that Hitler was somehow not directly responsible for the planning and execution of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union and the quite systematic murder of its people. Thus, while in arguing for the wider sharing of blame for the possibility of war existing Taylor does a marvelous job, he fails miserably in trying to explain the specifics of the war, since Hitler said all along the reason for the war was to establish an area of expansion for the German people, or "living room", in the wheat-belt of Russia called the Ukraine.
Hitler intended from the beginning to systematically exterminate all the indigenous people living in the Ukraine (and elsewhere in Russia) through a delberate campaign of murder, slave labor, and starvation. He considered the Russian people subhumans he would smash and exterminate. Similarly, the so called "Final Solution", while not necessarily the product of the kind of systematic planning many have attributed to it, was in the end a masterfully executed campaign of deliberate genocide against Jews, gypsies, and other non-Aryans. This is a fascinating book, and Taylor argues articulately for the idea that others besides Hitler deserve a portion of the blame for what unfolded into the largest conflict in the history of the world. His notion that one can more fully comprehend Hitler's actions when viewing them in the context of a poisonously dangerous world environment in which others failed to act humanely and responsibly is both sophisticated and well supported. Yet he oversimplifies certain aspects of the story, and seems to be overly sympathetic to Hitler and the National Socialists in doing so. This book is a wonderful read, and it is a pleasure to be in the presence of such a marvelous intellect, even if I do not agree with the overall thesis he is arguing for. Enjoy!
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