The Struggle for the Mastery of Snark

I had been gnawing away for about a week at A. J. P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 when I ran across the following, in a NYRB article by Mark Mazower:

When British political warfare specialists were looking in 1942 for a basic handbook to help their servicemen to understand the country and the philosophy they were fighting, there was nothing up to date. A.J.P. Taylor, a young don who would later become one of the first historians to appear regularly on British television, was called in to write a general introduction to Germany. What he produced was so short on information and so full of wisecracks that it was rejected by readers in British intelligence and never distributed…



No-one could accuse the magisterial Struggle of lacking information, but the part about the wisecracks came as no surprise. In his introduction, Taylor describes international relations in his period as the province of cosmopolitan ‘diplomatists’ who shared a class (upper), a language (French, except for some of the Brits), and an ethos, for “all diplomatists were honest, according to their moral code.” The punchline comes in the attached footnote: “It becomes wearisome to add ‘except the Italians’ to every generalization. Henceforth, it may be assumed.” Snap.

Taylor likes to make fun of Italians, but every nation takes some shots. Of Nicholas I he writes: “As usual, the Tsar did not know what was in the treaty that he was seeking to enforce.” And of course there are the Germans: “Like other Germans, Bismarck regarded bullying as the best preliminary to friendship. The French did not.”

That one is almost Steinian. The same pattern of long windup and short delivery is found in the next example, where Taylor mocks the generosity of British overtures to Germany: “The pattern was being set for the following thirty years, in which Germany was repeatedly offered the privilege of defending British interests against Russia, without other reward than a grudgin patronage. Bismarck did not respond to this offer.”

And future generations do not escape his cold eye: “Monarchical solidarity in those days, like democratic principles in ours, was a good way of escaping treaty commitments.”

Sometimes Taylor’s references to ‘our’ time serve as reminders that he is writing in 1954: “Bulgarians and Serbs were far more akin than Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, between whom union has been successfully accomplished.” Or not. Actually, his attitude toward the Serbs, who come across more as the victims than the instigators of the outbreak of World War I, is notably different from that of Christopher Clark in his recent Sleepwalkers, where the Serb nationalists of 100 years ago show some of the same fabricated victimhood and murderous self-pity that we’ve come to know in more recent times.


Taylor also seems to say that the British still dominate the eastern Mediterranean, which brings home how stark the lesson of 1956 must have been. After Britain’s embarrassing failure in the trumped-up Suez crisis, everybody knew the Empire thing had jumped the shark and it was time to focus on making the world’s best pop music and worst sausage.

I’ll leave you with a couple of further gems. Sadly the capsule bio of Rosebury is never elaborated upon:

“The French, however, did not feel that a Russian occupation of Budapest, or even of Vienna, would be any consolation for a German occupation of Paris.”

“Rosebury, the new foreign secretary, meant to maintain the continuity of foreign policy, a doctrine which he had himself invented. His main task was thus to deceive both his chief and his colleagues, a task which he discharged conscientiously, but only at the cost of aggravating his naturally nervous temperament to the point of insanity.”

“France was the rock, somewhat flaky but a rock all the same, on which the German schemes broke.”


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