A.J.P. Taylor

The historian assembles data and is even more aware than the physical scientist how inadequate his data are. Much of the evidence on which we could base our knowledge of the past either has been destroyed or was never recorded. We guess from the few remaining fragments much as a geologist reconstructs a prehistoric monster from a single bone. Even at the present time, when thousands of trained experts are engaged in assembling and analysing the statistics of economic life, experts and governments have only the vaguest idea what has happened and no firm idea of what is likely to happen. There is little chance therefore of our reaching any very solid conclusions about early times when no reliable figures existed and there is not much information of any other kind. The only safe generalization we can make about man’s record was propounded by Anatole France: “He was born. He suffered. He died.” History is the great school of scepticism.

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918

In the state of nature which Hobbes imagined, violence was the only law, and life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Though individuals have never lived in this state of nature, the Great Powers of Europe have always done so.

It is often forgotten that, though Frederick William [ IV ] wrote ceaseless hysterical letters to the tsar, he also wrote ceaseless hysterical letters to Queen Victoria.

Re: the 1848 dispute over the status of the duchies of Holstein and what we now call Schleswig, which, for reasons he explains earlier, he refers to as Sleswick

British policy was thus reduced to vague insistence on peace, or at least an armistice; but it did not in fact contribute much to the actual armistice negotiations conducted between Prussia and Denmark in July. The sole motive of these was Frederick William’s increasing abhorrence of his association with the liberal German cause; though he would have liked to acquire the duchies, he was determined, absurdly enough, not to acquire them with liberal approval.

Re: Louis Napoleon’s decision to send the French Mediterranean fleet with the British fleet to the neighborhood of the Dardanelles to pressure Turkey in the fall of 1849, against the advice of his foreign minister, Alexis de Tocqueville

Toqueville attributed the President’s decision to the influence of his mistress, Miss Howard. This attribution of unworthy motives (in this case unfounded, as Tocqueville later admitted) is characteristic of the intellectual in politics.

Frederick William was all along the determining factor in Prussian policy; and his determination was contradictory. He wanted a united Germany, with himself at its head; and he wanted this with Austrian agreement. His impossible dream was that Austria should abdicate voluntarily; sooner than give up the dream he would give up the reality.

The group of British ministers “who were to become the ’inner cabinet’ of the Crimean war” is listed in a footnote

Aberdeen, prime minister; Lord John Russell, leader of the house of commons; Clarendon, foreign secretary; Palmerston, home secretary, invited on Clarendon’s suggestion as the most formidable authority on foreign affairs. Palmerston and Aberdeen had both been foreign secretary; Russell was to be later. Russell was a former prime minister, Palmerston a future one. The result was to show that there is nothing more disastrous than a committee of extremely able men.

Re: the Sardinian foreign minister Dabormida’s request that Britain and France “should prevail on Austria to raise the sequestration on the property of Lombard refugees in Piedmont” in 1855

This had been a cause of dispute between Sardinia and Austria since 1849. In that civilized age it was thought a reasonable demand that political refugees should be allowed to draw enormous revenues from their estates while conducting revolutionary propaganda against the ruler of the country in which the estates lay.

Re: the terms of peace after the Crimean War

It would be futile to speculate whether [French foreign minister] Walewski meant ultimately to cheat the British or the Russians or both. Like the endless compromises earlier devised by Drouyn, all of which implied a deception of one or other party, this compromise too was a translation into diplomatic terms of the hope that something would turn up. Walewski, Drouyn, Morny, and the rest of Napoleon’s “swell mob” (Clarendon’s phrase), introduced into international affairs the methods of lying and dishonesty which had made the coup d’état; they knew no other methods. With no conscience and no policy, Walewski and the others thought simply of escaping from the particular problem of the moment, regardless whether it would create a greater problem later.

Contrary to the common view, diplomacy is an art which, despite its subtlety, depends on the rigid accuracy of all who practice it. To have a great state ruled and run by liars was a unique problem with which the statesmen of Europe were unfitted to deal. French policy could not be pinned down by negotiating with the foreign minister, whether Drouyn or Walewski; decisions could be obtained only from Napoleon, who—with all the dishonesty of his gangster-followers—had also a quality of resolution which made him their chief. But Napoleon was equally unreliable; and the bewildering diplomacy of the ’fifties and ’sixties is explained in large part by this fact. One of the parties in a game with complicated rules made it more complicated by persistent cheating, even on unimportant points. If indeed there was a decline in international morality, the origins of this are to be found in Napoleon and his associates, not in Bismarck. He only applied the maxim à corsaìre, corsaìre et demì.

Re: the outcome of the Crimean War

The war shattered both the myth and the reality of Russian power. Whatever its origin, the war was in essence an invasion of Russia by the west; of the five invasions of Russia in modern times, it was by far the most successful. [ footnote ] Napoleon in 1812; the British and French in 1854; the Germans in 1916-18; the entente Powers in 1919-20; Hitler in 1941.

Neutralization of the Black Sea was the prized achievement of 1856; it seemed to provide what the western Powers had long sought—a barrier against Russia without effort from themselves. In reality, like all disarmament clauses in a peace treaty, it was an attempt to perpetuate an existing Balance of Power when that balance should have changed: the Russians were to promise to behave for all time as though the British and French fleets were in the Black Sea when in fact they had gone away. Neutralization lacked a sanction other than Russian good faith; and if this could be relied on, neutralization was unnecessary.

Re: a meeting of the French and Russian foreign ministers, Walewski and Gorchakov

After the meeting was over Gorchakov said complacently: ’It is above all in the future that Stuttgart will bear its true fruits.’ By this he meant only that he and Walewski were still looking round for means to cheat each other.

Re: negotiations between France and Russia in 1858

Alexander II and Gorchakov knew that they were being tricked; and Gorchakov would have liked to break it off. Alexander, however, was obsessed with the treaty of Paris and recognized that war in Italy was the essential first step towards its revision; he therefore fell back on the usual manoeuvre of those who are at a loss in diplomacy and relied on a scamp’s good faith.

In short, the Russians hoped to cheat Napoleon at some time in the future; they therefore gave Napoleon an immediate opportunity to cheat them.

It is the essence of diplomacy to avoid decisive commitments until war makes them necessary...

Bismarck held that a republic in France was Germany’s best guarantee of peace on the Rhine. He justified this by the absurd argument that kings and emperors (meaning in particular the tsar) would shrink from alliance with a republic—as though he himself were the only monarchist statesman to disregard his principles when it suited his national interest.

The Russians still thought of Germany as a grateful dependent; and they supposed that they could force her into alliance by a display of bad temper. This was indeed the only method they knew.

The British had become masters of Egypt. They had acquired their share of the partition of the Turkish empire, while Russia was as far off Constantinople as ever and the French without the shadowy compensation envisaged in 1878. This was an extraordinary outcome, arrived at without plan or deliberation. The British had never intended to occupy Egypt and now assured the Powers that they would leave as soon as order was restored. Gladstone said on 10 August 1882 that an indefinite occupation “would be absolutely at variance with all the principles and views of Her Majesty’s Government, and the pledges they have given to Europe, and with the views, I may say, of Europe itself”; Granville promised withdrawal in a circular to the powers; and this promise was repeated sixty-six times between 1882 and 1922. But the condition was the restoration of order; and this condition was never fulfilled to British satisfaction.

You're welcome to use this form for private as well as public comments; but if you don't want your comments posted to this site, please say so explicitly. As far as I know, this form works in every case, unless you're running XP (and if so, why?). If you have problems with this form, send your comment to count_belisarius@earthlink.net.

All fields are optional.