Sunday, July 14, 2013

Arnold Toynbee In 1952

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975)


The case of Arnold Toynbee is a strange one.

Toynbee’s reputation began to collapse in the last two decades of his life. At the time of his death, Toynbee was viewed as little more than a gadfly. Nonetheless, his death produced a full round of lengthy obituaries, all respectful (if guarded). Toynbee obituaries make interesting reading today.

As a general rule, Toynbee is no longer taught—and, far worse for his reputation, he is no longer discussed.

I am doubtful that a Toynbee reassessment and revival are imminent. Toynbee was a generalist in his field, and often got facts wrong, and produced prose that was characterized more by clumsiness than clarity. Further, I believe it would not be unfair to note Toynbee’s fundamental lack of originality, the single quality that most of all has consigned Toynbee’s many volumes to the remotest corners of research libraries.

One of Toynbee’s most boneheaded errors was misjudging Adolf Hitler. Toynbee met Hitler in 1936 in Berlin. At the time, Toynbee described Hitler as “sincere”, and Toynbee went on to submit lengthy reports to the British diplomatic service, reports in which Toynbee argued that Hitler had no interest in European conquest.

Toynbee had clearly fallen under Hitler’s spell, as the following Toynbee submission reveals:

Most of the time, my eyes were following Hitler’s hands. He had beautiful hands. His gestures were eloquent, as well as graceful. His voice, too, was, unexpectedly to me, agreeably human in its pitch and cadence.

Toynbee somehow managed to overcome his disastrous 1936 reading of Hitler. Toynbee’s years of greatest prominence and greatest influence were the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s, years in which Toynbee’s earlier half-baked assessment of Hitler was forgotten—or deliberately overlooked.

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