By Snowman, Daniel
History Today , Vol. 54, No. 1
RICHARD EVANS MAY be Professor of Modern History at Cambridge but that doesn't stop him receiving periodic bouts of hate mail and Internet opprobrium. It's flattering in a way, for Evans has emerged as one of the most prominent knights in the field to champion the honour and integrity of history against attack. And woe betide those on the receiving end. Whether charging against the wilder claims of postmodernism or of counterfactual history or, most famously, puncturing the view of Nazi history presented in the works of David Irving, Evans' well-honed lance can be deadly The recent reissue of his book In Deft, nee History includes an extensive Afterword in which Evans robustly lakes on critics from all parts of the field and, in many cases, trounces them. His painstaking trawl through Irving's sources in the notorious libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt played a pivotal part in Irving's downfall.
The only child of Welsh parents who migrated to London during the Depression, Evans was born in 1947 and raised in the Essex extension of greater London. But his lineage is solidly Welsh and Welsh-speaking. Memories of childhood visits to Wales soon turn to the Calvinistic Methodist chapel (in which many cousins were deacons) and to the historic Welsh ruins that intrigued him even then--not just the famous old castles, but also, for example, the remains of once-thriving slate quarries with their deserted workshops, idle railway lines and rusting machinery. One of Richard's grandfathers had been a slate quarryman. Looking back, Evans feels his small-town Welsh heritage helped give him a sense of 'otherness', the inclination and capacity to ask questions about one culture from the perspective of someone living in another.
It wasn't just bygone Wales that he heard about as he sat at the feet of a host of older Evanses. He was gripped, too, by tales of the recent war, of heroic derring-do by the British (and doubtless the Welsh), and by jaw-stopping stories about that great undifferentiated and incomprehensible mass, 'the Germans'. The picture was reinforced by the war films his schoolteacher mother took him to, featuring intrepid British servicemen with their pencil moustaches and stiff upper lips and irredeemably evil, two-dimensional Nazis. The war too, had left abundant evidence for the future historian to examine: London bomb damage to explore, air-raid shelters to enter, gas-masks to try on.
A scholarship took the lad to Forest School in Walthamstow (where co-pupils included the future historians Richard I Holmes and Charles Townshend) and thence to that perennial home of clever Welshmen, Jesus College, Oxford. At Oxford, Evans learned about the Crusades from Maurice Keen, seventeenth-century England from Keith Thomas and twentieth-century Europe from Tony Nicholls (who later supervised his doctorate) and Martin Gilbert. Astonishingly, for one whose subsequent career was to depend so heavily on an ability to penetrate arcane German-language documentation it wasn't until Evans went on to work on a D.Phil. that he learned German.
Why Germany? The student activism of the late '60s helped focus the mind, he says. Opposition to the Vietnam War, for example, raised issues of imperialism: why does one country try to conquer another? These years also saw the early flowering of the feminist movement and, on the right, strident calls for immigration controls and the emergence of neo-fascism not only in Britain but also in Germany. A Damascan moment came with the visit to Oxford of Fritz Fischer, the historian who had famously undercut the view that Nazism was a twelve-year aberration by revealing, in his work on the First World War, some of the deeper continuities in German history. Fischer's thesis was a bold and (to Germans) disturbing one, and the appearance of this man made a deep impression on Evans.
In the early 1970s, by now an Oxford doctoral student, Evans received funding to go to Germany to research the history of German feminism. …