Richard J. Evans
Snowman, Daniel, History Today
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. The resulting dissertation was published a flew years later as The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1933. It was followed soon afterwards by a comparative study of women's emancipation movements in Europe, America and Australasia from 1840 to 1990 entitled The Feminists. This is inevitably something of a scamper through too many countries and histories; everywhere, it seemed, feminism tended to go through a moderate earlier phase and later a more revolutionary phase. But the two books complement each other, revealing much about the development of late-nineteenth-century middle-class liberalism. Read them as a pair, and it becomes clear why German liberalism in particular was likely to fail (and why, for example, so many middle-class German women would later vote for Hitler). In Germany, unlike the United States, Australasia or much of Western Europe, the middle class was comparatively weak, while the political and religious culture emphasised such traditional values as honour, obedience to authority, and the subservience of women to men.
Evans still found traces of these attitudes when undertaking his research; he recalls the incredulity of archivists in Germany (East as well as West) when told that he was studying the history of German feminism. He soon discovered that there was little serious literature on the subject -unlike the history of American feminism, for example, or the British suffragette movement, which had received considerable scholarly attention. A thread common to much of Evans' work, indeed, is that he has covered aspects of social history that are widely accepted in Britain as legitimate subjects for study-feminism, medicine and disease, crime and punishment-but which few historians of Germany had yet tackled.
By the time the books on feminism were published, Evans was well launched into an academic career. After four years at Stirling he moved in 1976 to the University of East Anglia, becoming Professor of European History in 1983. At UEA he organised a series of conferences aimed to help create a dialogue with young German historians. A series of edited anthologies resulted, including volumes on the history of the German family, the German working class, the peasantry and the unemployed. All this while, Evans was working on what was to become his first Big Book.
As you read Death in Hamburg you are reminded of Thomas Mann. It is a long book about the incapacity of the stubborn north German bourgeoisie to deal with the gradual encroachment of incurable sickness. As in Mann's Zauberberg, disease becomes the metaphor for every wider malaise, while Evans' title is of course a reference to Death in Venice. Evans doubtless had Camus' The Plague in mind, too, for he describes the approach, impact and effects of a cholera epidemic that hit Hamburg in 1892. Why Hamburg, why then and not earlier (or later)-and why nowhere else? In answering such questions, Evans shines the bright light of his investigative skills into some of the most obscure corners of nineteenth-century European history. On the face of it a book about medical history, Death in Hamburg contains much about the science of sickness and health as understood in Germany at the time, and about prevalent theories about the transmission of cholera and how to limit its impact. But, as in a novel, it also incorporates a series of sub-narrations about, for example, the great families and merchant traditions of the old Hansa city, the fire of 1842, the quasi-independence from Berlin that Hamburg retained after German unification in 1871, and the standards of living and general attitudes of its variegated citizenry. Death in Hamburg also contains a forest of footnotes and a huge specialist bibliography, while the text is liberally interspersed, Annales-style, with corroborative maps, graphs, diagrams and statistical tables.
So exhaustively researched a project might be in danger of sinking under the load of its own documentation, but Evans' literary skills guarantee that this does not happen. From general beginnings, he gradually thickens the narrative--or sharpens the beam of Iris torch--as he approaches the pivotal year of 1892. Finally, having eliminated other possible causes and revealed the large holes in all the safety nets that should have impeded the onset of such an epidemic, Evans is able to point to the proximate cause of this virulent yet isolated outbreak: a cholera bacillus brought into Hamburg by Russian emigrants en route to the USA. Death in Hamburg ends with the political implications and consequences of so traumatic an event: the temporary rise of the Social Democrats in Hamburg, the bourgeois fear of Communism and the calculated welcome to Nazism.
Evans has continued to investigate the life and hard times of those on the margins of society, and their interactions with those in authority. One of my favourites among his books is Tales from the German Underworld, where he pursues the fate of four colourful renegades--a compulsive forger, a vagrant woman, a confidence trickster and a fallen woman--and, through their particular stories, leads the reader into some of the wider reaches of late-nineteenth-century European history. But the work that most thoroughly encapsulates Evans' multi-faceted approach is Rituals of Retribution, a 1,000-page history of capital punishment in Germany from before the Thirty Years' War through to our own times and the eve of reunification. Evans makes no secret of his opposition to the death penalty; but this personal interest helps illuminate his writing. So does the sheer range of topics that has attracted his vivid pen: torture and witchcraft, farewell statements and songs, mob psychology, changing attitudes to punishment and death, different forms of execution, the personality of the executioner, changing forms of cruelty and the growth of squeamishness, and the promotion of the death penalty tamer the Nazis until it became a state instrument of mass murder. Evans skilfully avoids the gratuitously voyeuristic while never sinking into safe but dull academicism. Building on a theoretical framework owing much to such thinkers as Foucault, Elias and Aries, he shows how pressure for the modification or abolition of capital punishment in Germany generally coincided with an upsurge of liberal reform, while a predilection fox" the death penalty grew when political conservation was in the ascendant. Thus, a form of punishment traditionally regarded as arising from disinterested penal or judicial considerations was in tact (and in some places still is) primarily an instrument of state power.
It is impossible to read Evans' writings about women in Germany or official attitudes to disease, capital punishment or the 'underworld' without reflecting on how far this subject matter helps explain the latex rise of Nazism. Of course, one should try not to view the past through the prism of what came later. But in the case of German history, this is hard to avoid. So it is not surprising, perhaps, that two principal themes in Evans' recent work have been the history and historiography of Nazism--and the very nature of history itself.
In 1997, towards the end of a decade as Professor of History at Birkbeck, Evans published In Defence of History, a short volume arising from a series of undergraduate lectures in which he provided an update on such issues as how far history is a 'science', the nature of historical fact and causation and the kind of objectivity available to the historian. In revisiting territory familiar from the writings of Carr, Elton and others, Evans found he had to traverse a far rockier landscape than anything his predecessors could have imagined. Like many historians in the 1990s, Evans was deeply disturbed by some of the more nihilistic claims of extreme postmodernism. He was prepared to acknowledge that the past is perceived through the consciousness of the historian and mediated further by the language through which it is communicated. But that must not be a recipe for regarding all history, indeed all historical 'Facts', as merely a discourse, no better or worse--or more or less true--than any other. Such ultra-relativism Evans found destructive and ultimately dangerous. Anyone who thinks the truth about the past does not matter, he writes at one point, has not perhaps lived under a regime like that of Soviet Communism where it is systematically distorted and suppressed. It was
Evans' spirited defence of history, allied to his expertise in German history, that led to his most high-profile appointment: that of expert witness in the Irving trial. Evans still meets colleagues who are surprised to hear he was an expert witness for the defence and he has to remind them that David Irving was the claimant in the cause and that it was he who brought the libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, not the other way round, Lipstadt had accused Irving of falsifying his material in a sequence of apparently scholarly books in order to deny the Holocaust, to claim that the Nazis did not deliberately murder millions of Jews during the Second World War, and to assert that gas chambers were not used to commit this crime either in Auschwitz or anywhere else. Irving sued. The task facing Lipstadt's defence team was to pursue Irving's myriad references back to their sources, a two-year task entrusted to Evans and two assistants, and to see how far they did or did not support the conclusions he claimed to draw from them. In Lying About Hitler, his book about the trial and the issues it raised, Evans summarises some of his findings. He shows, for example, how Irving consistently misrepresented his evidence to cast doubt on the numbers killed in the Nazi camps while at the same time inflating without any solid documentary basis the numbers who perished in the Allied bombing of Dresden. Irving's intention was clearly to equate the two, says Evans, thereby implying that, while it may be regrettable that people get killed in wars, Hider's role was not especially reprehensible. Dresden, as it were, cancels out Auschwitz.
During the trial, Evans' 740-page report was presented to the court and Evans himself underwent cross-examination by Irving, who conducted his own trial. Professors of history (rather like the late Dr David Kelly) are not accustomed to the pressure of public cross-examination. But the record shows Evans keeping his cool under literally trying circumstances, and his testimony, written and verbal, played a key role in the ringing endorsement given by the judge to the defence. It was not only Deborah Lipstadt who won that day, Evans feels, for the judgement also vindicated the view that the past has reality and that this reality is susceptible to objective study by historians and that historical truth and falsehood have demonstrable meaning.
His role in the Irving trial brought Evans considerable public prominence (and, according to the Irving website, a substantial income). It also placed him at the forefront of Nazi scholarship. Before long, the potential prominence and income were boosted further by a lucrative contract from Allen Lane to write a three-volume history of the Third Reich: big, readable volumes, the texts to be delivered at two-to-three-year intervals. Evans had written about the Nazis before; his book about the German historiography of the Third Reich, In Hitler's Shadow, first appeared back in 1989 and he had been teaching the subject since much earlier. But does the world need yet another narrative history of the Nazis? There are plenty of excellent short books on the subject, Evans acknowledges, but few that attempt more than a colourful summary, he admires Michael Burleigh's recent study, especially for its reassertion of the sheer weight of Nazi terror and the utter subversion of the rule of law, lint Burleigh is highly selective in what he writes about. In any case Burleigh concentrates on theme where Evans is writing narrative. Evans notes that much recent scholarship has tended to categorise people as 'victims', 'bystanders' or 'perpetrators' and to pass somewhat simplistic moral judgements accordingly. His aim, rather, is to present the individual stories of Germans, important and obscure, who were caught up in the wider sweep of history and whose circumstances illustrate the enormous complexities of the choices with which they were confronted.
As I write, Evans' first volume, The Coming of the Third Reich, is rolling off the presses, complete with a ringing encomium on the front cover from Sir Ian Kershaw, the biographer of Hitler. By the time you read this article, the book will doubtless have been widely reviewed, I trust kindly. But I doubt whether Evans will have time to enter the lists against his critics this time, for that ruthless clock in his study is ticking away: the text of volume two is due in a year or so ...
Daniel Snowman's most recent book was The Hitler Emigres: The Cultural Impact of Refugees from Nazism, He is currently working on a book about our current and changing attitudes towards the past.…
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Publication information: Article title: Richard J. Evans. Contributors: Snowman, Daniel - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 54. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2004. Page number: 45+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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