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An Interview with Richard J. Evans

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 4, Number 5, June 2003
pp. 22-23 | 10.1353/hsp.2003.0043

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22Historically Speaking · June 2003 An Interview with Richard J. Evans Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa RICHARDJ. EVANS is professor ofmodern history at Cambridge University. A specialist in German social and cultural history, Evans is also widely known for his historiographical writing, especially In Defense of History (1997; firstpublished in the United States in 1 999), for his role as principal expert witness in the David Irving libel trial (2000), and his work on the clash ofepistemologie! when history enters the courtroom (see his "History, Memory , andthe Law: The Historian as Expert Witness " History and Theory {October 2002}). Professor Evans has recently written a new introduction to E.H. Carr's What is History? anda new afterword to G.R. Elton's The Practice of History. He is currently working on a three-volume history of the Third Reich, of which The Coming ofthe Third Reich will bepublishedby Penguin Books in October, 2003The following interview was conducted on March 21, 2003. Donald A. Yerxa: Why did you feel the need to defend history in the 1990s? Richard J. Evans: In Defense ofHistory came about because I was asked to teach a lecture course on historical epistemology at Birkbeck College in London, where I was professor ofhistory at the time, before I moved to Cambridge. As I read in preparation for the course, I discovered that the literature on questions such as "What is history?" and "How do we find out about the past?" was either very out of date (Carr and Elton, for example) or written in a spirit of extreme skepticism by postmodernist theorists (people like KeithJenkins and Frank Ankersmit). Clearly, there was room for an up-to-date statement about historical knowledge which argued for its possibility, while taking on board the criticisms of the postmodernists and trying to deal with them openly, rather than simply ignoring them. As I read more, particularly in the journals, I found that there was a good deal ofdebate among historians about postmodernist and post-structuralist skepticism and hyper-relativism. There were angry and dire wailings about this, without any real attempt to come to grips with it. So I developed my lectures, and as I shared them with some colleagues, they encouraged me to expand them into a book. Yerxa: Was history in a state of crisis in the mid- to late 1990s? Evans: There was a widespread feeling of an epistemologica! crisis. Ofcourse, a lot ofhistorians never even realized there were these postmodernists out there, so the sense ofcrisis was not universal in the historical profession . But those who paid attention to these things realized that there was a serious theoretical attack underway on the nature and possibility ofhistorical knowledge. And that did engender a sense ofcrisis. Yerxa: Has the sense ofcrisis dissipated? Evans: Interestingly, I think it has to a large extent. As I said in In Defense ofHistory, there is a tendency for new methodological and theoretical approaches to begin by proclaiming their universal validity and their power to revolutionize the whole ofhistorical study. Then within a short space oftime, they tend to become sub-specialties, with their own journals and societies where their adherents talk mainly to one another. And that is exactly what has happened to the extreme relativists among the postmodernists . Their critique has not left the practice of history unchanged, though the extreme skepticism which they voiced about historical knowledge has now subsided into a rather marginal phenomenon. After all, the only possible reaction from historians who actually did accept these notions was to stop writing history, and more history is being written today than ever before. Yerxa: What has been the legacy of these methodological debates? Evans: There have been negative and positive legacies. One noteworthy effect has been to direct attention to culture and language as ways ofexplaining and understanding history . And that has brought us away from the dominant, socio-economic model of the 1970s and 1980s which held that society and the economy were the driving forces in history . At that time, ideas took second rank in the explanatory models of many historians. Historians now take ideas, language, and culture much more seriously, and I think that is a good thing...