- In Defence of History
In Defence of History was first published in September 1997 and, like Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics (1962), it took off. As well as substantial sales in the English-speaking world, the book has been translated into German and Korean, and editions will be appearing in the Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish and Turkish languages. The basis for the foreign language editions is not the original British edition but the revised and updated American edition of January 1998. Meanwhile, the British publisher has issued separate paperback editions. The first appeared in September 1998, a reprint of the original hardback edition. The second, which bears no date of publication, is the book under review. It is not quite the “new edition” that the front cover proclaims in that it retains the (unrevised) text of the original British edition. The present paperback edition does, however, contain a 63-page “Afterword” where Evans takes issue with his reviewers, myself included; but it still would have made better sense had the text of the American edition been incorporated into this supposed “new” paperback edition.
The Foreword will be familiar enough to aficionados of the Institute of Historical Studies’ website, where Evans rehearsed his arguments and rebuttals on four occasions between March 1998 and November 1999 (http://ihr.sas.ac.uk/ihr/-reviews/discourse1.html). The book’s Afterword is based on this series of rejoinders but excludes discussion of the German-language reviews. Its timing was not altogether propitious because at least two subsequent academic reviews were published in 2000, after the cut-off point-one by R.D. Anderson (Scottish Historical Review, 74:1, pp. 105–06) and a critical review article by Wulf Kansteiner (History and Theory, 39:2, pp.218–29).
Was the exercise of responding to reviewers worth it? David Cannadine insists that authors should never-well, hardly ever-take issue with reviewers in print,1 and Evans tends to confirm the wisdom of this injunction with a reaction that is, overall, petulant and thin-skinned. Granted that some of the criticism is silly; and one appreciates that Evans had no alternative but to hold his ground in the face of unyielding and wayward attacks by Peter Ghosh (pp.271–77), Keith Jenkins (pp.277–85), and Diane Purkiss (pp.302–15). Seeing that trio off occupies over 40 per cent of the Afterword. Elsewhere, Evans displays a touchy defensiveness and frequently enough resorts to the argumentum ad hominem that many of the reviewers of the original edition found distasteful. On this occasion Evans remains true to form, referring to some of his critics as young fogies (pp.263, 304) “who came to such intellectual maturity as they have during the long period [End Page 242] of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.” (pp.260–61). So unnecessary, and not, to use Cannadine’s words, “a sensible or grown-up way to respond to being critically reviewed.”2 By concentrating on criticism rather than engaging more open-mindedly with his reviewers, Evans has set a tone that precludes the genuine debate that he says is needed. (p.316) So counterproductive.
One would never gather from the Afterword that many of Evans’s reviewers had lots of nice things to say about In Defence of History. I described it as “a powerful and generally persuasive book” and referred to “the subtlety of much of his discussion”. None of this receives an echo in his Afterword. But he does take me up when I remark on his Eltonian view of historical objectivity-and in doing so he mistakes me for Greg Munro, a historian of modern Germany who works at the Brisbane campus of the Australian Catholic University. (p.268). Re-reading my review and Evans’s response, I can understand why he was irritated with me, and rightly so, because I said that he “wholeheartedly” embraced the hard-line concept of historical objectivity espoused by G.R. Elton. That was...