Richard J Evans's book is not so much a defence of history as of one school (left, populist, socially conscious) against another (conservative, elitist, high political)by Daniel Johnson / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Does history need defending? And is that the same as defending historians? Richard J Evans, the new professor of modern history at Cambridge, is sure that it is and has written a book to vindicate both his vocation and his profession. In Defence of History is at once a primer and a polemic. It is intended to replace the classic works by EH Carr (What is History?) and GR Elton (The Practice of History) which have been used to introduce sixth-formers and undergraduates to the subject for a generation. Evans has largely succeeded in this aim. Although his prose lacks the mandarin self-assurance of Carr and the pungency of Elton, his scope is wider and, of course, he is far more up-to-date. Teachers of history may recommend In Defence of History to their pupils secure in the knowledge that it will convey some of the excitement generated by the perpetual ferment of historiographical ideas.
As a polemicist, however, Evans is more problematic. It is not clear what or whom he is defending history against; nor is it certain that defending the scholarly habits and practices of his own generation of historians is the same as defending the discipline of history itself. Some reviewers of In Defence of History have seen it as a tract against post-modernist attempts to subvert conventional history by treating it as merely one “discourse” among others. This is not quite how the author himself sees his task. Evans wishes to engage in a dialogue with the post-modernists because he is convinced that-although “the theory of history is too important to be left to the theoreticians”-working historians such as himself have something to learn from post-modernist thinkers such as Hayden White. True, Evans shoots down the more extreme advocates of post-modernist relativism, turning the arguments of “vulgar” post-modernism against its own practitioners to deadly effect. But nowhere does he claim to refute the whole approach. On the contrary: he cites several distinguished recent works of historical scholarship-Simon Schama’s Citizens on the French revolution and Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy on the Russian revolution-as examples of post-modernist history. By this loose definition, Evans’s own books-on the cholera epidemic in 1890s Hamburg or the history of capital punishment in Germany-could be cited as jewels in the post-modernist crown.
In his impassioned conclusion, Evans proclaims his faith in objective historical knowledge. Although beset by relativists and nihilists, “I will look…