Tuesday, 6 March 2001

Richard J. Evans: In Defence of History (1997)

Edition: Granta, 1997
Review number: 774

It may seem that investigation into the past ought to be a straightforward business, but history has been subject to a crisis of self-definition over a considerable period of time. Indeed, this has been part of the discipline from its very start, at least to some extent, as the notion of historian as interpreter rather than chronicler was defined by Herodotus and Thucydides, who differed quite considerably as to method. (Thucydides famously restricted himself to matters within living memory, but he still differed from modern practice by ascribing imaginary speeches to the people he considered to be important, something which is characteristic of ancient and medieval historians.)

Evans does not range back as far as the Greeks in his discussion of issues in history to day; the question of how a historian should separate truth from fiction and how much interpretation is legitimate may go back that far, but many other issues go back to nineteenth century Germany, when the work of Ranke brought into being criteria which have effectively formed the yardsticks of modern historical study. These caused new issues, such as the legitimacy or otherwise of secondary sources, or whether or not history is a science - the German term applied to the subject has a wider meaning than its usual English translation. During the early part of the twentieth century, developments such as the application of Marxist principles to history and rising interest in social and economic history added new divisions between conservative and radical, and these led to the two classic works in English on the study of history, E.H. Carr's What is History? (radical) and G.R. Elton's The Practice of History (conservative).

These books appeared in the early sixties, and have remained the principal university texts on the subject ever since, despite continuing changes in the academic discipline of history, with feminist history, black history and gay history becoming seriously considered as ways to look at the past. The most serious new movement in these four decades is the advent of post-modernism, which has gone so far as to deny the possibility of writing history at all (on the grounds that the past is a construct of the present).

Evans' aim is to write a new account of the study of history, from (as the title indicates) a fairly conservative position, which looks at the various issues and controversies. He tries to be fair, but cannot help but be critical of much postmodernist history; this is quite easy, as many statements by its advocates verge on the ludicrous. He does see good things in it, including an interest in the biographies of completely obscure individuals to illuminate a period of history (as in Simon Schama's book on the French Revolution, Citizens), and a renewed emphasis on good writing as a virtue.

In recent years, controversy in history has not just been about methodology; there have been several scandals. Evans discusses the cases of David Abraham and Paul de Man at relevant places in his narrative, but gives more space to the most serious, that of holocaust denial. He has little patience with those who seek to defend deniers (on grounds of free speech, mainly), maintaining that to be a historian worthy of being taken seriously, it is necessary to respect the truth. This is also what he feels is the major problem with the relativistic approach underlying post-modernist theory; Evans believes that interpretations may be challenged but not the events of the past themselves.

In Defence of History is a balanced account from a conservative perspective; Evans rejects extreme viewpoints but is happy to praise positive aspects of the various approaches to the study of the past. The use of archaeology, and the relation of archaeology to the written record are issues which are strangely unmentioned, and an account of this and controversies specific to prehistory would have been valuable. They would not, however, fit in any obvious way with the neatly categorised (and well written) argument presented in the book, so that it is easy to see why they are left out.

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