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on 23 January 2005
I have re-read this book several times while in education, and it has restored my enthusiasm for academic work at times when the prevalence of post-structuralist theory in universities has left me thoroughly despondent. Evans is an acute critic, generous as well as exacting, and his writing is entertaining even when covering the most arcane philosophy. This book successfully unites a keen awareness of the theory of history with a pragmatic appreciation of its practice. Members of any discipline in which reading and writing are important (I come from an English literature background) can learn a lot, and take a lot of reassurance, from this rebuttal to relativism. Incidentally, the final chapter of the revised edition, in which Evans takes on his unfriendly critics, is one of the funniest shows of debunking available. A splendid book.
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on 4 June 2000
Evans' book is not only a superb general introduction to the idea of history, written in a non-stuffy or academic style, but a useful reminder of why it is such a daft idea to treat history as if it were literary theory, and attempt to view it through postmodern eyes. I read this just after I read Keith Jenkins' somewhat depressing introduction to postmodernist history - 'Rethinking History', and it was therefore an extremely uplifiting experience (especially as I was about to start a history degree at university!) Incidentally, Jenkins' response to this book in 'Why History?: Ethics and Postmodernity' is worth checking out, though I found it a little weak and seeming to miss vital points about historiography, as postemodernists so often seem to.
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History teaches us nothing, Sting once sang. Did he read any post-modern theorists? As a former English teacher, perhaps he did. But it doesn't matter. Post-modern ideas have seeped into general consciousness to the extent that one frequently hears utterances from people who have never read a postmodern theorist but stridently aver that there is no such thing as objective truth, that one point of view is just as good as another, that all history is the propaganda of the winners. Those who make such claims without questioning them might want to read Richard Evans' book.

In it they will find a strong case for the defence of the old school that history can yield genuine insights into the past. But he doesn't think that history can and should be assimilated into the natural or social sciences. He is sceptical that history can be vindicated by the lessons it teaches or the predictions it makes for the future. There are no laws of history that can be uncovered because they do not exist. But does that just make history a form of poetry or creative writing? No, for the method of history is still concerned with truth-telling about the past. It deals with what actually happened. This cannot be free from controversy or a degree of subjectivity, as different historians will draw varying interpretations from the facts of the past but that's a long way from saying that history is just a fairy tale.

There are three principal reasons why this is so.

First of all, you cannot just spin any old yarn. Evans offers the example of David Abraham's `The Collapse of the Weimar Republic', in which the author attributed responsibility for the collapse of the Republic and the rise of Nazism to big business. It was shown that Abraham misquoted documents to prove his case, among other systematic errors. The case showed that the sources will not allow you to say just anything you like. Abraham's fiercest critics came from the likes of the anti-Marxist Henry Ashby Turner but fellow leftists such as Tim Mason also endorsed the importance of accuracy in research and distanced themselves from Abraham. Historians, like academics generally, are a competitive bunch and are likely to check whether you have treated your sources properly.

This leads to the second point, so often parroted by post-modern thinkers, that historians enforce the orthodoxy of the winners. Nothing could be further from the truth. Historians like E P Thompson and Eugene Genovese built careers from writing history from the losers' perspective (if you doubt this, read E P Thompson's passionate exoneration of the Luddites' mentality and motivation in the Making of the English Working Class). The history profession is too pluralistic and diverse to resemble anything like a transmission belt for dominant values (whatever they are). Indeed conservative historians have deplored the rise of various alternative histories departing from the conventional model of political history for this very reason.

Third, post-modernism ultimately descends into absurdity. All theories are just as valid as one another - except of course post-modernist theories, which are true. But `even the most extreme deconstructionists do not really accept that their own theories can be applied to their own work. They wish, on the contrary, to retain their own identity as authors, and their own control over the interpretations to which their own texts are subject [but] once the intellectual gateway to total relativism is opened, it cannot be closed again in the interests of one privileged theory or another' (pp. 231-232). Post-modernists want it both ways.

All this was vividly demonstrated with the Paul de Man case. De Man, a prominent Yale literary theorist, had hidden (or had forgotten) his past as a journalist for a pro-Nazi collaborationist newspaper in occupied Belgium during the Second World War. Some of these articles (180 in 2 years) appeared to be overtly anti-Semitic at a time when Belgian Jews were being rounded up for the death camps. This didn't come to light until the late 1980s, and after de Man himself was already dead. That he wrote the articles was not in dispute. His defenders and critics rowed furiously about the correct interpretation and conclusions to be drawn from the FACTS that he had written these articles: but both sides appealed `to common standards of factuality and evidence and occupied common ground over which they fought - the ground of what inferences and interpretations it was appropriate to derive from a set of documents.' (p. 238)

Although it is possible to draw a variety of interpretations from a given set of facts, it doesn't follow that the facts will support any interpretation whatsoever. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939. You can argue that this decision was premature or even unnecessary, and Britain should have stayed out of the fight. But you cannot argue from the facts that the decision to go to war was a result of a Jewish conspiracy. Argument and controversy are facts of life and they cannot be eradicated from history. But to have a grown-up discussion of history requires us to disregard the conceits of post-modernism, and this Evans succeeds in doing with finesse.
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Evans's book is a crisp, given its remit, well written and comprehensive study of what History is, what it has been considered to be and what its place is in the academy and in society as a whole. He examines the classics of the genre, notably E.H. Carr's still vibrant and clever 'What is History?' and G.R. Elton's 'The Practice of History' and finds them to be lacking, since in the former's History he cuts his coat to his ideological cloth, the other to be too breezily confident in a sort of 'common sense' (an often suspect notion) view of 'what happened'. He confidently identifies what he believes to be their deficiencies and takes in Leopold Ranke and Namier for good measure.
What I like about the book is that it educated me about some writers I did not know and gave me something for my intellect to chew on. Only a fool would not wish to examine for themselves whether Evans is quite correct or fair, but read the others and see if they measure up. I had fun extending my reading and thinking, encouraged by the eloquence of the book and particularly interested in the Post-Modernist turn Evans is keen to reject. I suspect that, as in Literature, that approach is less fashionable these days, but given some of the obscurantist, ill-written, self-sabotaging tosh I still encounter occasionally in this vein, I was pleased to see it taken on and niftily speared. This is important since, if everything is text, as Derrida influentially stated, so too is this, Post-Modernist method. Q.E.D.
I would like him to have looked at the History Workshop and the work of Patrick Wright, a favourite of mine, but it is a compliment to this book's and Evans's intellectual liveliness that I wanted to know and to think more about historiography. One can ask no more of a book of historiography, a subject easier than its name! A must-read.
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on 17 February 2001
In Defence of History gives a fascinating and often witty insight into the established standard text for the undergraduate historian. Namely E H Carr's What is History? Where Carr provided an excellent, although in places difficult to read manual for historical research. R J Evans rather than providing a new way, questions the validity of Carr's method for establishing what is a historical fact. In Defence of History follows an identical format, including the exact chapter headings found in What is History?, which allows easy comparison between texts. In essence R J Evans offers nothing new to the process of historical research and in this sense cannot be counted as a great historian such as Carr and Elton. He does however offer an easily accessible re work of Carr's established theory. Evans includes a brief discussion of the problems post modernism presents for history and historians. Although tends to take the view that history does not need defending against the revisionist attack. Ostensibly In Defence of History is a pleasure to read and valuable to historians either professional or amateur. Although in my opinion it will not replace E.H Carr's What is history? But rather be used in conjunction with, to provide the best result.
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on 21 October 2008
The dreary trite pseudo-`insights' of post-modernism reappear again; this time with their feeble attempts to turn history into just another `text'. However, as Evans so splendidly puts it in this, his robust defence of history:

"Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and connate be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well."

History as Evans argues has a long established methodology, which is itself constantly under scrutiny - as this book itself demonstrates by its own existence and its long line of antecedents - for establishing the veracity of historical events and the value of historian's attempts at explaining the relationship between those events.

As with all other areas where postmodernism has tried to elbow itself into, there is little - if anything - that postmodernism itself can add to history, or history's self-examination that is not trite, superficial or painstakingly obvious before the weight of postmodernism's own contradictions smother it's pseudo-profundities and irrelevances.

Postmodernism et al, of course, grew out of the failure and collapse of Marxism and all the theories and suppositions which had grown from it. Marx's own idea that history had a purpose (or - at least - discoverable laws) and direction was - of course - destroyed by Popper (among others), and - most tellingly - by the course of history itself.

History does not make the claims that postmodernists accuse it of - of being the absolute truth about past events - and so their destruction of this strawman is not the masterstroke they seem to believe. Historians, and those of us who read their work, know that there is always more to the story than we get from any history book. History is not a science in the strong sense of that word, but it does have a rigorous methodology, enough to make both historians and their readers feel confident that they do get as close to truth as they can within the limitations of history itself. For example, historians are very aware that historical documents are written by fallible human beings, often for a variety of reasons conscious or unconscious and take into account many other factors like the context of the document, the nature of the document and so on. So the postmodernist claim that a document, or `text' as they like to call it, can no longer be regarded as having one fixed meaning which is bestowed upon it by its author at the time of writing. As Evans says, though `it is doubtful whether anyone, in fact, has ever believed that meaning can be fixed in this way.' He also demonstrates the falsehood of po-mo's claim about the arbitrariness of language, demonstrating that language evolves through contact and interaction with reality, rather than just being about itself. In fact, Evens states `...the postmodernist concentration on words diverts attention away from real suffering and oppression and towards the kinds of secondary intellectual issues that matter in the physically comfortable world of academia.'

Of course, a great deal of po-mo - pace Foucault - is rather simplistically obsessed with what they like to see as power relationships between various actors within societies, but, Evans points out, this could be more a case of the po-mo academics themselves trying to claw back some power and influence for themselves. Hence, with postmodernism's disdain for truth and reality:

"The past no longer has the power to confine the researcher within the bounds of facts. Historians and critics are now omnipotent. To underline this, the postmodernists have developed a new level of specialized language and jargon, borrowed largely from literary theory, which has rendered their work opaque to anyone except other postmodernists. The enterprise thus seems not only self-regarding but, ironically in view of its criticism of hierarchy and prioritization, elitist as well. Its narcissism and elitism can both be seen as compensatory mechanisms for the loss of real power, income and status suffered by its academic practitioners over the past ten to fifteen years."

Constantly, throughout this book Evans - like so many other critics of postmodernism in many other areas beyond history - demonstrates that po-mo must always fail because of its inherent contradictions. For example, if all theories are equally valid, then why give any special credence to po-mo, rather than more realist theories? If all knowledge is relative, then why bother believing in po-mo and its practitioners? Why `privilege' postmodernists over anyone else?

Evans, does in the end allow po-mo some limited room in the practice of historical scholarship, but only in terms of the way it makes historians more aware of the limitations of their approach and areas of study, but that is what a good historian should do anyway, it seems.

Anyway, postmodernism is well on the wane now, in areas beyond history. So soon, books like this will become objects of historical curiosity only, like books on or about so many of the ideologies that came promising so much and - in the end - delivered little or nothing of any lasting worth. Just like so many theories, ideologies and other `grand narrative', po-mo became quasi-religious and ended up talking only to itself about itself within constraints that it engendered itself which kept out so much of the awkward reality that cannot be held within those constraints without the whole edifice crumbling to dust.

In Defence of History is a very good, readable, book that ought to be read by more than just historians and those with an interest in how history comes about. It is a strong defence of academic rigour and a warning that, without that rigour -which postmodernism tried so hard to undermine - if the academic, or indeed any, mind is left too open, then anything could crawl in.
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on 26 February 2011
The book challenges the self-designated left-wing radicalism of postmodernists. And the challenge came from a leftist. Postmoderism is a extreme relativism form of thinking, that opens the door to fascists and racists as well as radicals and progressives by allowing anybody to claim that their view of history, their reading of a document, is as valid as anybody else's, and by making it impossible to refute their arguments on anything but political grounds.
Pr. Evans hit the core of the problem that changed the quality of discourse in the educational world. Postmodernism is a form of skepticism combined with self-consciousness. Its adherents believe that no historical narrative can be considered authoritative, because writers always have political motives, whether they are aware of them or not. In short, they believe that there is no such thing as objectivity. Every claim is suspect, especially if it is generally accepted as true. The motives of every historian must therefore be scrutinized, except those of postmodernists themselves.
The educational system of my country, is "prisoner" in this form of historical thinking, a form that teach students "what to think" and not "how to think". Evans book exposes with scientific manner this way of thinking, reminds me the "Alan Sokal" case.
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on 26 March 2013
I am an intelligent and educated person but not an historian. I have just finished reading,for the second time, the author's trilogy about the Third Reich which is outstanding and beautifully written. With this in mind and not being in academia I was curious to know what had been going on in "how history" and possibly even "why history". This book does that in clear and elegant language. It touches on concepts such as postmodernism, which apparently is big or was big in academia, and makes them
comprehensible. He deals with historiography. I feel, as with the trilogy I have read, less ignorant for having read them. When I have finished this book I shall work my way through others by the author.
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on 19 August 2012
Evans' book is an excellent introduction to the experience and challenges of writing history, addressing the problems presented by historical sources, the use of facts as evidence for a particular interpretation, and the impossibility of writing objective history, among others. Evans is sympathetic to the post-modernist view that there can be no definitive history of any event or period, while nevertheless firmly rejecting some of the more extreme ideas from this school of thought about the impossibility of even approaching something like the truth about what happened in the past.

The book, in my view, is largely addressed at students of history and historians. While accessible to the general reader, I believe the notion that history needs defending would seem bizarre to a broader public. I have no data to go on, but I see no sign that the history section of bookshops is shrinking or that there are fewer history programmes on television. Whatever battles may be raging in academia, the post-modernist challenge has left the public faith in history largely unscathed, even though it may have influenced the way that history is written and presented.
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on 15 June 2014
This is a very good book against the deadlock of post-modernism in history. It helped me to understand how powerfully philosophy influences historical research, writing, thinking... If you want to know more about history, I reccomend also What is History?, by E.M. Carr.
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