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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evans' Last Post for Post-Modernism, 28 July 2011
This review is from: In Defence of History (Paperback)
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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