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the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •


What is History?

Book cover: In Defence of History

Author's response to his critics (2)

Book:

In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., 15.99 (hardback)
Reviewer:

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 2: The book is unfairly critical of conservative historians.

As the above discussion reminds us, the review pages of the daily, weekly and weekend quality press in Great Britain are still dominated by a generation of young, conservative historians and journalists who came to such intellectual maturity as they have during the Thatcher years. With the sole exception of John Charmley, writing in the Daily Telegraph, they regretted the fact that, as one of them, Michael Burleigh, put it, 'unfortunately Evans keeps a foot in the "progressive" camp'. Why this should be unfortunate may be clear to the readers of the Sunday Telegraph, who, one imagines, would not take kindly to the pages of their favourite newspaper being filled with articles written by the apostles of Derrida and Baudrillard, but it is not at all clear to me. Nor does Burleigh do very much to make it clearer to those of us who do not automatically assume that everything that is progressive is necessarily wrong. All of Burleigh's criticisms on this point are based on tendentious misrepresentations of In Defence of History. At the risk of descending into triviality, it is necessary to deal briefly with each of these in turn.

Burleigh charges the book with inconsistency in saying on the one hand that postmodernists write jargon and on the other hand that they have encouraged more literary ways of writing history. But there is no inconsistency here, for it is not postmodernist historians (Burleigh's word) who are criticized in the book for jargon, but postmodernist literary theorists who adopt jargon in order to seem scientific. Paradoxically, the book argues, by treating history as literature although not writing it themselves, these theorists have encouraged practising historians to write better. This still seems to me to be an advance.

Burleigh's paranoia about the book's attitude towards well-known, mostly conservative historians leads him into misrepresentations even more crass than this. 'Andrew Roberts', he thunders, 'is ticked off for his personal sources of income; John Vincent for writing in a tabloid newspaper; Arthur Marwick for being slow with his inaugural lecture. Gossip involving Hugh Trevor-Roper figures more prominently than his major contributions to European history.' Let's look up the passages in question and see what they really say. On page 210 the book says the following of Andrew Roberts, after outlining John Vincent's argument that historians nowadays are all left-liberal because they work for the state:

If we really believed his somewhat reductionist view, we would only expect robust right-wing opinions from historians who lived off a private income, and while it is certainly true that there are some individuals, such as Andrew Roberts, author of the neo-Thatcherite text Eminent Churchillians, who fit into this pattern, there are many more who do not. No hint of criticism here: Roberts is merely used as an example in an argument.

What about Vincent himself? There are many references to him in the book a good number of them favourable, including, in the argument just quoted, a mention of the fact that his most original and unconventional historical work was written while he held a university appointment, as indeed he still does, and was not dependent on a private income, which to my knowledge he has never been. But the one to which Burleigh presumably objects is the following, in note 15 to Chapter 4, on page 268:

Vincent...cites with approval A.J.P. Taylor's belief that no new secrets were to be found in unpublished archival sources. Vincent himself advocates paying greater attention than is customary to the newspapers, and declares that newsprint is 'the Venetian archive of tomorrow'....Vincent's partiality to newspapers as unbiased sources of information may possibly be coloured by the fact that he himself wrote a column in the Sun for a number of years, until student demonstrations at his own university forced him to abandon it - an event which, however deplorable in itself, would scarcely have taken place had the column been a model of impartiality.

This passage also enraged Daniel Johnson, who devoted a whole paragraph to denouncing it and accused the book of unfairness towards Vincent and 'justifying the silencing of a scholar by the mob'. But the passage in question was intended to suggest that newspapers have their biases, not just in columns written by moonlighting dons, but also in their reporting and their general editorial line, whether it be that of the Sun, the Telegraph or the Guardian. The use of the word 'deplorable' gives the lie to Johnson's suggestion that I actually approved of the demonstrations in question. As for Burleigh's objection, nowhere in the passage is there any hint of disapproval for Vincent's work for the Sun in itself.

Similarly, on page 299 the reference to Arthur Marwick having delivered his 'inaugural lecture after decades of occupation of the Chair of History at the Open University' contains not so much as a hint of criticism for the delay, however critical the discussion of the lecture is in other respects. The criticism is a pure figment of Burleigh's imagination; I included the delay in the reference merely as a curious and possibly amusing fact.

As for Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), it is difficult to work out what Burleigh means by 'gossip', unless it is perhaps a reference on page 19 to his 'authentication' of the Hitler diaries, which is not gossip but fact, on the basis of a cursory examination of the 'diaries' in a Swiss bank vault - all of which is documented in Robert Harris's excellent book Selling Hitler. Why the book would have been improved by mentioning Trevor-Roper's other work on European history is a mystery. His important work on seventeenth-century British history and his acute review of Carr's What is History? are both mentioned favourably, and at length. This clearly isn't enough for Burleigh. But mentions of work such as this are all designed to illustrate arguments in the book; it's not about giving out pluses and minuses to practising historians on the basis of a complete assessment of all their work. Most of Trevor-Roper's (often important and influential) work on European history is simply not directly relevant to the arguments advanced in my book. Failure to mention it is not intended as a slight.

By contrast, Burleigh finds the book gives 'generous treatment' to 'the American neo-Marxist David Abrahams' (Burleigh is not the only reviewer to misspell Abraham's name) in its account of the controversy over the gross errors in his book which led to his losing his job as a historian. At least Stefan Collini finds my book's handling of the Abraham case 'exemplary'. Given the fact that the book's account convicts Abraham of subconsciously manipulating evidence to fit a thesis, inability to tell fact from fiction, failure to follow basic historical procedures, poor research skills and excessive haste in research, it is difficult to see how its treatment of him could be fairly be described as 'generous'. I cannot imagine that Abraham and his friends (including Peter Novick) are very pleased with the account. Burleigh is imagining things here again.

Michael Burleigh is not the only young fogey to be upset by the book's criticism of admired figures on the right. Niall Ferguson also convicts the book of 'rudeness' towards 'historians of broadly conservative inclinations' (Steven Kassem alleges that the book's treatment of those it disagrees with is abusive; Keith Thomas thinks it is brisk; Bernard Crick thinks the book deals with them 'clearly and calmly, treating fools with scholarly courtesy'; German reviewers have commented on what they see as its unpolemical character). Let us take in turn the examples Ferguson cites.

'John Kenyon, for example', he says in his review of In Defence of History, 'is (found) guilty of "mental insularity and prejudice"'. This remark, which Ferguson quotes correctly from page 179, is a comment on Kenyon's claim, advanced in 1993, that undergraduate courses on the history of West Africa and Indochina were 'hastily cobbled-up' by history departments acting on the dictates of fashion, but soon faded away because the difficulty of finding competent external examiners left students 'at the mercy of their tutor's whims and prejudices'. I have to say that (a) the book's description of this view as reflecting its author's mental insularity and prejudice is no ruder or more insulting than Kenyon's own remarks are to the man y distinguished historians of Africa and Indochina teaching and researching in British universities, and (b) it seems to me to be entirely justified to call it insular and prejudiced.

Ferguson goes on to attack the book for describing Hugh Trevor-Roper as 'stubbornly parochial'. This phrase refers not just to Trevor-Roper but to 'a number of stubbornly parochial specialists in European history', among whom he is placed by his remark that Africa has no history, merely 'the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe'. Once more, the term used seems to me merely to be accurate rather than to be rude as a way of referring to this remark by Trevor-Roper, who in the course of his long career has proved himself no amateur at invective himself.

Finally, Ferguson takes exception to the book's remark that John Vincent's comment that 'History is deeply male...History is about the rich and famous, not the poor' shows its author's 'deep ignorance of other kinds of history than the history of British high politics in the nineteenth century which he himself writes'. By omitting the context of the remark and all the words in the quotation except the first too, Ferguson gives the impression that the book is claiming Vincent suffers from 'deep ignorance' in every respect, which is not true at all, of course. Apart from this, the book's statement seems to me once more to be entirely justified, and no less insulting to Vincent than he is to those many fine historians who have devoted their lives to writing about the female, the poor, and the unknown. In a similar way it would not seem unjustified to describe Ferguson's own remarks about gender history as deeply ignorant. It may be rude to say so, but it's also true.

All these points are in the end somewhat trivial ones. More serious by far is the one made, yet again, in the most intelligent of the critical reviews to appear immediately after the book's publication, namely Daniel Johnson's article in Prospect magazine. Johnson argues that the book is 'not so much a defence of history as of one school (left, populist, socially conscious) against another school, less fashionable but no less respectable (conservative, elitist, high political)'. He points out that intellectual history is elitist, economic history can be right-wing, and there are even socialist historians of high politics. But these points, while perfectly valid, do not alter the fact that there are a number of historians (including, again, Kenyon and Vincent, but also others who write prescriptively about how history should be researched and studied, such as Gertrude Himmelfarb) who dismiss all kinds of history beyond that of high politics within the framework of nation- states as trivial, irrelevant, or not history at all. It is against this narrow conception of history that the book is in part arguing, and it is an inescapable fact that the majority of those who believe in it are politically conservative, although the book goes to some lengths to point out that E. H. Carr, a Stalinist if ever there was one, dismissed the history of the great mass of ordinary and people and unpolitical subjects as irrelevant as well.

But while it argues that history needs defending against the crippling and stultifying influence of narrow and elitist conceptions of what it is, or should be, about, the book does not argue for any one particular conception of history in itself as an alternative. Nor does it say that intellectual history, the history of elites or the history of high politics are in any way wrong in themselves. Its purpose here, as a number of other reviewers, from Ronald Hutton to Roy Porter, have recognized, is to argue for a broad, inclusive conception of history, to celebrate its diversity while at the same time as trying in various ways to overcome its fragmentation, and nowhere does it in fact argue that left-wing versions of history are inherently superior as history to those practised on the right. Indeed it has been sharply attacked on the left, for example, by the convenor of the London Socialist Historians' Group, Keith Flett, who thinks that the book needed to be 'more hard-hitting still to repulse the postmodernist challenge', and the Trotskyite writer Chris Harman, who convicts it of 'backsliding towards postmodernism.'

(Richard J. Evans, November 1999)

Author's response to his critics (introduction)

  1. The book is unnecessary because history doesn't need defending.
  2. The book is unfairly critical of conservative historians.
  3. The book fails to engage directly with the major postmodernist philosophers.
  4. The book defends an outmoded empiricist concept of objectivity.
  5. The book defends a conservative approach to history.
  6. The book's concept of a fact is untenable.
  7. The book misunderstands key arguments of the postmodernists.
  8. The book is unfair to those postmodernists whom it criticises.
  9. The book's arguments are contradictory.

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

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