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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 (4)


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 4: The book defends an outmoded empiricist concept of objectivity.

Joyce Appleby, like the German reviewer Peter Schöttler, thought that I was trying to discredit postmodernism as a whole by attacking its silliest and most extreme manifestations. But in doing so, she succumbed to precisely the kind of dichotomizing thinking of which her review argued postmodernism had taught scholars (though not apparently myself) to be wary. As Appleby surely knows, and as the book makes perfectly clear, 'postmodernism' is a label covering a wide variety of positions, and just because the book rejects some of these, it doesn't follow that it rejects them all; the same point also applies to Schöttler's criticism of the book as an out-and-out polemic against postmodernism in all its manifestations. Pursuing this Manichean misreading of the book, Appleby goes on to convict it of an outdated belief in the historian's 'impartial and omniscient voice of a reconstructor of events and analyser of developments.' In fact the book uses up a good deal of space trying to demolish such simplistic denials of the historian's subjectivity, and to deny the possibility of historical omniscience.

'Historians', she goes on, 'prefer to think that they reconstruct the past, rather than acknowledge that in the process of doing so they also create texts and construct knowledge.' Contrary to what readers of her review might suppose, t he book defends the latter position and deploys a range of arguments against those who, like Elton, take the former. On pages 125-6 of the book, far from ignoring Hayden White's ideas on this subject, as Appleby claims, the book explicitly endorses White' s most recent account of how historians go about their work of writing and research. Thus Appleby's patronising conclusion that British historians preserve simplistic ideas about truth and objectivity which have long been discarded in the more sophisticated intellectual atmosphere of the United States is based on a superficial misreading of the kind she claims the book is guilty of when it tackles the postmodernists itself.

The reason why the book refers so frequently to Elton and Carr is simply that, as many historians of a variety of different persuasions have conceded, their books still form the basis for much if not most teaching of historical epistemology today. They are still much the most readable and approachable accounts of the nature of historical knowledge written by practising historians. Lynn Hunt finds this a 'disappointing...flight...into "daddyism", the search for fatherly figures that warrant the legitimacy of an approach. Evans', she says, 'refers almost obsessively to Carr and Elton as if to reassure himself that he will be their appointed successor; his criticisms of them sound like those of a deferential grandson.' In fact, I n Defence of History is intended, not to replace their books, but to be read alongside them; hence the chapter headings, borrowed from Carr, or the final paragraph, a parody of Carr's final paragraph. Thirty or more years ago there were hardly any books which introduced history students to the conceptual and methodological problems which they faced, so Carr and Elton virtually had the field to themselves. Now there are many such competing texts, and the very idea of any single book achieving the kind of status theirs did is ridiculous.

Matthew Trinca ignores the carefully circumscribed definition of objectivity given in the book's final Chapter, and, simply assuming that the word can only be used in the absolutist sense intended by traditionalists like Elton, places the book's central argument squarely in the Eltonian camp. While Trinca obviously disapproves of this, David Gress, advocating a return to military history and the 'rote learning of facts' in school history lessons, sees it as a confirmation of his conservative approach. Gress enlists In Defence of History in support of his call for a rejection of the 'present-mindedness and political correctness' through which he thinks social history, women's history, and other relatively recent new developments in historical scholarship and teaching have created a 'barrier to learning'. Thus Gress finds the book's criticisms of Elton to be an 'almost ritualistic' cloak for 'true respect and admiration' on the part of its author (myself). A similar position is taken in the review by Greg Munro, who thinks the book does indeed 'embrace wholeheartedly' the 'hard-line concept of historical objectivity espoused by Elton', for all its protestations to the contrary.

With friends like this, who needs enemies? Such a reading of the book, however complimentary it might be, is, of course, extremely selective. The book actually rejects Elton's simplistic view that the historian could shake off all present-day beliefs and ideas when studying the documents. It rejects his narrow-minded empiricism and his parochial insistence on the political history of the nation-state as the only real history. It rejects his belief that interpretations sprang unaided from the sources. It rejects his whole account of how historians go about the business of research. It explicitly welcomes developments which he found objectionable, such as women's history, social history and so on - all these are, after all, areas of history which have been the subject of much of my own work. On all these points, I side with Carr. On the other hand, this doesn't mean that I'm simply a follower of Carr. The book rejects Carr's account of objectivity and causation, for example, since both of them are tied to his belief in the defining quality of a human future locate inevitably in a Soviet-style planned economy.

Given the fact that the book strongly rejects both Carr and Elton's central ideas about objectivity and many other things, it is difficult to see how it can be understood as using them as ways of legitimating my own approach. More profoundly, as the book makes abundantly clear, obscurantist conservatism of the sort to which Elton too often fell prey, and Stalinist Marxism of the sort which ultimately lay at the root of Carr's work, are both objectionable as well as inadequate bases for historical scholarship and thought. On the other hand, I don't see why I should not be reasonably courteous in advancing such criticisms, severe though they are. A polite style of criticism doesn't in any way imply a deference to the views of those who are being criticised.

Hunt, in other words, is mistaking style for content. This is particularly clear when she comes to deal with the book's account of Carr's notions of causation, which she considers to be merely a 'rehash' of Carr's own views. The conclusion she cites from the book, that 'Carr did not really think his argument through' comes, contrary to what Hunt maintains, not at the end of a mere repetition of his views, but at the end of a lengthy and reasoned criticism of them. This criticism is base d principally on my objection to Carr's view that historians should only be interested in understanding the cause of a past event if it could help us change the present and shape the future.

The implication of this position is that the historian should suppress any mention of any causes of a past event, whether accidental or not, if it does not fulfil this purpose. Carr did not mention this (extremely disturbing) implication of his method, however, and that is why I felt justifying in suggesting that he did not really think his argument through. I don't think this is the mere bald assertion Hunt claims it is; no more than is the conclusion of the paragraph-long criticism in the book which is directed at Hunt's own attack on Carr's notion of causation in her (generally interesting and often persuasive) book, written with Joyce Appleby and Margaret Jacob (Telling the Truth About History) that Hunt's own argument on this point is 'factually incorrect as well as irrelevant'. Perhaps her irritation at this criticism has prompted her irritation with my book as a whole.

At times Hunt's misreading of the book becomes almost comical, as when she objects to the sentence in the Chapter on causation where I remark that social and economic history have become the 'principal victims' of 'the new theories'. 'What does this have to do with causation?' she asks rhetorically. The answer is, not a lot, because it's the last sentence in the Chapter and is intended to point the way to the next Chapter, which is precisely about social and economic history. Let me quote the sentence in full, to make it clear how misleading Hunt's paraphrase of it is:

While cultural history, intellectual history and even the history of high politics have received a fillip from the new theories and approaches of the late 1980s and 1990s, the principal victims have been social and economic history; precisely the areas, as we shall now see, which experienced the greatest growth and expansion in the 1960s and 1970s (my italics here).

And this final sentence of the Chapter comes at the end of a final paragraph, also transitional to the following Chapter, which deals with the problem of looking for a context through which to explain a past event or process, and makes it clear that the social and economic context favoured by historians like Carr has been challenged as an explanatory tool by the rise of cultural history.

Hunt's misrepresentations continue even when she is positive about the book, as in her view that it is at its best when it 'unravels controversies that have nothing to do with epistemological issues, such as the one about David Abraham' s reading of sources in his analysis of business interests in Nazi Germany'. The whole point of recounting this controversy, however, as the book makes quite clear in the course of its analysis of the affair, is that it has a direct bearing on central issues of historical epistemology: namely the relationship between fact and interpretation, the possibility of falsifying interpretations by referring to evidence, and the argument of Hayden White that a Marxist historical interpretation such as Abraham's cannot be disproved because what Marxists view as relevant evidence is not so viewed by non-Marxist historians.

Anthony Easthope too thinks that that In Defence of History endorses a 'resoundingly empiricist' notion of objectivity. Let us examine the quotations from the book he uses to support this interpretation. First: 'the past does impose its reality through the sources in a basic way'. The key word here is 'basic', as the following sentence on page 115 of the book makes clear: 'At the most elementary level, one cannot simply read into documents words that are not there.' Second: 'the past does speak through the sources' (p. 126); well, yes, but the whole of the preceding discussion, which includes a lengthy account of the 'Abraham affair', makes it clear that this is not a blanket claim about how historians do their work (merely listening to what the sources say), it is a limited and partial claim; it does not end there; in fact it is only half the argument. What the book actually argues is that the past only speaks through the sources when the historian interrogates them. It's a two -way process, as the book makes clear time and again; so Easthope is misleading his readers when he gives the impression by selective quotation that it argues that the past speaks through the sources unaided and that in so speaking it says all there is to be said.

Easthope concludes this part of his argument by citing the book's 'resoundingly empiricist conclusion that, despite it all, "it really happened", we can "find out how" and know "what it all meant".' What this passage in the book actually says, following on a series of references to the theses of various postmodernist writers on history, is as follows: 'I will look humbly at the past and say despite them all: it really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some tenable though always less than final conclusions about what it all meant.' By removing all the qualifications from this statement, Easthope has manipulated it to give the appearance of a dogmatic confidence in the possibility of absolute knowledge that was a very long way from what was intended. Thus he has only managed to support the charge he levels against the book, of mindless empiricism, by giving a deliberately false and distorted version of what it actually says.

Because there seems to be a quite widespread misunderstanding of what I mean by historical objectivity, with numerous reviewers assuming that because I actually dare to use the word it can only have one meaning, that is, a strong and traditional one, rather than, as I intended, a weak and qualified one, I have added a sentence to the penultimate paragraph in the American and German editions: 'Objective history in the last analysis is history that is researched and written within the limits placed on the historical imagination by the facts of history and the sources which reveal them, and bound by the historian's desire to produce a true, fair, and adequate account of the subject under consideration.' Any questions this might seem to beg are, I hope, dealt with in the preceding text of the book.

The need for such an addition is further illustrated by the misunderstandings present in the review by the Soviet history specialist Steve Smith, who supposes that In Defence of History argues that 'there is a singular truth to be told about the past' and that it can be 'discovered' from the evidence. The book goes to some length to argue that what historians write is the result of a dialogue between their own purposes and ideas and what they find in the sources. Unwilling to re cognise this, Smith proceeds to entangle himself in a web of contradictions, as he argues on the one hand that historians' interpretations of past events cannot stand or fall by the extent to which they conform to the historical evidence, and on the other accuses the Harvard historian Richard Pipes of providing 'a deeply distorted representation' of the Russian revolution.

How can Smith consider Pipes's account to be distorted if not by an appeal to the evidence? Not just the evidence which Pipes himself cites, that is, but more importantly, perhaps, the massive amount of evidence which Pipes has omitted from his account. Saying that he, Smith, brings a different narrative perspective to bear on the Revolution doesn't amount to any criticism of Pipes at all, since in this way of thinking there is no criterion by which anyone can decide whether it is Smith's narrative or Pipes's which is distorted; the inescapable conclusion of Smith's general argument is that both are equally valid, just as the inescapable conclusion of Smith's particular remarks about Pipes is that this general argument is invalid.

A somewhat different confusion appears in Ernst Nolte's review. Nolte agrees that '"Auschwitz"...is probably in reality the most effective argument that can be directed against the "postmodernists" and their concepts of "text", "invention" and "fictionality"'. However, he goes on, this does not mean that any challenge to the accepted historical representation of Auschwitz is tantamount to Holocaust denial. Is it, he asks, a form of Holocaust denial to dispute the once-widespread claim that four million people were gassed in Auschwitz, or to note, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen does, that the efficiency of the gas chambers has been exaggerated, or to concede that Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of an acclaimed eyewitness account of Auschwitz, was never actually in the camp at all?

Auschwitz is not an invention, Nolte says, but it has constantly to be rediscovered and reinterpreted. No generation has the right to close off research for the future by declaring we know all we can ever know. Auschwitz must be studied with the same historiographical tools of source-criticism and so on as any other subject. And it must constantly be compared with other genocides. Who knows whether, at some future time, its singularity will be compromised by some other case of mass murder similar in scope and method? Historical relativization, Nolte concludes, is not the same as moral relativization. Moreover, incorrect arguments are often beneficial to scholarship because they sharpen and improve better arguments.

Nolte suggests that if I follow my own principles, I should agree with these points. He suspects I do not. But he is wrong. I do agree with them, at least, in the way that he puts them in his review. Unfortunately, what he is really talking about here is not In Defence of History at all, but another book which I published ten years ago, In Hitler's Shadow, in which I dealt with (West) German views of Nazism and strongly criticized Nolte's own writings on the subject, particularly his claim that hard-line Holocaust deniers, people who allege that there was no Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews, that there were no gas chambers, that the number of Jews who were killed was far smaller than six million, were honourable people whose views should be taken seriously. In his book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, indeed, Nolte even took over standard theses from the Holocaust deniers, including the (demonstrably false) allegation that the Jews declared war on Germany in 1939 and therefore Hitler was justified in 'interning' them in concentration camps.

The point here is that there is a difference between legitimate reinterpretation and deliberate invention and falsification; between debates over the significance of historical events and attempts to deny their existence altogether; between the proper methods of historical scholarship such as source-criticism, and the distortion, manipulation and suppression of historical evidence by Holocaust deniers such as Arthur Butz and Paul Rassinier, whom Nolte defends in his book. Of course it isn't a form of Holocaust denial to question the authenticity of Wilkomirski's memoirs. Of course Goldhagen was not flirting with Holocaust denial when he made his remark about the efficiency of the gas chambers, because what he meant by this was that only a portion of Europe's Jews were killed by gassing; millions were killed by mass shootings, a fact he claims is too often forgotten in the literature on the Holocaust. And of course it is not Holocaust denial to point out, as has been known at least since the post-war publication of the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, that the best estimate for the number of victims of gassing there was slightly in excess of one million, not the four million that has sometimes been claimed.

All this has nothing to do with Holocaust denial, and I am not aware of anybody apart from Nolte who has ever claimed a connection. What Nolte seems to be suggesting is that my concept of historical objectivity rules out any dispute of any kind about Auschwitz. But it does not. Of course there is room for argument and debate. But only within the limits set by the evidence. A claim such as the familiar Holocaust denial assertion that nobody was gassed at all clearly steps beyond these bounds.

Nor do I think that Holocaust denial has performed any real service to genuine scholarship, because it has nothing to do with reinterpretation. It is nothing more than a simple falsification of history, undertaken for political motives that have nothing to do with real historical investigation. On the other hand, the work, say, of Goldhagen, though in my view demonstrably wrong on a number of accounts, has stimulated historians to think afresh about such issues as the reasons why ordinary men, or ordinary Germans, participated in the extermination of the Jews, the strength of anti-Jewish sentiment in Imperial Germany, the extent to which antisemitism was increasing during the Weimar Republic, and so on. In other words, on the evidence o f his review, Nolte and I are in broad agreement on all the issues he raises. On the evidence of my In Hitler's Shadow and his Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, however, we are still a long way apart.

(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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