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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 (6)


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Criticism 6: The book's concept of a fact is untenable.

Perhaps the most extreme depiction of the book as a defence of a mindless empiricism is provided by Marie Theres Fögen's review in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Fögen's piece is often obscure in its meaning, partly because it is full of rhetorical questions rather than reasoned arguments, and partly because it is framed in terms of an extended metaphor - Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Postmodernist Wolf - which further confuses the issues at stake. However, her review is by a long way the most hostile and personally offensive to have appeared so far, so it requires an extended reply.

Fögen begins her review with a crassly polemical misrepresentation of its central arguments. In her view the book takes exception to the idea 'that the past emerges from something else than facts and nothing but facts.' Well, no, that's not what the book says. Still less does it follow up this claim by a statement that if the 'cult of facts', to quote the subtitle of Fögen's review, is abandoned, history as hitherto practised will be at an end; a claim - quoted by me from others, including postmodernists, but pinned by Fögen to myself, in order to give the appearance of a paranoid alarmism which I don't share in.

The basic technique of Fögen's review is to rip little phrases out of their context in the book and string them together to make it look as if the book is an assemblage of crude and arrogant prejudice. Here we come to Auschwitz once more. 'Discourse theorists, constructivists of all kinds, all those who hold "real facts" in contempt, are generally dangerous (gemeingefährlich - the word has different resonances in German, being drawn from the vocabulary the police used about revolutionaries in the nineteenth century) and no better than the revisionists' is how she sums up the argument of the book. By this means she concludes that the book seeks to 'misuse the endless suffering in Auschwitz to rescue an endangered cult of facts of the historians. Evans instrumentalizes it for the purpose of defaming his enemies - and a discussion of their premises becomes unnecessary.' But who is defaming whom here? Nowhere do I say or imply that discourse theorists, constructivists and so on are no better than Holocaust deniers. Nowhere do I say that they are generally dangerous - this is pure invention on the reviewer's part. Nowhere do I say that a discussion of their premises is unnecessary, indeed I do my best to provide one in the book. Finally on this point, there is in the end a difference between those who argue Auschwitz definitely didn't exist, and those who argue that we can't know whether it did or not, and the book makes this difference perfectly clear.

In the end, therefore, one also has to ask: who is instrumentalizing the suffering in Auschwitz here? Presumably by referring to it in this way, Fögen is actually conceding that the endless suffering in Auschwitz was a fact and that we can know about it. Or is this a fact made, like all others in her view, by historians, television editors and journalists, 'a necessary lie in itself', as she puts it, 'because one can't talk about everything and therefore with every utterance one suppresses, silences, annihilates something else'? Fögen's use of the word 'annihilate' here surely can't be coincidental: vernichten is the term commonly used to describe the Nazi extermination of the Jews. This is almost as distasteful as her description of Auschwitz as a 'necessary lie'.

And Fögen follows it with a grotesque accusation that I am committing an immoral evasion of my personal and political responsibility for deciding which facts will be 'produced', which 'experiences not doubted but defended against evil revisionists', by my alleged failure to recognise that what historians do is to select and present facts. Once more: I don't think the suffering of people in Auschwitz is a fact created by historians. I think it really happened. Of course, historians choose to represent it in one way or another, are led to discover, reconstruct, narrate and interpret it by their own concerns and by those of the society they live in. The book repeatedly asserts the moral responsibility of the historian to people in the past - all people in the past - the reality of their lives and sufferings, and the immorality of distorting or abusing or manipulating the lives of those people in the service of some present-day cause.

As a good deal of evidence from other historians and writers presented in the book demonstrates, the issue of the factuality of Auschwitz and how we discover it has become a central issue in the debates about postmodernist scepticism. T his is not instrumentalization. There is a strong moral charge to the issue which is leading people to raise it in the face of extreme scepticism about the possibility of knowing anything about the past at all. As many others have argued, Auschwitz was not a discourse, it was reality, a view to which Fögen would appear to subscribe, as already noted, when she refers to the 'endless suffering' that took place there. It follows therefore (a) that we can find out about it and establish what happened there, and (b) that the same applies to other historical topics as well.

Instead of taking this point and reflecting on the way she approaches the subject, however, Fögen immediately goes on to try and make this argument seem absurd by linking it to the critique in the book of a recent book on witchcraft which refuses to make any distinction between the portrayal of witches in literature, folksong and so on, and 'the witches themselves'. 'Anyone', Fögen concludes, summarising what she wants the reader to think is the argument of In Defence of History, 'who considers witches as a construct, a story, a text, will also consider Hitler an invention - even the most stupid person can see that!'.

This is a connection that the book doesn't make, nor would I want to make it in practice, since we are dealing with two different categories here - a named and identifiable individual on the one hand, and a group of people subjected to a contested cultural and legal categorization on the other. I suppose to cater for the literal-minded, or to prevent the deliberate misinterpretation of the phrase for polemical purposes, I should have written not 'the witches themselves' but some rather more cumbersome phrase such as 'the real people in history who suffered and were often tortured and killed because other people thought they were witches.' But proceeding on such a basis would have quickly rendered the book unreadable. There are many history books on witchcraft which use the term 'witch' without such elaborate qualifiers, and I confess it hadn't occurred to me that someone would actually misrepresent my use of the phrase 'the witches themselves' to imply that I didn't think the categorization of these people as witches was 'a construct, a story, a text' or for that matter even 'an invention'. That doesn't alter the fact, however, that real people were involved, people who suffered real pain and death as a result of the discourse on witch craft, however fantastic it might have been.

Moreover, in another entirely characteristic and obviously deliberate misrepresentation, Fögen tells her readers that I advise the author in question to study 'the witches themselves' instead of 'the representation of witches in poetry, drama, historical texts'. What the sentence in question actually says is that the important feature of the approach to witchcraft under discussion 'is its refusal to make any distinction between historical, fictional and poetical accounts of witchcraft, and its concentration on the representation of witches in poetry, drama, historical texts and other forms of historical literature, rather than on the witches themselves.' There is no 'advice' to the author anywhere here or anywhere else, for that matter. The approach under discussion is outlined simply as an example of what a postmodernist history might look like. The key point here is the refusal of this approach to distinguish between factual historical accounts on the one hand, and fictional poetical accounts on the other, its treatment of all these kinds of texts on an equal basis, and its rejection of the idea that one can find out anything meaningful about the women who were persecuted as witches in the past, or discover why they were persecuted. There is nothing wrong with studying fictional accounts of witchcraft in itself, and I would never want to dissuade anyone from undertaking such a task.

If this accusation by Fögen is based on a manipulation of the text of In Defence of History, so too is the allegation that it claims that facts can be drilled into students by forcing them to write analytical rather than narrative essays and that this (as Fögen says) is what I do in Cambridge. Leaving aside the fact that I wasn't in Cambridge when I wrote the book, what it actually says is that history tutors (everywhere - no particular university is mentioned) tell their students to write analysis rather than narrative. Nowhere in the book is this suggested as a recipe for rescuing the primacy of facts; on the contrary, the insistence on analysis dethrones the mere recital of facts and quite properly puts argument and interpretation at the centre of the student's efforts. Finally, this example was given as an illustration of the fact that, contrary to what some postmodernist critics of historians have suggested, narrative is often not the central technique used by historians in ordering their material; and the sentence in question came after a list of major historical works not written in the narrative mode.

Both Anthony Easthope and Marie Theres Fögen object to my notion of 'fact' as something that happened or existed in the past irrespective of whether we know about it or not, and dismiss the argument that we discover facts as a kind of mindless empiricism. Both misrepresent the book, in different ways, as a defence of a crude and ignorant empiricism, or to use Fögen's term, a 'cult of facts'. To reiterate: I use the term 'facts' in this way because I do not want to fall into the trap of supposing, as Hayden White does in a passage quoted in Easthope's review, that what the historian studies are 'events'. Reality of whatever kind does not consist exclusively of events, though Easthope apparently thinks it does. A historical fact may be the nature of a field-system under feudalism, the equipment of an army, the structure of a Roman villa, the death-rate from tuberculosis, or any one of a huge range of things which could not be described as events. Thus when White and Easthope and presumably Fögen use the term 'facts' they are not using it in the way I use it.

Discovering facts in this sense is an important part of the historian's business, but the book argues that the crucial step is when they are used in the service of an argument, and thereby become evidence. Changing his terminology to mine, that is, his 'events' become my 'facts' and his facts' become my 'evidence', I would have nothing to quarrel with in White's statement, endorsed by Easthope, that 'The events have to be taken as given; they are certainly not constructed by the historian'. I suspect that when White goes on, in the passage in question, to say that historians are interested in giving a true account of what really happened in the past, he is really saying that historians are interested in giving a convincing interpretation of what happened in the past. Sticking to political history for the moment, for example, White (and Easthope) might regard an account of the origins of the First World War as a historian's attempt to represent what really happened, whereas my view would be that any account of such a complex and tangled web of facts must of necessity embody an interpretation (distributing responsibility, linking cause and effect, and so on).

We already have, therefore, a real gap between Easthope's view of what I am saying, and my own, and more profoundly, a serious gulf between what he thinks history is (the representation of events) and what I think it is (a subject vastly and rightly far more diverse than this). More seriously, however, Easthope's continual attacks on my qualifiers and modifiers seems to demand a hard-edged piece of logic where statements are made of a bald, extreme and universal kind. If I say, for instance, that historians in general do not work within rigid and constricting paradigms, what I mean by that is that of course a few of the most rigidly dogmatic have done so, and many have worked within a loose and flexible set of theories and assumptions such as Marxism in all its varieties, but that the Kuhnian notion of a strict paradigm which shapes all research in a particular field (e.g. optics) isn't really applicable to what historians do. Easthope slips the term 'paradigm' in to describe empiricist epistemology, but this isn't what Kuhn meant by a paradigm, as he ought to know: Kuhn didn't deny the reality of, say, a chemical reaction any more than White now denies the 'given' nature of 'events'.

But Easthope, apparently, does. Of course I am aware of the fact that there is a huge mass of philosophy arguing about whether or not we can prove that we experience reality through our senses, whether we can prove the world exists, what causation is, and so on. In the end, perhaps, no-one has proved conclusively and logically that we do exist; but no-one has proved that we don't, either. Here again, Easthope is caught in the classic self-contradictions of postmodernism. If he maintains , as he seems to, that there is a 'radical and irremediable' gap 'between reality and representation', then how can he dare to represent the reality of my text and assume he is being fair or accurate in doing so? The fact that in the particular case of hi s review of my book this gap seems to be a real one doesn't in the end affect the general principle. Easthope complains that I am lampooning postmodernism. He demands that the critic must give a 'fair, accurate and detailed account of the arguments he or she intends to attack'? What is the difference between this and demanding that historians must give a fair, accurate and detailed account of the past?

Easthope finds fault with what he alludes to as my statement that the limits which the language of a text imposes on the possibilities of interpretation are set to a large extent by the original author. There are several points to make here. First, by bringing this sentence on page 106 into immediate proximity to a phrase two pages earlier in the book, Easthope makes it look as if I am arguing that the limits referred to are set solely by the intentions of the text's author. This is not so: I go on to argue that the author may be including unintentional things in his or her text. And I add what he calls the 'dodgy qualifier' ('to a large extent') because it is obvious to me that in the case of diplomatic documents (which are the subject under discussion on the pages in question) misinterpretation and ambiguity, whether intended or not, whether the result of an author's intention or the result of a diplomatic compromise, can open the way to further possibilities of interpretation (though these too are limited by the language of the text). Least of all do I mean to argue, as Easthope surely implies, that the intentions of the author alone limit the possibilities of interpretation. There are many other factors involved as well, and the intentions of the author only constitute one of them, though they are far from being as irrelevant as many postmodernists would have us believe. Moreover, if Easthope demands that an interpretations of a text should be fair, accurate and detailed, the n how can he say that such accounts have nothing to do with the language in which the author has written the text?

Finally, when I first read his conclusion (' Though his name is on the cover, Richard J. Evans did not really write In Defence of History - rather, the dominant paradigm of the English empiricist tradition wrote it for him, because he made no critical attempt to interfere with its passage through him on to the page'), I thought for a moment that Easthope was indulging in a rare postmodernist moment of self-parody. But no, he really means it (his total lack of a sense of humour is indicated a couple of sentences later on by his characterization of my little joke about Patrick Joyce meaning his own ideas when he referred to 'the intellectual history of our own times' as an example of the 'blunt, Hobbesian, man-of-the-world aggressive tone which in many circles of history writing seems to pass for machismo'). The obvious answer to his point is to say something like:

Though his name is on the title-line, Anthony Easthope did not really review In Defence of History - rather, the dominant paradigm of the English cultural studies industry wrote it for him, because he made no critical attempt to interfere with its passage through him on to the page. Such an uncritical stance in no way prevents the review from adopting that pompous, po-faced, superior, pseudo-scientific tone which in many circles of critical theory writing seems to pass for machismo.

But that would be unfair, wouldn't it? Easthope tries to defend his tone by claiming that while he is critical, at least he is not arguing ad hominem, and I suppose strictly speaking this is true, since how can he be ad hominem if he doesn't think I wrote the review at all? However, this is more than made up for by his distortion and misrepresentation of the book's contents, his concentration on minor slips and secondary issues in order to avoid confronting the central arguments, and his complete lack of any realization of the self-contradictory nature of his own position.

The same can be said of Marie Theres Fögen's review, except that it is nothing if not ad hominem. In order, for example, to convey the impression of vanity and self-importance in the author, she quotes my description of my earlier book Death in Hamburg in which I say that 'the book's structure was the result of a series of deliberate aesthetic and intellectual choices (US edition, p. 126). In the German edition 'deliberate' becomes 'reiflich durchdachter' - roughly, 'maturely thought-through', and I have to say that when I checked over the translation it didn't occur to me that this could be ripped out of context by a hostile reviewer and used to make it look as if I was praising my own book as the result of a mature process of reflection which arrived at an 'aesthetic' result. But no trick of the reviewer's blackest arts is too low and mean for Fögen to stoop to. She knows as well as anyone that this remark was made to emphasise the fact that historians, as the example of my own work showed, made aesthetic as well as intellectual choices about structuring their material and their arguments, an illustration, in other words, of Hayden White's point that aesthetic impulses do play a role in historical writing. Indeed, by couching her review in the form of the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Postmodernist Wolf, Fögen herself makes a stab at aestheticizing the issues at hand. The trouble is that she gets the story wrong. Fögen concludes by noting triumphantly that the wolf ate up little Red Riding Hood, swallowing her whole. But as anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm should know, this wasn't the end of the story at all. The woodcutter came along, killed the wolf, ripped open its belly and restored Little Red Riding Hood to the world in perfect health.

(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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