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History in Focus

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


In Defence of History

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

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University
Prof. Evans's introduction to his response

This reply tries to deal with the various points made by critics under a number of headings. The criticisms that have been made both of the original hardback edition and of subsequent editions of the book can be summed up very roughly under the following propositions:

  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.

I will deal with each of these basic criticisms in turn, taking in subsidiary points made by various reviewers along the way. Some repetition is, unfortunately, inevitable, but I have tried to keep it to a minimum.

This response was written in November 1999. The amendments and additions incorporated into this article in addition to the text of the first version (March 1998) take account of additional reviews and discussions of the British edition of the book, published by Granta Books in paperback in September 1998; the American edition, In Defense of History, published by W. W. Norton & Co. in January, 1999; and the German edition, Fakten und Fiktionen: Über die Grundlagen historischer Erkenntnis, translated by Ulrich Speck and published by Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, in October 1998. A Korean edition has also been published, and Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish and Turkish editions are in preparation; my linguistic limitations mean that I will regrettably be unable to reply to most reviews that might appear of them, as of the sole review that has so far appeared in Arabic.

The text of the book was revised and updated for the US edition, partly to rectify mistakes, partly to deal with criticisms and clarify passages that had given rise to misunderstanding, and partly to take account of significant work in the field that had appeared in the year or so since the publication of the first British edition. The book's central arguments, however, remain essentially the same. The US edition also contains some new examples drawn from American history. It serves as the basis for all translations.

Contrary, perhaps, to the impression given in the present reply to critics, the book has met with a very positive response from reviewers and others. But inevitably it has also aroused a good deal of controversy. This reply does not deal with reviews which made no criticism of substance. It deals only with the following critical, though not necessarily always hostile, reviews and reviewers, which are listed here in order of appearance:

  1. Michael Burleigh, 'Making history or making-up history?', The Sunday Telegraph, 14 September 1997, review section, p. 13.
  2. Roy Porter, 'Defending History', BBC Radio 3 Book of the Week, 15 September 1997. 3) Bernard Crick, 'The truth, the whole truth - and nothing but', The Independent Saturday Magazine, 20 September 1997, p. 14.
  3. Niall Ferguson, 'History is dead. Long live history!', The Sunday Times, 21 September 1997.
  4. Ronald Hutton, 'What is history really about?', The Times Educational Supplement, 26 September 1997.
  5. Samuel Brittan, 'The many failings of post-modernism', The Spectator, 27 September 1997.
  6. John Charmley, 'Time to move past postmodernism?', The Daily Telegraph, 27 September 1997, p. A4.
  7. Steven Kassem, 'In Defence of History', Epigram, 16 October 1997.
  8. Keith Thomas, 'A good kicking', New Statesman and Society, 17 October 1997, p. 46.
  9. A. C. Grayling, 'Historical truth put on the line', The Financial Times, Weekend Supplement, 25/26 October 1997, p. vi.
  10. Joyce Appleby, 'Does it really need defending?' The Times Literary Supplement, 31 October 1997, p. 10.
  11. Steve Smith, 'Truth in an age of challenge', The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 28 November 1997, p. 26.
  12. Stefan Collini, 'The truth-vandals', The Guardian, 18 December 1997, p. 15.
  13. Daniel Johnson, 'The History Man', Prospect, November 1997, pp. 64-65.
  14. Matthew Trinca, 'History's Impossible Dream', The Australian, 3 December 1997.
  15. Chris Harman, 'Subjects and Objects', Socialist Review 215 (January, 1998), p. 27.
  16. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, 'Clio versus pomo sapiens', in The Telegraph, Calcutta, 12 June 1998.
  17. Peter Schöttler, 'Prologe im Himmel der Theorie', in Die Zeit, 10 September 1998.
  18. Nils Minkmar, 'Keine Plots zum Holocaust', in Süddeutsche Zeiting, 7 October 1998.
  19. Rebekka Habermas, 'Wenn Klio (ein kleines bisschen) dichtet', in Frankfurter Rundschau, 7 October 1998.
  20. Peter Ghosh, 'Laid Down by Ranke', in London Review of Books, 19 October 1998 (and subsequent correspondence in the LRB).
  21. Bernd Roeck, 'Rächer der Verderbten', in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 3 November 1998.
  22. Lynn Hunt, 'Does History Need Defending?', in History Workshop Journal, Issue 46, December 1998.
  23. Anthony Easthope, in Textual Practice, Winter 1998, pp. 563-66.
  24. Roy Porter, 'The Untrustworthy', in The New Republic, 14 December 1998.
  25. Ernst Nolte, 'Auschwitz als Argument in der Geschichtstheorie', in Die Welt, 2 January 1999.
  26. Marie Theres Fögen, 'Geschichte vor dem Zusammenbruch: kann ein Faktenkult sie retten?', in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 16/17 January 1999.
  27. Steve Weinberg, 'Not all ways of recalling the past are equal', in Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 21 January 1999.
  28. David Gress, 'The "End" of History?', in Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, Spring 1999, pp. 314-336.
  29. Doug Munro, in Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, Summer 1999, pp. 941-42.
  30. Diane Purkiss, 'Response to Professor Richard Evans', in this issue of In Focus.
  31. Keith Jenkins, Why History? Ethics and Postmodernity (London, 1999), Chapter 4, 'On Richard Evans', and elsewhere in the same book.
  32. Diane Purkiss, 'Richard Evans, Yet Once More', in this issue of In Focus.

In addition, this reply also considers some of the points raised in letters published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement on 19 and 26 September 1997 in reply to my article 'Truth Lost in Vain Views', published in the same periodical on 12 September 1997 (p. 18).

(Richard J. Evans, November 1999)

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response Dr. Diane Purkiss

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