The book and the man

In Defence of History is a book by Richard J. Evans which was originally published in 1997 and reissued with a new Afterword in 2000. Evans is one of the world's most pre-eminent scholars on Nazi Germany and passed into the public eye recently with the David Irving trial.1 In it Evans grapples with some of the most complex issues of historiography and considers them in the light of the work of "postmodern" and literary theorists. You will not find within this book a philosophical retort to the theories of Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucalt or Ferdinand de Saussure. What you will find is a reconsideration of the concepts of historical objectivity, narration and causation, as well as a look at old questions such as whether history is an art or a science. The book is intended, according to Evans, to be read alongside E.H. Carr's What is History? and Sir Geoffrey Elton's The Practice of History, which still serve as the general introduction to such questions in Anglo-American Universities.2

Carr's book was written in 1961, and Elton's in 1967. As Evans points out, it seems strange that an academic discipline is grounded on two texts that were written over thirty years ago. Carr encourages us to view a history book as the product of its times and to study the historian before we read his book. While not denying the existence of truth, Carr's approach is essentially relativistic. Elton's book mounts a trenchant defence of the historian's ability to discover an objective truth about the past, believing that a historian can successfully disabuse himself of his ideologies and simply listen to the sources. Of course, a historian can only "approach" the fortress of truth and never enter it absolutely, but his success in the enterprise of establishing fact about the past is often able to meet with a large degree of success.

But the arrival of postmodernist theory has called into question the very existence of "truth" itself and threatens the entire historical enterprise. "Postmodernism" is a blanket term that encompasses scholars of numerous stripes, but some of them espouse a type of hyper-relativism that would entail the destruction of the historical profession. They threaten to blur the distinction between history and fiction and between primary and secondary sources, thus reducing the work of the historian to nothing other than a narrative imposed on what fact exists according to his ideology and set of assumptions, which are properties of the present and not the past. I shall now follow Evans' responses to several of these challenges.

Reception theory

A historical fact, said Elton, is something that can be verified from the sources. Historical facts have an existence independent of the historian, who may however uncover them. In Carr's book he used the now famous example of a gingerbread seller that was kicked to death at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. This was not, Carr contended, a historical fact until it was dug up by a historian and mentioned in a book. But there is a distinction between fact and evidence. This fact had a life independent of the historian (that's why it was "discovered", not "created"), but it did not exist as evidence for any particular argument. Once this fact had been dug up and used to support a particular interpretation of past events, it had become a piece of evidence. This distinction is important, because when many postmodernist critics imply that it is impossible to determine historical fact, what they often in fact have issue with is the fact being used as a piece of evidence. Historians are interested in what Leopold von Ranke, the father of the Western historical profession, called the "interconnectedness" of facts.

The question is whether these connections are imposed by the historian or exist before we examines the facts. It has been challenged that all history has only a "transferational relationship" with the past, and as texts are not reflections of reality but reworkings of it, it is impossible for the historian to know what truly went on in the past (Dominick LaCapra has argued this). In this view interpretation would have to be imposed entirely by the historian in the present (and all of it would be equally valid, but we shall return to this point below). But historians have long been aware of the fact they view the past from a distance (in fact, they often see this is as a good thing - it supposedly confers "objectivity"), and do not actually have access to the extra-textual reality of it. They know that the representations of reality given in texts is just as important as the reality itself, and offers a key to understanding the author.

Similarly, few people believe there is a one-to-one correspondance between the fact a document contains and its "meaning" as evidence. Current theory certainly effects how we read and interpret documents, and the multitide of disciplines that aid modern historians in understanding the past (anthropology, economics, sociology, statistics) now means that more interpretations than ever are posited. Historians read documents in numerous different ways and are in no way bound by the intention of the author. Although these different views of the interconnectedness of facts can all make plausible truth-claims and are dependent on current theory, they still need to maintain a basic fidelity to the facts. A case in point is Holocaust denial, which has been the point where many hyper-relativists have drawn the line. The Holocaust clearly occured and is not just a case of arbitrary emplotment by a historian. In accepting this basic premise, as for instance Hayden White has done, it is conceded that some objective fact can be established about the past.

Is there any difference between history and fiction?

The modern historical profession is based on the distinction between primary (contemporaneous) and secondary (after-the-fact) documents. But French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the linguistic theorist Roland Barthes have mounted a challenge to this distinction which probably forms the most serious aimed at the historical profession. It is derived from the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, who said that signifiers (words) were not defined by the things they signified, but in relation to each other. Thus "dog" derived its meaning from its opposition to "cat", and language was purely self-referential. Derrida went further and said that the meaning of a word changed every time it was used, and that there was no "transcendental" meaning. This means that the author loses control over his text, and that meaning is put there by the reader every time he reads it. This has radical implications for history.

If we hold this view, meaning dissapears altogether from history. No longer there, ready to be found in the sources, it is imposed arbitrarily by the historian whenever he reads them. This would result in a replacement of the historian's interest in the past with self-reflectivity - a focus on himself and how he constructed the truth-claim of his interpretation, to which the scholary apparatus of facts and footnotes was merely an attempt to create a "reality effect". The idea of historical fact dissapears entirely from view, as does the difference between fiction and history. Both have to have a reasonable coherence with actual human experience, but there is no reason for preferring one interpretation over another as the reading of the sources is completely arbitrary.

Evans is ready with a number of counter-points. He points out very fairly that historians have never believed that the meaning of documents nor the intention of their author was transparent, and were aware this was a problem they had to deal with. Postmodernism has pushed this traditional discussion to two polarised extremes - those that espouse complete opacity, and those that allegedly espouse complete transparency. But in reality no-one does the latter anymore, something that we can in part thank postmodernism for. Although historians are aware they have to listen to the many different voices coming from the text, i.e. consider many different interpretations, it is not true that they can impose any meaning they wish on it. If a document says "X is X", then no amount of wrangling can make it say "X is not X". Sources impose restrictions on the type of emplotment that is possible, as White conceded - along with this he conceded his central tenet, which was that any type of emplotment is possible.

Nor is language in fact totally self-reflective, for it has emerged in interaction with the real world. The very reason primary sources are esteemed so highly is that historians are aware that they only have an indirect relationship with the past. Primary sources, on the other hand, had a direct connection with past reality, and are therefore the most useful tool for analysing it. There is clearly a difference between these texts and after-the-fact accounts, which are indeed usually an interpretation. Evans points out that if a postmodernist were to want to answer his charges, then the latter would surely refer back to his own work rather than someone else's interpretation of it. And, under the theory, isn't Evans' interpretation just as valid as what the postmodernist originally wrote?

Knowledge and power

Foucault said that history is a fictional narrative imposed on past events to serve the interests of those in power, and postmodernists have charged that historians' only purpose is to serve their own interests and those they represent. The history that emanates from Universities is seen as serving the interests of a white, middle-class bourgeoisie which is interested in the perpetuation of the present order so they can continue to draw paychecks and live comfortably. This sits nicely with their idea that history can never hope to understand the past. Evans argues that, if we apply this argument to postmodernists, we can explain the whole theory as sociologically deriving from the gradual loss of power experienced by academics in the 1980s. With the wave of new University foundings over and the right-wing governments of the time preferring private think-tanks over Universities, historians were on an unsound financial base. Postmodernism, which places full power in the hands of the interpreter and makes them omnipotent by giving them unfettered freedom in writing the past.

And there are other criticisms. Most postmodernists see themselves as positioned on the political left, and many are at prestiguous Universities. Why are they not serving their own material interests as they claim the rest of the historical profession are? History is riddled with theorists who worked against what seemed to be their own ostensible interests, such as Karl Marx and factory-owner Friedrich Engels. Furthermore, academic historians are not one-way generators of historical truth, and never have been - public memory is structured by many other things, such as the broadsheets, popular press, folk lore and many aspects of popular culture. Finally, professional historians are not a homogenous group, and neither is the bourgeoisie. There are people of many different political and intellectual stripes in the Universities, as highlighted by the presence of postmodernists themselves there.


History is an empirical subject, and even the most diehard deconstructionalist must concede that extra-textual reality does exist. By a careful reading of sources we can attempt a reconstruction of this reality that will be partial and provisional, but will be approaching the "fortress of truth". To be sure, current theories and ideologies will colour how we approach the questions of the past and how we answer them. But objectivity does not necessarily have to be brought about by neutrality, and if a historian fails in his basic duty of fidelity to the facts he will doubtless be caught out by the profession. This is why it exists. Interpretations are not all equally valid, and must be grounded in real scholarship. If we allow the historical arena to be overtaken by those who believe that any interpretation is as valid as any other, then we open the field to people like the Holocaust deniers.

1. Irving, who enjoyed a reputation as a leading British scholar for some time, lost a libel case over the book The Destruction of Convoy PQ17. Irving is essentially a holocaust denier who wrote numerous biographies of Nazi leaders that tried to emphasise their good sides. Irving actually sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel after she denounced him as a Nazi apologist and fraudulent historian. Evans' role was as in the defence of Penguin Books (Lipstadt's publisher). Although it may seem strange that they didn't call upon Ian Kershaw, Evans' ability to grapple with issues such as he does in In Defence probably contributed to Penguin's decision to hire him. Evans has published a book about the Irving trial, entitled Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. I was told by a Cambridge professor that he received £800,000 from Penguin, but I couldn't possibly comment on this, nor the type of car he spent the money on.

2. Before embarking upon my undergraduate degree, I was advised to read What is History?, The Practice of History and In Defence of History.