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Saturday 6 March 2010

In Defence of History - Book Review

In Defence of History by Richard J Evans is an effective baseline yet intellectually detailed argument for rational historical investigation. I highly recommend to anyone who has been bamboozled by the idea that history is just one person’s opinion.
It is an academic book written for a mainstream audience to help explain the validity of history in response to the mounting popularity of postmodern historical criticism. The book was written in 1997 and the latest edition, including a lengthy afterword written by the author was published in 2000. Each chapter is interlinked, but can be viewed as lectures divided up into an average of four to five parts.



  1. The History of History
  2. History, Science and Morality
  3. Historians and their Facts
  4. Sources and Discourses
  5. Causation in History
  6. Society and the Individual
  7. Knowledge and Power
  8. Objectivity and its Limits
Further Reading
Once you have read Evans’s book you will be little surprised to see that his Afterword consists of his reactions to the controversy and criticism In Defence of History received. Evans spares no prisoners in his book as he fairly and even-handedly looks at the various methods employed to research and report history. He names historians and quotes, in length and context, their opinions. The same cannot always be said about his postmodern critics. Subsequently he has been attacked by the extreme left, who virtually justify pseudohistory in favour of the good of the cause, and the extreme right, who feel that history is the study of those in power. Amid all this he has seen how postmodernism has been able to come up with the seriously distorted and yet popular idea that all sources are equal.
The book provides some fascinating insights into the ways some historians have tried hard to turn history into a science and how others wrote history to derive a divine meaning. Evans shows the flaws of both approaches, but isn’t completely dismissive of the historians who embraced either extreme. Likewise he looks at the strengths and weaknesses of causation arguments in history and the concept that individuals alone create history.
Given that we have probably been living in postmodern times at least since the end of World War II, Evans is not dismissive of the movement. Its impact on history is undeniable and he defends some of the fresh perspectives and critical thinking it has provided. However, he also notes that it has since gone to extremes and by the time he wrote his book, in the late ‘90s, the whole concept of history was being held in question. It was this area that attracted me to the book in the first place. I am an amateur historian and a rational thinker. I like the idea that history, like science, is a discipline of obtaining facts. What we mean by facts, of course, are temporary conclusions that are supported by the most convincing evidence. However, unlike science the historian engages with these facts and tries to see the past through the eyes of its contemporaries. Extreme postmodernism throws away the hard discipline of comparing documentation and understanding primary sources in favour of a type of philosophy that just seems to confirm what the researcher wants to find.
This, of course, underlies the thinking of the growing number of conspiracy theorists. Evans doesn’t mention this rather disreputable sub-section of pseudohistory by name, although he does voice his criticism of “Holocaust Revisionists”. Likewise he doesn’t get much into hyperdiffusionism or pseudohistory as a whole. However, all of these are supported by postmodern thinking and take up far more than there fair share in the supposed non-fiction section of your local bookshop. They are also having deep and damaging effects on religion, culture and politics at grassroots and even some government levels.
Anyway, this isn’t a quibble. Conspiracy theory, extreme historical revisionism and hyperdifussionism are mere branches off the core problem that Evans deals with. His targets lie more with deconstructionism and other philosophical bents that undermine the use of documents as historical sources. Not being the most academic of individuals and also being a pragmatic coach, I am all for calling unproductive academia in question and I do see this at the root of a lot of the extreme postmodernism that is currently permeating our society. The only criticism I can make about this very informative and detailed book is in its accessibility. Evans proudly states that he is writing it not just for academics, but for mainstream consumption as well. Unfortunately and despite being rated as popular mainstream historian Antonia Frazer’s favourite book of 1997, the book is not the easiest of reads. It smacks of university style lectures and debates. This is not to say that it isn’t engrossing and entertaining, but sometimes it feels like the academia of the postmodernist has snared the great Evans and he is beginning to talk like them.
However, I have a lot of sympathy for Evans’s cause and his approach. He must have felt in a minority at the time of its writing. He wrote the book a decade after the British government turned history from a compulsory to an optional subject for students in their fourth year at high school. He had seen how debunked historians like Margaret Murray, who wrote about the history of witchcraft through the testimonials taking at their “trials” as if it were proof of a religion, had been reprieved by postmodern scholars who should have known better. It was time to present a book that explained how history was researched and how the people of today can use a rational discipline to gain insights into the past.
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