Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Richard J. Evans – In Defence of History (1997)  


‘This book is about how we study history, how we research and write about it, and how we read it. In the postmodern age, historians are being compelled to address these questions afresh. Of course, there have been many attempts to tackle them in the past. But whatever the intellectual climate, they need to be confronted by every new generation of historians in turn. Currently the field is held by two books published thirty or more years ago, by the British historians Edward Hallett Carr and Sir Geoffrey Elton. E. H. Carr’s What is History? has been widely used as an introduction to historical study by teachers and students since its first publication in 1961, and it is easy to see why. Carr was a practising historian of vast experience, who had the ability to think clearly about difficult philosophical issues and to communicate his thought in a concise, witty and thoroughly readable manner. What is History? does not talk down to the student in the manner of conventional history primers or introductions to the study of history. It addresses the reader as an equal. Carr engages in lively arguments with many other historians about the nature of history. He challenges and undermines the belief, brought to university by too many students on leaving school, that history is simply a matter of objective fact. He introduces the idea that history books, like the people who write them, are products of their own times, and that their authors bring particular ideas and ideologies to bear on the past.

Against Carr’s relativistic approach to historical study, it is a common tactic to pit G.R. Elton’s The Practice of History, published in 1967. Elton’s book mounts a trenchant defence of the belief that history is a search for the objective truth about the past. It concludes optimistically that historians’ efforts in this enterprise more often than not meet with success. Elton, too, was a historian of enormous erudition, and in the course of dispensing a good deal of sensible advice on how history should be studied, written and taught, his book also had a lot to say about particular historians and the ways in which they either lived up to or (more commonly) fell short of the ideals he proclaimed. While Carr championed a sociological approach to the past, Elton declared that any serious historical work should have a backbone narrative of political events. Those which lacked such a spine, he dismissed as not really being proper history at all. And while Carr enjoined his readers to study the historian before they studied his “facts”, Elton told his audience to focus above all on the documentary record, the ultimate arbiter of historical accuracy and truth, and to leave historians and their motives to themselves.

While Elton and Carr are both still very much worth reading, there is, however, something rather strange about two books written more than thirty years ago still serving as basic introductions to a scholarly discipline. Yet in many universities they undoubtedly still do. Although some historians seem to think that Elton continues to represent “conventional wisdom in the historical profession”, or (more pretentiously) the “doxa amongst professional academic historians”, in practice this has long ceased to be the case. Few historians would now defend the hard-line concept of historical objectivity espoused by Elton. The prevalence of historical controversy, endemic in the profession for decades, has long since disabused historians of the idea that the truth lies buried in the documents, and that once the historian has unearthed it, no one ever need perform the same operation again.

Nothing has outdated the views not only of Elton, but even of Carr, more obviously than the arrival in the 1980s of postmodernist theory, which has called into question most of the arguments put forward by both of them. Instead of causes, which Carr regarded as central to historical scholarship, the “linguistic turn” has given us discourses. And history is widely argued to be only one discourse among many. The notion of scientific history, based on the rigorous investigation of primary sources, has been vehemently attacked. Increasing numbers of writers on the subject deny that there is any such thing as historical truth or objectivity - both concepts defended, in different ways, by Carr as well as Elton. The question is now not so much ‘What is History?’, as ‘Is It Possible to Do History at All?’ In place of the optimistic belief in the progress of the discipline held by both Carr, who saw it in the expansion of historical scholarship, and Elton, who saw it in the accumulation of historical knowledge, historians at the end of the twentieth century are haunted by a sense of gloom. (…) Some indeed see this challenge as more than merely theoretical  “poststructuralism,” in one historian's opinion, even “threatens to throw historians out of work” by robbing their discipline of its traditional legitimacy and raison d’être. Such has been the power and influence of the post­modernist critique of history that growing numbers of historians themselves are abandoning the search for truth, the belief in objectivity, and the quest for a scientific approach to the past. No wonder so many historians are worried about the future of their discipline. (…)’

‘However much they might have agreed on the need for accuracy and truthfulness, historians down the ages have held widely differing views on the purposes to which these things were to be put, and the way in which the facts they presented were to be explained. In medieval and early modern times, many historians saw their function as chronicling the working-out of God’s purposes in the world. Things happened, ultimately, because God willed them to happen; human history was the playground of supernatural forces of Good and Evil. The rationalist historians of the Enlightenment substituted for this a mode of historical explanation which rested on human forces, but they still thought of their work as a species of moral illustration. In the greatest of the Enlightenment histories, for example, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the actors are moral qualities rather than human beings, and the ultimate lesson is that superstition, fanaticism and religious belief, all of which were of course anathema to Enlightenment rationalists, were dangerous forces that had brought down one great and benign empire and could well wreak further havoc in the future if they were not eradicated. History was “philosophy teaching by example”; human nature was universal, unchanging and unhistorical.

In the Romantic era, historians repudiated this kind of thinking. Under the influence of writers like Sir Walter Scott, they came to see the past as exciting because it was different. Under the influence of political theorists like Edmund Burke, they began to argue that it provided the only possible basis for the kind of political stability that had been so rudely shattered by the French Revolution of 1789. The purpose of history was seen not in providing examples for some abstract philosophical doctrine or principle, but simply in finding out about the past as something to cherish and preserve, as the only proper foundation for a true understanding and appreciation of the institutions of state and society in the present. The lead in this change of direction was provided by the German historian Leopold von Ranke, a scholar whose exceptionally long life and extraordinary productivity made him something of a legend. The author of over sixty works, including multi-volume histories of the Popes, of Germany in the time of the Reformation, and of the Latin and Germanic nations, he began a history of the world when he was eighty-three years of age and had completed seventeen volumes by the time of his death in 1886 at the age of ninety-one. He was converted to history by the shock of discovering that Scott’s novel Quentin Durward was historically inaccurate. He determined therefore that he would apply the methods he had learned as a philologist to the study of historical texts in order to make such inaccuracy impossible in the future.

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold. First, he helped establish history as a separate discipline, independent from philosophy or literature. “To history,” he wrote in the preface to one of his works, “has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.” This last phrase is perhaps Ranke’s most famous, and it has been widely misunderstood. The German phrase which Ranke used  - “Wie es eigentlich Gewesen”-  is better translated as “how it essentially was”, for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past.

In pursuit of this task, said Ranke, the historian had to recognize that “every epoch is immediate to God.” That is, God in His eternity made no distinction between periods of history; all were the same in His eyes. In other words, the past could not be judged by the standards of the present. It had to be seen in its own terms. This was the second major contribution which Ranke made to historical scholarship: the determination to strip away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past by philosophizing historians such as Voltaire and to reveal it in its original colours; to try to understand the past as the people who lived in it understood it, even while deciphering hieroglyphs of interconnectedness of which they had been largely unaware. One conclusion that followed from this doctrine was that at any given time, including the present, whatever existed had to accepted as divinely ordained. Ranke was a profoundly conservative figure, who equated the actual and the ideal and regarded the European states of his day as “spiritual substances … thoughts of God”. This distanced him from the Prussian school of German historians (…)

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Ranke introduced into the study of modern history the methods that had recently been developed by philologists in the study of ancient and medieval literature to determine whether a text, say of a Shakespeare play or of a medieval legend like the Nibelungenlied, was true or corrupted by later interpolations, whether it was written by the author it was supposed to be written by, and which of the available versions was the most reliable. Historians, argued Ranke, had to root out forgeries and falsifications from the record. They had to test documents on the basis of their internal consistency, and their consistency with other documents originating at the same period. They had to stick to “primary sources”, eyewitness reports and what Ranke called the “purest, most immediate documents” which could be shown to have originated at the time under investigation, and avoid reliance on “secondary sources” such as memoirs or histories generated after the event. Moreover, they had to investigate and subject to the critical method all the sources relating to the events in which they were interested. They should not be content, as for example Gibbon had been, to rely on printed documents and chronicles generally available in libraries. They had instead to sally forth, as Ranke did, into the archives, to work their way through the vast unpublished boards of original manuscripts stored up by the state chancelleries of Europe. Only then, by gathering, criticizing and verifying all the available sources, could they put themselves in a position to reconstruct the past accurately.

The application of philological techniques to historical sources was a major breakthrough. Ranke’s principles still form the basis for much historical research and teaching today. History Special Subjects in many British universities, for example, offer a basic training in source-criticism; students are examined on extracts or “gobbets” from set documents and are expected to comment on them in terms of their internal consistency, their relationship to other documents on the same subject, their reliability and their usefulness as a source. Questions of authenticity and attribution continue to be vitally important in historical research. Forgeries, as the lamentable case of the “Hitler Diaries” showed over a decade ago, are still regrettably common; outright falsification and doctoring of the evidence abound in printed collections of documents and other publications relating to subjects such as the origins of the First World War and the Third Reich. They are even more common in medieval history. Technological innovation has added substantially to the Rankean armoury; the “Hitler Diaries” were easily exposed as forgeries by simple testing of the age of the paper on which they were written, which dated from the 1950s. (…)’

‘Postmodernism in its more constructive modes has encouraged historians to look more closely at documents, to take their surface patina more seriously, and to think about texts and narratives in new ways. It has helped open up many new subjects and areas for research, while putting back on the agenda many topics which had previously seemed to be exhausted. It has forced historians to interrogate their own methods and procedures as never before, and in the process has made them more self-critical, which is all to the good. It has led to a greater emphasis on open acknowledgement of the historian’s own subjectivity, which can only help the reader engaged in a critical assessment of historical work. It has shifted the emphasis in historical writing - though not in writing about history as a discipline - back from social-scientific to literary models, and in so doing has begun to make it more accessible to the public outside the universities (and indeed to students within them). It has restored individual human beings to history, where social science approaches had more or less written them out. And it has inspired, or at least informed, many outstanding historical works in the last decade or more: works which have been none the worse for continuing in other respects to conform to many of the traditional canons of scholarship which postmodernism in its more radical moments affects to despise.

(…) Yet we should not despair at the difficulty of the goals we have set ourselves. Everyone, even the most diehard deconstructionist, concedes in practice that there is extratextual reality. History is an empirical discipline, and it is concerned with the content of knowledge rather than its nature. Through the sources we use, and the methods with which we handle them, we can, if we are very careful and thorough, approach a reconstruction of past reality that may be partial and provisional, and certainly will not be objective, but is nevertheless true. We know, of course, that we will be guided in selecting materials for the stories we tell, and in the way we put these materials together and interpret them, by literary models, by social science theories, by moral and political beliefs, by an aesthetic sense, even by our own unconscious assumptions and desires. It is an illusion to believe otherwise. But the stories we tell will be true stories, even if the truth they tell is our own, and even if other people can and will tell them differently. Anyone who thinks that the truth about the past does not matter has not, perhaps, lived under a regime like that of the Soviet or Eastern bloc Communists where it is systematically distorted and suppressed. (…)’

The whole idea of objectivity, concludes Peter Novick in the introduction to several hundred pages of his own writing on the subject, is “essentially confused”. Yet the book to which he prefaces this remark is objective enough in most normal senses of the word. It does not wilfully distort or manipulate the evidence. And it presents the positions adopted by historians on their professional activities fully and fairly. This does not mean that it has no argument or point of view - far from it. But as Thomas L. Haskell has pointed out, it is important not to confuse objectivity with neutrality, indifference or lack of passion, as Novick himself appears to do. The pursuit of history, Haskell argues, requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All this needs “detachment”, the ability not to put oneself at the centre of a view of the world, as the most narcissistic of the postmodernists do, but to develop what Haskell calls “a view of the world in which one’s own self ... appears merely as one object among many”. Otherwise, for example, how would we be able to understand phenomena like Nazism and the Holocaust, or individuals like Stalin and Pol Pot? None of this means that historical judgment has to be neutral. But it does mean that the historian has to develop a detached mode of cognition, a faculty of self-criticism and an ability to understand another person’s point of view. This applies as much to politically committed history as it does to a history that believes itself to be politically neutral. Politically committed history only damages itself if it distorts, manipulates or obscures historical fact in the interests of the cause it claims to represent.

As Novick defines it, the idea of objectivity involves a belief in “the reality of the past, and [to] the truth as correspondence to that reality”. The truth about patterns and linkages of facts in history is in the end discovered not invented, found not made, though, as Haskell adds, “not without a process of imaginative construction that goes so far beyond the intrinsic properties of the raw materials employed that one can speak of their being ‘made’ as well”. Making such patterns and linkages, causal and otherwise, is by no means the only function of history, which also had a duty to establish the facts and recreate the past in the present, but it is in the end what distinguishes it from chronicle. Trevelyan was both right to point to the importance of the historical imagination in this process, and to insist on the strict limits within which that imagination is bound.

It is right and proper that postmodernist theorists and critics should force historians to rethink the categories and assumptions with which they work, and to justify the manner in which they practise their discipline. But postmodernism is itself one group of theories among many, and as contestable as all the rest. For my own part, I remain optimistic that objective historical knowledge is both desirable and attainable. So when Patrick Joyce tells us that social history is dead, and Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth declares that time is a fictional construct, and Roland Barthes announces that all the world’s a text, and Hans Kellner wants historians to stop behaving as if we were researching into things that actually happened, and Diane Purkiss says that we should just tell stories without bothering whether or not they are true, and Frank Ankersmit swears that we can never know anything at all about the past so we might as well confine ourselves to studying other historians, and Keith Jenkins proclaims that all history is just naked ideology designed to get historians power and money in big university institutions run by the bourgeoisie, 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. ‘

All Quotations are taken from: Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London 1997).  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae  

Richard J. Evans, born in 1947, wrote In Defence of History book while he was working at the University of London and was Professor-Elect of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. In this controversial but also celebrated book, Evans tried to explain why the profession of history was in crisis in the 1990s: under the unslaught of postmodernist theory its assumptions derided and it methods were rejected at outmoded. The philosophers of history were breaking down the distinction between fiction and history. The historical truth, some of them argued, was simply whatever a community of historians decided it should be. Historians were told there was no truth was to be discovered in the archives; only the assumptions the historian brought to them and the interests defended by the people who wrote the “original” papers on which historians work. In Defence of History was meant to be a politically and culturally defence of the concept of truth. Evans was one of the first historians, working within the university system, to go to bat for history books which combined craft, synthesis of historical conclusions and a narrative style to present  historical research to the broader audience. Personally he succeeded. Evans is the author of well-received books about the Third German Empire (The Coming of the Third Reich, 2003; The Third Reich in power 1933-1939, 2005; The Third Reich at War 1939-1945, 2008).This bestseller series is translated in many languages. His latest project, In The Pursuit of Power (2016), is part of the Penquin History of Europe. Evans aims to draw a picture of the nineteenth-century Europe in transformation from a pluralist point of view. Details about his career and publications are to found on his official website (