The Third Reich in History: An Interview with Richard Evans
Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.
Historian Richard Evans has reshaped the way we look at Hitler and Nazi Germany, especially through his trilogy on the history of the Third Reich. More recently he has been sharply critical of historian Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Aaron Leonard recently conducted an interview with him via email to discuss his development as a scholar, the job of the historian, and recent controversies.
You came of age amid the turmoil of the 1960s. How did those times shape your development as a historian?
“1968” and the Sixties more generally are one of those moments that shape a distinctive generation: in my case, largely left-wing, optimistic, forward-looking. There was a sense of liberation, both personally and in terms of the discipline of history, as a multitude of new approaches came to the fore, from the Annales school and the English Marxist historians to German social-science history, quantification and demography, and more besides. History was no longer an élite preoccupation, as the History Workshop movement showed (and I took part in all the early annual Workshops). At the same time, the rise of neo-fascist movements and anti-immigrant racism, along with the Vietnam War, were deeply disturbing and required serious analysis. Taken together, these times shaped my development as a historian by giving me an abiding interest in the history of ordinary people and how it intersected with the big issues like democracy and dictatorship, war and peace, hierarchy and equality, authority and obedience, and how and why progressive movements of social and political reform rose and fell. And the disciplinary turmoil of the decade made me acutely aware of the many different ways in which one could do history, and the various approaches used by historians to reconcile grand theory with deep empirical research.
My sense in reading your work is you approach history from the stand of sorting things out, attempting a coherent explanation of things. This is different from the postmodernist current that argues for a multitude of explanations for events. Could you talk about your approach?
History is nothing if not an attempt to explain things—if you don’t do this, you’re a mere chronicler. You can’t have competing or contradictory explanations for an event or phenomenon: in the end one has to be right and the other wrong, though since we’re dealing with history, this is a matter of the balance of probabilities rather than a simple stark black-and-white alternative. And of course historians habitually argue for a multitude of causes, making an event “overdetermined”, to use the common jargon. We have to frame a more or less plausible hypothesis and then take it to the evidence to look, not for material that will support it, but for material that will falsify it, and then we go into a process of adjustment of the hypothesis until we arrive one that holds water when confronted with the evidence. Often such explanations won’t be totally coherent—history is seldom so neat—and there will be lots of use of words and phrases like “probably” and “most likely”, but we shouldn’t abandon the attempt to construct rational explanations altogether just because it’s difficult.
In a recent piece in the London Review of Books you sharply challenge the push to promote a mythological view of English history. Living in the United States I am ever struck by the national myths that continue despite all knowledge to the contrary. How well do you think historians in countries like Britain and the U.S. have done actualizing, rather than mythologizing history?
What I was attacking in the London Review of Books was the idea, promoted by the present UK government, that history teaching in the schools should be about trying to build a sense of national identity by telling patriotic stories about the British past. In my view, history is a critical discipline that provides students with the intellectual means to question and puncture such myths. History is very popular in the media and history books frequently feature in the bestseller lists. And many of these books themselves question myths, or equally importantly, revise popularly held views about people and events in the past—indeed, that’s often a key selling point.
I was introduced to your work by the first entry in your Third Reich trilogy, The Coming of the Third Reich. I was especially struck -- and horrified -- by the narrative of how the Nazis smashed the opposition to them, most notably the KPD and the Social Democrats. What set you on a course to write this work, and what transformed in your thinking in the course of writing it?
I had been teaching a special undergraduate course on Nazi Germany for nearly twenty years, so I had built up a certain expertise in the field as well as a collection of relevant books and source materials. Then in 1998 I was asked to serve as an expert witness in a major libel case that turned on allegations of Holocaust denial, and when the lawyers asked me for a comprehensive history of Nazi Germany to help them with their background reading, I couldn’t think of one, so I decided to do one myself, as soon as the case was over. The court case and the research for the book made me more inclined than I’d been before to put Hitler at the center of the decision-making process (as opposed to the dominant view that decisions emerged structurally). I wanted to convey the experience of ordinary Germans during the Nazi period and this made me much more aware of the enormous variety of responses to Nazism amongst them, and the many and varied ways in which they became entangled in its crimes. More specifically, studying the Allied strategic bombing of German cities brought home to me just how hugely destructive it was, something that’s seldom reflected in the literature.
Now that all three volumes are complete do you have a sense of their effect? To what degree have they changed people’s understanding of the time the Nazis held power? To what degree have they changed the way people talk about this horrible time?
This is almost impossible to answer. Taken together, the three volumes have now sold more than 300,000 copies in English, and they’ve also been translated into a range of foreign languages, including French, German and Spanish. Obviously the impact will vary from country to country. I hope, however, that my books have conveyed just how violent, destructive and murderous Nazism was, and how enormously complex a subject it is; too often, people see it all in simplistic terms of heroes and villains, and by focusing on ordinary people’s diaries and letters I wanted to bring home the many ways in which it was so much more complicated than that. I hope too that the volumes have made it clear, contrary to what many historians argue, that this really was a violent and terroristic dictatorship, that operated not just by propaganda and indoctrination but also by fear and intimidation. The Holocaust has been so much the focus of people’s understanding of Nazi Germany that I also wanted to bring home to readers the fact that there was a whole range of victims of many different kinds, including hundreds of thousands of Germans. Finally, one of my main aims was to replace William L. Shirer’s outdated book on the Third Reich, which has a terribly simplistic view of Nazism as the inevitable culmination of the whole of German history and an expression of the “German character.” If after reading my books people think of it all as less inevitable than Shirer says it was, and see the Germans as people like us, then it will have achieved one of its major aims.
Recently you took historian Timothy Snyder to task in very sharp terms. In reviewing his recent book Bloodlands in the London Review you write, “What we need is not to be told yet again the facts about mass murder, but to understand why it took place and how people could carry it out, and in this task Snyder’s book is of no use.” Could you talk about the core difference you have with Snyder in looking at the genocide and killing Hitler set loose?
Snyder’s not interested in explanation, whereas I think this is the historian’s major duty. He wants to equate Stalin and Hitler and tell us that the crimes they committed were basically the same; in other words, the killing and genocide were let loose by Hitler and Stalin, not just by Hitler. Laws have been passed in Hungary and the Ukraine in recent years making it illegal to deny this equation. I think this is very dangerous. It’s not belittling or trivializing the mass murders committed under Stalin to say that Hitler’s extermination of European Jews was different, had different origins and motives, and was genocidal in a way that the mass death of Ukrainians during Stalin’s terroristic collectivization of agriculture was not. Snyder hugely underplays Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi genocide, while exaggerating the extent of resistance, and gives an exaggeratedly uncritical account of the Polish Home Army. There’s much more besides. This isn’t a piece of objective historical explanation.
In the profile of you in the book Historians you are quoted saying, “Historians are too seldom used to playing a role in public, and my experience in the Irving /Penguin libel trial strengthened my conviction that perhaps they should be.” Why?
History is central to many things we do and think about, and historians shouldn’t shut themselves away in the ivory towers of academe just talking to each other; we work on major aspects of life in the past and so we have a contribution to make to intellectual and public life in the present. As a philosopher once said, those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.
What is the thing you hope most to accomplish with your work?
I hope to get readers not just interested in and enthusiastic about the topics I write on, through reading my work, but also to think about them critically, to realize the enormous richness and diversity of human experience, and by learning from the horrors and disasters of the past, to commit themselves to building a freer, more open and more democratic future.
Richard J. Evans was born in London in 1947. From 1989 to 1998 he was Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. Since 1998 he has been Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.
In 1994 he was awarded the Hamburg Medal for Art and Science for cultural services to the city. His books include The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894–1933, Death in Hamburg (winner of the Wolfson Literary Award for History), In Hitler’s Shadow, Rituals of Retribution (winner of the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History), In Defence of History (which has so far been translated into eight languages), Telling Lies about Hitler, The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War.
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