Cambridge's new Regius Professor, Richard Evans, had an unusual start to his post – he applied for it.

Historians in the News

Although Richard Evans was the favourite for the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, he maintains that the process of winning the job was tough. For a start, there was an application procedure. Not so long ago, you didn't do anything so vulgar as apply for this distinguished position. You sat about, hoping that you would be looked upon with favour. It is a royal appointment, after all, which means that it used to be in the gift of the prime minister of the day.

The system was that the patronage secretary would take soundings at Cambridge and put forward two names to the PM, from which he or she would choose, but Gordon Brown changed that. As with the Bank of England, he devolved decision-making, and the university now makes the choice. So Professor Evans, the prolific and combative scholar of Nazi Germany, is the first academic to have won the position in open competition.

"This time the post was advertised," he says. "And there was a so-called advisory panel, to all intents and purposes an appointments committee, which was under instructions to submit one name of a person who had already accepted the job, so that Number 10 and Her Majesty would in effect simply ratify this choice."

So, Evans applied. On the panel was Cambridge's vice chancellor, Professor Alison Richard, and a group of other eminent academics, as well as historians from Yale, Harvard, Oxford and London. The panel selected a shortlist of four, each of whom was asked to give a presentation to the entire assembled history faculty.

Essentially, the applicants had to give a lecture on their research, their plans and their concept of the post, which dates back to 1724. The faculty then completed a questionnaire in which they were asked to list the 10 qualities that they thought were most important for the Regius Professor. As if that wasn't enough, there were feedback meetings where the presentations were discussed. Interviews followed. The shortlist of four was reduced to two – and finally Evans triumphed.

Gordon Brown should be pleased with the choice that Cambridge has made, if only because Evans is seen as left of centre. He is certainly no ordinary scholar. Not only has he written the massive three-volume history of the Third Reich, whose last volume is published this month in a felicitous coincidence of events, but he has got his hands dirty in the real world.

As the principal expert witness, he comprehensively demolished David Irving in the Holocaust denial libel trial of 2000, taking him to task for mistranslated documents, for using discredited testimony and for falsifying historical statistics. "Irving has fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he does not deserve to be called a historian at all," Evans said at the time.

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