“I worry that the view people have of the past is becoming narrower”: an interview with Sir Richard J Evans

Eminent historian Sir Richard J Evans has been appointed as the new Provost of Gresham College, London’s oldest higher education institution and one that has become famous for hosting free public lectures.

Evans, whose trilogy on the Third Reich is considered a seminal work in the field of modern history, will oversee the dissemination of free public education through lectures which have been delivered by leading academics at Gresham for more than 400 years, and which today reach an audience of millions worldwide online.

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Evans has written 18 books, and was the principal expert witness in the David Irving libel trial before the High Court in London in 2000. Irving took American academic Deborah Lipstadt to court for libel after she branded him a Holocaust denier in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, but the judge concluded that Irving was “an active Holocaust denier; that he was anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with rightwing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism”.

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Evans was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2012 for services to scholarship, and he was this year awarded the Historical Association’s Norton Medlicott Medal for his outstanding contribution to history.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, Evans discusses the highlights of his career, and shares his concerns about the future of history teaching.

Q: You have been professor of rhetoric at Gresham College since 2009 – what was your reaction to your appointment as Provost?

A: I was absolutely thrilled. I have thought for a long time that it is important for historians and academics more generally to bring their research to the wider public, and that is exactly what the college does.

At Gresham College, eminent academics present their findings in a digestible form through lectures for free. The college website boasts 1,500 lectures and texts, and reaches an audience of more than two million. It’s amazing that a college founded in 1597 should now reach so many people.

Its founder, Sir Thomas Gresham, was at the cutting edge of subjects such as astronomy – bear in mind that this was in the 1590s, when Copernicus’s theories [the most famous being that the Sun and not the Earth is at the centre of the universe] were still being hotly debated. I think he would very much approve of the new technology being used to disseminate the lectures.

Q: What will your new role entail?

A: I’ll be running an organisation that puts on 130 lectures a year, and chairing the panels that select the lecturers. The professors of astronomy, divinity, geometry, law, music, physic, rhetoric, all in posts going back to the foundation of the college, are each appointed for a three-year term and have recently been joined by two new professorships, of commerce and of the environment.

Q: You’ve had a long and exciting career – do you have any particular highlights?

A: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all my jobs. The University of Stirling, where I was a lecturer in history from 1972 to 1976, was a great place to start.

My time at the University of East Anglia [from 1976 to 1983] gave me lots of opportunities to develop teaching and research in German history. Birkbeck in London gave me experience in teaching mature students, and I have enjoyed hugely my time at Cambridge, especially as president of Wolfson College – an exciting, unconventional place.

And, of course, acting as the principal expert witness in the David Irving libel trial in 2000 was a huge challenge. When I was asked to be involved, I had just three years earlier written In Defence of History [a book that defends history, and argues that, despite scepticism about our ability to learn anything from the past, it is possible to recapture past ways of life].

I thought the trial would be a good way to put my principles into practice. It took 18 months to prepare for the trial [Evans was tasked with scrutinising Irving’s books and speeches to determine whether he was indeed a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history], and the trial itself lasted for three months.

I came to realise that it was far more significant than I had originally thought. It was not just about the ability of history to ascertain the truth, but also about doing justice to survivors of the Holocaust – many of whom were sat in the public gallery with their Auschwitz numbers tattooed on their arms.

We successfully discredited Holocaust denial. I think it was a success in that sense.

There has been a lot of concern among historians that when the last generation of survivors dies out, people will lose interest and stop caring [about the Holocaust]. But we showed that historians can, even in the absence of firsthand testimony, reach a situation where we have a very high degree of certainty about what happened in the past.

Q: In 2012 you were appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for services to scholarship. How did you feel?

A: I was completely stunned. I was extremely honoured. I was among 90 people who received honours of many different kinds that day, for a huge variety of services to the country, and I was proud to feel part of the national community.

But my two teenage sons were more excited that they spotted Kate Winslet, who was honoured for her contribution to the arts, and managed to have their photograph taken with her in the Palace yard!

Q: Last summer you publicly criticised the education secretary Michael Gove over his proposed changes to the history curriculum for schools in England [under which pupils would have been expected to learn little more than a detailed chronological history of Britain]. How do you think history should be taught in schools – should it be compulsory?

A: History should be compulsory until GSCE level, and so too should languages. It’s wrong to stop at 14. It’s important for students to know about the past and have the means to think critically about it.

It’s not about a simple digestion of facts – history should allow people to think for themselves, so that they can become responsible adult citizens.

But I do worry that the view people have of the past may be becoming narrower, as shown by the current debate on the First World War, which seems to be confined to the British contribution on the western front, and that it does not recognise wider European and global developments through the ages.

Q: What is it about history that continues to fascinate you?

A: History is about people, and their relationships. It’s about the perennial question of ‘how much free will do people have in building their own lives, and making a future?’

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It’s fascinating to see people battle with larger forces – sometimes succeeding, and sometimes losing.