A short while ago I acted as the external examiner of an exceptional doctoral thesis on the social history of Nazi Germany. It was one of those theses that remind members of my cohort how we would struggle to be appointed to our own jobs if we had to apply for them now, so talented are the best of new entrants. Yet what I remember most about the viva is the candidate’s comment at the end to the effect that this period was “purely history” to him. I caught my co-examiner’s eye; we both registered this as a significant symbolic moment of intergenerational change; afterwards we agreed that these were words that would never have passed our lips.
One certainly cannot imagine them passing the lips of the generation of historians above us, a distinguished cohort of British scholars of modern Germany now on the cusp of retirement, of which Sir Richard J. Evans is but one prominent example. As undergraduates, they were socialised under the impact of Fritz Fischer and his acolytes; as graduate scholars they cut their teeth arguing on the terrain defined by the recently deceased Hans-Ulrich Wehler; as they moved into academic seniority in the 1980s they both broke his paradigm of the “special path” of German history and defined new problem spaces in which most of us still move in some way or another. Some devoted their careers to studying the Third Reich; others, including Evans, started working on the 19th century before moving to focus on Nazism; all of them were animated by a strong sense that German history mattered in a manner that some other histories simply did not. German history was about big questions, and those were not just of scholarly interest.
Those concerns still echo palpably through this, the latest collection of essays and extended reviews, mostly originally published by Evans in organs such as the London Review of Books. Whereas his previous collections discussed the place of Nazi Germany in the longue durée of German history, this one is held loosely together by its reflections on the silent historicisation of the Third Reich to which my examination student bore such powerful witness. On the plus side, the emergence of comparative approaches to Nazi genocide has enabled us to contextualise the Third Reich within wider histories of modern statehood, empire-building and mass violence, liberating it from that status of being somehow “outside of history” that acted as a barrier to critical thought for so long. On the downside, one senses a concern that those elements of Nazism that for Evans should still be thought of as singular are in danger of being lost in the process.
Evans is a pugnacious, and sometimes downright pugilistic, but always highly enjoyable reviewer. For expert readers this is, at the very least, an opportunity to engage with the odd recent book that they might originally have missed; for non-experts, it is a great way to take the temperature of the field in the hands of a reliable, sure-footed and entertaining commentator.
It is perhaps worth asking, though, whether the books reviewed here can really be made to stand more generally for the state of the field and the main moves that it has been making in recent years. Academia is a reputation game and, in my discipline probably more so than most, those reputations are made in the literary marketplace. This tends to privilege the stylists and the storytellers over the genuinely innovative thinkers and the theorists: the intellectually conservative understanding of history that underpins most of the trade book market militates against the most exciting scholarship ever reaching a wider public. Like pop music in the eyes of philosopher Theodor Adorno, most trade history publishing pulls off the trick of appearing to sound different each time while basically serving up an endless diet of the same. This book exemplifies the issue, in that it deals with often outstanding historical writing of a mostly thoroughly conventional kind.
It may or may not be related that only a tiny minority of the books reviewed here are authored by female peers. Is this an accident, or does it prompt questions about the gendered ecology of trade history writing, highbrow reviewing and book promoting? Does it, perhaps, suggest the greater propensity of male academics to attempt “big” books on “big” topics, conventionally understood – those just-a-bit-too-revisionist studies of something to do with politics and war that review editors think will most interest their own readerships? More than half the historians who have inspired me most over 25 years of working in the field that this book covers happen to have been women – and none of them get a look-in here. This raises questions for the two incoming Regius professors of history – both distinguished scholars of German history too – about how their public work communicates to a wider audience all that is genuinely most exciting about our discipline.
The Third Reich in History and Memory
By Richard J. Evans
Little, Brown, 496pp, £25.00
Published 26 February 2015