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Richard J. Evans

Daniel Snowman meets the historian of Germany, defender of history and expert witness in the Irving trial.

Richard Evans may be Professor of Modern History at Cambridge but that doesn’t stop him receiving periodic bouts of hate mail and Internet opprobrium. It’s flattering in a way, for Evans has emerged as one of the most prominent knights in the field to champion the honour and integrity of history against attack. And woe betide those on the receiving end. Whether charging against the wilder claims of postmodernism or of counterfactual history or, most famously, puncturing the view of Nazi history presented in the works of David Irving, Evans’ well-honed lance can be deadly. The recent reissue of his book In Defence of History includes an extensive Afterword in which Evans robustly takes on critics from all parts of the field and, in many cases, trounces them. His painstaking trawl through Irving’s sources in the notorious libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt played a pivotal part in Irving’s downfall. 

The only child of Welsh parents who migrated to London during the Depression, Evans was born in 1947 and raised in the Essex extension of greater London. But his lineage is solidly Welsh and Welsh-speaking. Memories of childhood visits to Wales soon turn to the Calvinistic Methodist chapel (in which many cousins were deacons) and to the historic Welsh ruins that intrigued him even then – not just the famous old castles, but also, for example, the remains of once-thriving slate quarries with their deserted workshops, idle railway lines and rusting machinery. One of Richard’s grandfathers had been a slate quarryman. Looking back, Evans feels his small-town Welsh heritage helped give him a sense of ‘otherness’, the inclination and capacity to ask questions about one culture from the perspective of someone living in another.

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