Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Richard Evans on "Hi Hitler!"

In today's Guardian, Richard Evans engages with some of the arguments (both counterfactual and factual) that I advance in Hi Hitler!  For the review click HERE.

I appreciate Evans's close reading of my argument and would respond to his more critical points as follows:

1) As I pointed out in my review of his recent book, Altered Pasts, I disagree with Evans's claim that "'normalisation” itself is an empty concept.'"  In fact, it is widely accepted among historians and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.  I would prefer to see him engage with it more directly, in the way that other scholars, such as Bill Niven, have done.  None of us who employ the concept would deny that normalization has problematic aspects (mostly in the realm of teleology), but it would be preferable to contend with them more actively and thereby advance the discussion, which is so vital for memory studies, than to sidestep it.  

2) I would not disagree with Evans's claim that some "of the historians and writers Rosenfeld discusses are in truth marginal figures..., from Patrick Buchanan to Nicholson Baker, James Bacque to Michael Bess."  However, I do point out in chapter 1 that these writers' strident critiques of the "good war" have been echoed in semi-watered-down fashion by plenty of more established historians.  I am essentially pointing out a worrisome trend migrating from the margins to the mainstream.

3) I also disagree with Evans's claim, made in reference to my discussion of Holocaust historians' use of counterfactuals, that "the examples Rosenfeld cites are merely throwaway remarks, peripheral and ultimately irrelevant to the historian’s principal task of explaining what actually did happen."  First, it is hardly "peripheral" to wonder "what if?" As plenty of historians have convincingly argued, it is impossible to truly understand what happened in the past without being aware of what did not (or might have).  Second, the examples I cite are not "throwaway" lines.  In my chapter on Holocaust historiography in Hi Hitler!, I show empirically that dozens of historians have employed counterfactual arguments and, more importantly, that they are all of central importance to their larger conclusions.   Moreover, I am presently researching a larger study on the history of counterfactual history and hope eventually to document how the western historical profession -- typified by major historians (again, not marginal figures) -- has evolved in its thinking on historical speculation.  My recent post on A. J. P. Taylor (who famously spoke out on the pointlessness of counterfactuals) reveals that scholars are often inconsistent (and indeed hypocritical) in simultaneously condemning and yet employing "what if" scenarios in their work.  In other words, we all need to own up to the truth of how it is we write about history.

4. Evans is right to argue that "mainstream history...moved away from the cool objectivity of the first scholarly studies of Nazism in the 1960s and 70s by historians such as Martin Broszat towards the morally driven works of writers such as Saul Friedl√§nder [in the 1980s and 1990s], as the Nazi extermination of the Jews has been subsumed under the label of the 'Holocaust.'" Needless to say, that shift towards a morally informed historiography was animated by concerns about normalizing tendencies in the first place, and it has never gone unchallenged since then.  Critiques of moralism persist.  There is no guarantee that the moralistic turn will last.  Evans strikes me as somewhat complacent in arguing that "it is no longer possible to approach the Third Reich as if it were 16th-century Italy or ancient Greece, as it was for historians decades ago; in the 21st century, moral judgment is de rigueur."  Normalizing tendencies abound. And even if they generate moralistic responses (Evans is right to point this out, as I myself do), it is anything but clear whether the relative influence of these competing impulses towards morality and normality will remain in their current configuration.  Morally informed history needs to be vigorously defended.  (On this account, Evans and I agree -- and his new book, The Third Reich in History and Memory certainly testifies to his own admirable commitments).

5. Finally, Evans is probably correct in arguing that "It is only because it is impossible for our culture, despite the efforts of a tiny and disregarded band of Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, to express any admiration for Hitler, that he has become the butt of humour and trivialisation: they gain their effect precisely because we all know that in the end Hitler was evil."  However, I am not so sure that we can predict what the cumulative effect of all the satirical representations of Hitler and the Nazis will be.  Evans seems to be more confident that the inherent evil of Nazism will always be recognized.   I am less sure.

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