The historian Richard J. Evans has regularly crossed the boundary between historical research and political debate. For those outside the historical community, Sir Richard may be best known for his role in the defamation trial brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt on the issue of Irving’s Holocaust denial. Evans’s testimony was pivotal in defeating Irving’s legal challenge. His book on the case, Lying About Hitler, outlined his efforts to destroy Irving’s research and the resulting conclusions about Hitler and the Holocaust. In doing so, Evans emerged as far more than a key historian of academic interest. Holocaust denial has been a key intellectual plank in the revival of the far-right in Europe and elsewhere, and Evans remains a determined intellectual foe.
In academic circles, Professor Evans is best known as a British historian of 19th and 20th-century Europe, focussing on Germany. He is the author of eighteen books and is widely regarded as one of the most important historians of our time. In particular, his immensely popular book In Defence of History dissected the postmodernist approaches to history. The book reflected Evans’s ability to break down issues and bring a great deal of good judgment to the debate.
Employing this common-sense approach, Evans has now turned his attention to five widely discussed claims or myths about Nazi Germany and Hitler, including the use of Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the German Army being stabbed in the back in 1918; the idea that Nazis burned down the Reichstag; Hess’ flight to the United Kingdom; and that Hitler escaped the bunker at the end of the Second World War.
The book is important as some of these ideas continue to flower, and, if anything, the myths are becoming entrenched. To its disgrace, The History Channel broadcast a three-season television series, Hunting Hitler, based on wafer-thin speculation about the Nazi’s dictator’s survival from 2015 to 2018. The series made no effort to address or even consider the clear evidence of Hitler’s demise established beyond any possible doubt by historians and other reputable investigators. Certainly, their research is not sacrosanct, but this series did not examine a huge and established body of evidence. The approach is a comment on our times that each episode attracted on average three million viewers.
For each myth, Evans points out their weaknesses, contradictions and often insane leaps of logic. Of the conspiracy theories outlined by Professor Evans, the most salient is the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth developed by far-right groups to explain the German Army’s loss in November 1918. Evans lays bare that Germany was losing the war with one million casualties between March and July 1918 in a last gasp offensive. Coupled with the arrival of troops from the United States and the increased deployment of tanks on the western front, the days of trench warfare were ending, and there would be no possibility of Germany winning the war. There was no stab in the back.
Even so, the belief helped underpinned the rise of authoritarian conservative groups in Germany, of which the Nazi’s would be triumphant. In the wake of the recent riots at the United States Capitol, it is nearly impossible to read The Hitler Conspiracies with anything but mounting concern. Many commentators have seen echoes of the 1923 Munich putsch by the Nazis in the insurrection. The wounded nationalism, the hysteria, the overheated rhetoric and a simple refusal to even acknowledge the truth are all there. The similarities between the protests of pro-Trump forces and the emerging fascist movement in 1920s Germany are simply chilling. In 1923, there was no internet echo chamber to magnify these ideas.
It is not a question of history repeating itself, but the dilemmas faced by previous generations often resonate with us. The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination continues Evan’s work showing the value of great historical writing in the world today.