CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Cambridge historian Professor Sir Richard Evans, a world authority on the Nazis and author of the forthcoming Hitler’s People, will be speaking at a panel event on one of the big questions of our time: How do wars end? He will be joined by Booker prize judge, author and translator Uilleam Blacker, Professor Kristin Bakke from University College London who is also Associate Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Ayse Zarakol, author of Before the West: the rise and fall of Eastern world orders.  Award-winning BBC presenter Chris Mann, a former Moscow correspondent during the Cold War, will chair. 25th March, 6-7.30pm the Cambridge Union. 

Credit: Archive Holdings Inc. via Getty Images

Credit: Archive Holdings Inc. via Getty Images

Lots of parallels are being made to the 1930s these days. How useful are these? 
Despite some superficial resemblances, these are not very useful. The 1930s did indeed see a crisis of democracy in Europe, but the threat today is very different: the fascist movements of the 1930s were a product of World War I, based on paramilitary violence, with bands of armed and uniformed men using force to overthrow democratic institutions. Today's threat to democracy is more insidious, and comes from within, through the election of demagogues and charlatans. Above all, fascism was an aggressive, ultra-nationalist movement aiming at war and conquest, while today's demagogues are very different; even Putin does not aim to conquer Europe, let alone the world, only to reconstitute Russia in its former borders.  

Are  there common threads we can take about how wars end or is context all important? 
There are only a few ways in which wars end - victory of one side over the other, exhaustion of both sides leading to stalemate and compromise, or intervention by an outside force (usually international). That having been said, context remains vital. 

Can you sum up what your next book, Hitler's People, is about? 
My next book will be published by Penguin in August, and consists of 23 linked biographical chapters, beginning with Hitler, going on to his main lieutenants (Goebbels, Goering, Himmler et al.), then the middle-ranking Nazis (Eichmann, Heydrich and others), and concluding with representative individuals of various kinds from the lowest echelons of the Third Reich. It asks why these perpetrators became Nazis and why they continued (with very few exceptions) to the end.  

How important is it to you as a historian that your books are accessible to a non-academic reader?
Very important! I was taught as an undergraduate in Oxford by historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, Martin Gilbert and Keith Thomas, who all insisted on writing clearly for a wide readership. I've always tried to follow their advice and avoid jargon and over-specialisation. 

Which of your books have you most enjoyed writing and why? 
I most enjoyed writing 'Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History' (2019) because it combined two of my central interests, in 20th-century Europe and in historiography. It was based on a fantastic treasure-trove of previously untapped original material, which I was able to exploit for the first time. Hobsbawm lived to the age of 95 and never threw anything away. I knew him well, and hugely admired his work, though I never agreed with his politics. 

How did you first become interested in the Nazis?
I grew up in the Welsh community in the East End of London and as a child was shocked and fascinated by the massive bomb damage that could still be seen everywhere in the 1950s. Who had done this, and why? When I went up to Oxford in the late 1960s, 20th-century German history was just opening up, as the Germans began to rediscover it after a period of collective amnesia, and a lot of fascinating and controversial work was being published. It seemed an obvious choice to write my doctoral dissertation in this field, and I've never regretted it.  

How was it seeing yourself being interpreted on screen in Denial [by John Sessions]?
Well, he should have lost weight before he appeared in front of the camera! It wasn't the first time something like this happened to me: some years earlier I was played onscreen in the BBC-2 docudrama "History on Trial" by Michael Kitchen, best known for "Foyle's War". I ran into him in a London café not long afterwards and introduced myself. "I hope I played you to your satisfaction", he said. "Actually", I replied, "you played me far better than I played myself: you could rehearse, while I only had one shot at it." As with John Sessions, everything he said was taken direct from the trial transcript, so the words really were mine. No complaints, then. 

What do you regard as the high point of your career to date?
I've been extremely lucky in my career! There have been many high points - receiving a knighthood from the late Queen has to be one of them, like the honorary degree I was awarded by Oxford, and the British Academy Leverhulme Medal and Prize, awarded for outstanding achievement in the humanities only once every six years. But the best has to be election to the Regius professorship of Modern History [at the University of Cambridge] in 2008.