Sat waiting in the Gladstone Room at the Oxford Union, I felt quite intimidated by the prospect of meeting Richard Evans. Having spent six years at Oxford as both an undergraduate and doctoral student, Evans later served as an expert witness in a high-profile libel case. More recently, Evans has written several noteworthy books including seminal works on the Nazi period, the Third Reich Trilogy, its last part described in The New York Times as “not only the finest but also the most riveting account of that period”.
Richard Evans, now President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, is by any measure an intellectual heavyweight. Yet Evans turns out to be a very likeable, unassuming and open person. Remarking on his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, he describes himself as “a terrible swot” and that his admission to Jesus College in particular was no mere accident. He tells me, “It was full of Welshmen, which is why I was sent there.”
Evans also speaks fondly about studying for his doctorate at the more “cosmopolitan” St Anthony’s College, as he described it. From undergraduate life at a single-sex college, suddenly “there were women. Intelligent and beautiful women. Of course I fell in love with them all and made a fool of myself several times over but I also had some wonderful supervisors and some incredible intellectual experiences.
“The best things were the Latin American parties,” Evans recalls with a smile, “because they all after a certain stage brought guitars and started singing songs about Che Guevara – it was the sixties, you see!” It is evident from speaking with Evans that he finds cultural differences incredibly stimulating.
I press him on a remark he made for History Today, in which Evans described a sense of “otherness” he felt and that derived from his Welsh heritage. “I never learnt Welsh, I grew up in London,” he admits. “But we went back to North Wales a lot. Everyone was speaking Welsh around me and I didn’t understand, and I had to sit through interminable Welsh language sermons… and it got me fascinated. And it was completely different, I mean, as different as you could get: the Welsh mountains, slate quarrying, castles, all of those sorts of things, again, I found hugely exciting.”
It was this intrigue surrounding other cultures, as well as his experience growing up around post-war London that inspired Evans to study German history, he tells me. “You’d go into the East End, into Stratford or Leyton and see all these rows of terraced houses with huge gaps in them. I was very struck by that. Who were these strange people who’d done that, why did the Germans want to bomb London and so on? And of course, my parents and friends had all lived through the war and talked about it a lot.”
In a foolish attempt to appear insightful, I ask Evans if he sees any parallels between Hitler’s foreign policy and that of Putin in Eastern Europe today. He bats me down immediately. “No, not at all. History doesn’t repeat itself. And the reason is that we know what happened before so that makes it very difficult for it to repeat. Putin, I think, essentially wants to recreate the Soviet Union so there’s this great limit. He’d like to annex the Baltic States to reconstitute that larger idea of Russia that he grew up in, the Russian empire.
“Hitler was completely different. He wanted to conquer the world. He had no limits in time or space to what he thought of the Third Reich as doing, what he aimed for it to do. Whereas Putin’s use of violence is covert and relatively limited, Hitler, of course, was overt and without boundaries.”
With my tail firmly between my legs, I move onto Evans’ time as an expert witness in the highly publicised Irving v. Lipstadt case, after Lipstadt had alleged in her book that Irving was a Holocaust-denier. As an expert witness, Evans was instructed to analyse Irving’s work, concluding in his report that, “Not one of his books can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject.” Lipstadt was, the court found, justified in saying some of Irving’s work amounted to Holocaust denial.
On how he found working in such an environment, Evans tells me, “You have to be absolutely on your toes the whole time. It was very draining and the adrenaline sort of keeps you going, I would collapse in the evening and think ‘I’m going to have an early night’.”
On a more sombre note, Evans also tells me of those he could see in the public gallery. “There were a lot of Auschwitz survivors who turned up with their arm sleeves rolled up and you could see their numbers tattooed, hanging on my every word when I was in the witness box.” He says it became “very important to do them justice, as it were, even though I don’t think the trial in the end could deliver the kind of catharsis that some of them, maybe, were looking for.” As the interview nears its end, Evans leans in towards the microphone and tells me, “History is not a court; we are not judges.” To Evans, studying history is about rising above moral standards of the time and not seeking to paint people “as perpetrators, bystanders, or victims.” While his analysis may seem coldly logical, it is clear that Evans, as a person, is not. Richard Evans is a phenomenal historian, but one with an overwhelming sense of humility, humour and insatiable intrigue.