Historian Richard J. Evans: ‘Putin’s goals are very ambitious; Hitler’s had no limits’

The author of ‘The Third Reich Trilogy’ says that believing that there’s no such thing as objective truth — only opinion — leads to the destruction of society

Richard J. Evans
Historian Richard J. Evans; August 8, 2023; London.Rasid Aslim

Our enduring fascination with the past has ignited a renaissance for the exploration of history. Richard J. Evans, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), acknowledges the unprecedented popularity of historical literature and documentaries. Evans’ The Third Reich Trilogy is widely regarded as the most comprehensive account of Nazism. However, he believes that historians should focus on understanding the past rather than drawing lessons from it. Evans, with almost 20 books translated into many languages, stresses the significance of objective truth and warns about the alarming rise of modern populism, which he believes surpasses even Nazi propaganda.

Question. Are there any similarities between the social context that led to Nazi rule and today, particularly with the rise of right-wing extremism?

Answer. What populists and Nazis have in common is that they blame the existing political system. And they despise it. For them, the political system of democracy and elections and a constitution — all of that — is a way of keeping elites in power who caused the problems in the first place. So they revolt against it. A populist is a politician who sees constitutions and elected governments as obstacles to what they perceive as reality. They lack integrity in their approach to the truth... Joseph Goebbels, the infamous head of Nazi propaganda, excelled at distorting the truth. However, today’s populists have taken it even further. They don’t believe in the existence of objective truth, which is deeply concerning given the widespread influence of social networks. All populist politicians desire authoritarian power, but it’s important to note that while all fascists are populists, not all populists are fascists.

Q. People frequently compare Putin with Hitler.

A. Of course, there are parallels. Both are strong men who attacked and destroyed democracy in their own country. Putin, however, is not the same as Hitler in more than one way. First of all, Putin wants to bring together the territories that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, which he sees as being Russian. That’s very different from Hitler, because Putin’s aims are limited. They’re very ambitious, but they have limits. Hitler’s aims were unlimited. He literally wanted to conquer the world, and his central belief was the racial question — he saw history in terms of racial struggle. Putin, however, is a Russian nationalist. He believes that Ukrainians are Russian, not that they are an inferior race.

Q. Have we learned from the history of the 20th century, or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

A. History never repeats itself, in part, because we have indeed learned from the past. Since World War II, there have been very few instances of external intervention to overthrow a government. Generally, the international community only gets involved when dealing with extremely malevolent regimes that engage in genocide or perpetrate widespread cruelty. The cost of intervention is incredibly high. The post-World War I conditions that led to the rise of Hitler are no longer present, so another Hitler-like figure is highly unlikely. Dictatorships typically end through elections, revolutions or uprisings, and dictators often meet a grim fate.

Q. Free will is a recurring theme in your writing. How much can we really plan our lives?

A. Karl Marx said that we make our own history, but not from freely available elements. We make it under the conditions that we inherit. Whatever you think of Marx’s theories, I think that’s a very helpful statement. By analyzing individuals or groups and how we make decisions, we can approve or decline proposals. However, we cannot control the circumstances in which we exercise our free will. You have to take what is there and do the best you can.

Q. You studied the feminist movements of the early 20th century. Are there any lessons to be learned from that?

A. I was fortunate enough to uncover a suppressed feminist movement during Imperial Germany. However, it ultimately failed due to the opposition of conservative middle-class and right-wing people who did not hold feminist beliefs. They believed women should be confined to domestic roles, opposed suffrage and supported nationalism. The feminist movement has always been divisive, including during the period I studied, and this divide persists today. While significant legislative progress has been made, the movement now faces a serious challenge from the ongoing controversy surrounding the transgender movement.

Q. You have also examined conspiracy theories and their impact on democracy. With the widespread use of social media, do they pose an increasing threat?

A. Due to minimal regulation, the internet has become a breeding ground for the rapid spread of conspiracy theories. This poses a threat to democracy, as it undermines trust in institutions and the concept of truth itself. When objective truth is dismissed in favor of subjective opinions, it jeopardizes society as a whole, as our very existence relies on a shared understanding of reality. Research on conspiracy theories reveals that they are particularly prevalent among individuals who feel marginalized by the political system. This sense of helplessness fuels populism, with populist leaders often exploiting conspiracy theories to gain support from those who believe they are being conspired against by the system.

Q. Cancel culture is a growing trend that we can also observe in academia.

A. Freedom of expression is meaningless if there’s no freedom to offend or annoy. Listening to opinions we disagree with is vital in a democratic culture, as long as it doesn’t involve hate speech or calls for violence. The transgender movement’s attempt to silence opposing viewpoints is concerning, but it’s important to recognize that cancel culture exists across the political spectrum. For instance, in the U.K., conservatives are pushing to halt research on slavery and involvement by British institutions. As a historian, I strongly disagree. Loving your country shouldn’t be blind; it should be informed by a comprehensive understanding of its past.

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