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Why Study History and WW2

LAURENCE REES: Why should we bother studying history in general and why this period in particular? And that strikes me as a particuarly important question to ask in this country since 70% of British children give up the study of all history at 13.

RICHARD EVANS: Well it’s maybe the case that only fewer than a third of school students carry on [studying history] beyond the age of 13, but there’s an enormous appetite for history in the country at large - grownups maybe making up for what they’ve missed, and history books sell extremely well. There are plenty of history programmes on TV and when I give lectures to adults in Gresham College in the City of London they’re packed out - 200 people come along. There’s a huge appetite for history I think and in a way that’s a rather false way of looking at it, simply to take school statistics. There is a broad interest in the public at large.

LAURENCE REES: But why should people bother to study it?

RICHARD EVANS: I think what history tells us is more general and less direct than you might imagine. I think it’s not that history teaches us lessons - how to do things in the present. Most of the lessons that people learn from history are the wrong ones or don’t come off. I think simply that history shows us what people were like in the past, how they behaved in the past, how they felt and thought and that’s in very different ways to the way we think, so it enlarges our vision of what being human is, and the possibilities and the limitations of humanity at large. That, I think, is its real importance.

LAURENCE REES: Why study this particular period?

RICHARD EVANS: I think this particular period, the Second World War, does involve more extreme forms of belief and behaviour than almost any other in history. There are very few that really show humanity at its best and its worst in such an extreme way, so it offers us particular opportunities I think to study humanity in these particularly harsh circumstances.