This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
A classical scholar; a wartime intelligence officer; a regius professor of modern history at Oxford; Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge; author of a string of history books and a successful newspaper journalist, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s achievements were recognised with a life peerage. Sadly at his death in 2003 his services to history, not least his brilliantly researched 1947 book The Last Days of Hitler, were overshadowed by his mistaken authentication of the forged ‘Hitler diaries’ in 1983. Now, a century after his birth, it is time to reappraise the career of this high profile and sometimes controversial historian who inspired many young scholars, including me, at the start of their careers.
Born in 1914, Hugh Trevor-Roper was brought up in rural Northumberland, the first son and second child of a doctor who had bought a local practice. His mother, the daughter of a Belfast businessman, was rigid and censorious, and family life was starved of warmth. His bleak upbringing turned Hugh in on himself, and would leave a permanent mark on his social relationships: in company he would often give the appearance of being remote and aloof. His social awkwardness was compounded by extreme short sight, but his glance could be intimidating, as if his eyes were gimlets, boring their way into you as he weighed up whether you were worthy of conversational effort.
His unpromising start to life, however, had its compensations. In his loneliness he would explore the countryside around his Northumbrian home and developed an exact and precise knowledge of the natural world. This love of the countryside shines through in his recently published The Wartime Journals (IB Tauris, 2012) and would enable him as a historian to evoke for his readers in a few vivid words the setting of great events.
But, above all, his loneliness made him an avid reader, and at his public school, Charterhouse, to which he was sent at the age of 13, he soon stood out as a highly promising scholar, and developed what was to be an abiding love of the classical literature of Greece and Rome. When he and I spent a short walking holiday together in Catalonia, in Spain, in the spring of 1956, he would bring out his copy of Virgil’s Aeneid in the evenings and read from it before putting out the light.
In 1932 he went up to Oxford as a classical scholar but soon transferred to history, and, after a distinguished undergraduate career, embarked on research into the life of Charles I’s archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.
Mystery of Hitler’s bunker
By 1940, when his biography of Laud appeared in print, the Second World War had begun, and Hugh was drafted into intelligence work for MI5. This was a task for which his precise mind and his linguistic skills eminently suited him, although his instinctive dislike of authority and any form of pomposity made him enemies as well as friends in the mysterious world of the intelligence services.
His wartime experience of delving into the activities of the German Secret Service had a transformative impact on his life. As the war drew to a close his first-hand knowledge of the situation in Germany made him ideally equipped to write the official report on the circumstances of Hitler’s death in his Berlin bunker. The book, The Last Days of Hitler (republished, Pan Books, 2012), that emerged in 1947 out of his report, was a brilliant piece of historical investigation, and brought him national and international fame. His career as a historian was set, and in due course, returning to Oxford, he would become its regius professor of modern history in 1957, and a dominant, if controversial, figure in academic and public life.
Ironically, Hitler, who had catapulted him to fame, was also to prove the catalyst of later disaster. In 1980, by now a life peer under the title of Lord Dacre of Glanton, he exchanged Oxford for Cambridge, where he moved with his wife, the daughter of Field Marshal Earl Haig, into the Master’s Lodge at Peterhouse. Three years later he was asked by Rupert Murdoch to authenticate for The Sunday Times what were alleged to be the recently discovered diaries of Hitler. Having done so in difficult circumstances and with little time at his disposal, he realised too late that he had made a mistake. His fateful authentication of the diaries was to cast a lasting shadow over his reputation, and gave plentiful ammunition to the many enemies he had made during a career in which he set out to court controversy. A historian who prided himself on exposing deceptions and demolishing myths, like those generated by organised religion or Scottish nationalism, had been taken in by an obvious fraud. Pride had never more spectacularly come before a fall.
This debacle, the result of a few hurried hours spent in a Swiss bank vault, should not, however, be allowed to obscure, as it still does, the achievements of a lifetime. He had boundless curiosity, nourished by deep and extensive reading, and was brilliant at identifying what turned out to be significant historical questions, like the part played by the gentry’s dislike of the court of Charles I in the origins of the Civil War.
His interests were not confined to the history of the British Isles, but embraced continental Europe at a time when British historians tended to be excessively parochial; and although his preferred period was the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, he would range through the course of British and European history, discharging arrows with lethal effect at those in his line of fire.
Indeed, controversy and debate seemed to energise him, and he relished the many opportunities afforded by university life for plotting and intrigue. Yet in spite of his propensity to plunge into polemics on matters great and small, he still found time to write and publish on an impressive scale.
A supreme stylist and a wonderful letter writer, he was at his best when writing short pieces, and anyone who dips into the various collections of his essays is likely to be entranced by the vividness, wit and irony of his prose. Although he embarked on large books, he was a better sprinter than marathon runner. He had a tendency to leave off a book when it was half or three quarters written, partly because he had grown bored with it and had succumbed to the excitement of chasing some new idea.
It is only now, in the years following his death in 2003, that we can begin to appreciate the full extent of his writing, as works he had nearly completed, like The Invention of Scotland (YUP, 2008) and a fascinating account of the life of James VI and I’s Huguenot doctor, Europe’s Physician (YUP, 2006) roll off the presses.
If Hugh Trevor-Roper appears in retrospect, as he appeared to contemporaries, a somewhat alarming figure, he could also be wonderful company, combining outrageous gossip with acute comments on the past and the contemporary scene. Above all, he was extraordinarily generous in his dealings with the young. When I was still a very junior researcher he became interested in what I was writing on the history of Spain and he continued to provide encouragement and advice as my work progressed.
Like many other historians at the start of their careers, I owe Hugh Trevor-Roper a debt of gratitude. He showed me, as he showed many more, that history is a living subject, and that it is never more alive than when written by a master of English prose.
Sir John Elliott was regius professor of modern history at Oxford between 1990 and 1997. His most recent book, History in the Making, was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.