Tuesday, 27 July 2010

New books: A tale of an historian, hubris and Hitler

Seven years after the death of his subject, the author Adam Sisman has produced a biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, arguably one of the most famous and most controversial historians of the 20th century, whose career was made and unmade by Adolf Hitler.
As most biographies this book begins with the subject’s family background, childhood and education, which in this case come across as rather typical of the solid British middle class in the early 20th century.
Born in 1914, Trevor-Roper was educated at Christ Church, “the grandest of the Oxford colleges”, which a later student compared to the Brigade of Guards: “just as the British Army was said to consist of the Brigade of Guards and a few attached troops, so we considered that the University consisted of Christ Church and a few attached colleges”. Perhaps that was where the foundations were laid for Trevor-Roper’s trademark arrogance towards colleagues.
He began a doctoral dissertation on William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Charles I, who was impeached by Parliament and executed in 1645. Trevor-Roper never completed the dissertation, but in 1940 he instead published the work as a biography, which received mixed reviews, partly due to the author’s swipes at the priesthood – he would come to be known for his dislike of Catholics.
Even though he specialised in the early modern age, it was as a contemporary historian that Trevor-Roper would be best known. During World War II he served with the British intelligence service and in the autumn of 1945 he was sent to Germany to figure out whatever had happened to Adolf Hitler when the Third Reich collapsed.
Officially he had died fighting the Bolsheviks in the streets of Berlin, but several alternative explanations were being bandied about. Some maintained that he had been murdered by his own officers in Tiergarten, while others knew he had managed to escape and was now living somewhere in the Baltic. Or in South America. Or in Bavaria. Or in Spain. Or in Albania. Or in Dublin, where he had been seen wearing female dress.
“Here was an unique opportunity for a young historian: to investigate one of the most dramatic stories in the history of the world, while the trail was still fresh”, observes Sisman, who points out that it was far from irrelevant what had happened to the Führer: “Hitler had captured the imagination of the German people; so long as the possibility remained that he might still be alive, the stability and security of the occupied zones could not be guaranteed. This man had been responsible for the most destructive war in the history of the world, causing the deaths of tens of millions; the slightest chance that Hitler might return, as Napoleon had done, was too terrible to contemplate. The ghost haunting Europe had to be laid to rest”.
In Berlin Trevor-Roper visited the abandoned bunker, to which the Soviet guards admitted him in exchange for a couple of cigarettes. “Inside, all was dark and flooded ankle-deep”. Trevor-Roper succeeded in tracking down a handful of witnesses to the last days of Hitler and even though he was sceptical about how accurately they were able to recall the events from the chaotic days seven months earlier, he eventually did reach a conclusion which he was convinced the witnesses could not have conspired to delude him: Hitler had shot himself and Eva Braun on 30 April and the bodies had been burnt. Sisman comments that “facts which have emerged subsequently have confirmed the accuracy of his report in almost every detail”.
The book titled The Last Days of Hitler appeared as soon as the Nuremberg trials concluded in 1946 and became an instant classic which was translated into several languages and remains in print today (a new Swedish edition has by the way just been published). In this Trevor-Roper saw the opportunity of doing what his late mentor Logan Pearsall Smith had advised him to do: to write a book “that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon”.
The author himself commented that he was “really rather anxious to detach myself from my accidental connection with Nazi history, and to revert to my proper work!” However, Trevor-Roper would never quite succeed in doing that. He was appointed Regius Professor, the most prestigious history chair in Oxford, in 1957 and remained in that position until he left to become Master of Peterhouse College in Cambridge in 1980, but he never succeeded in writing a “proper” academic work.
His “celebrity” standing meant that he was much sought after by newspaper and became a regular contributor to The Times and Sunday Times (for several years he was also a national director, i.e. a member of the board). He also wrote a huge number of book reviews and essays, which combined with other distractions in preventing him from ever writing a proper historical work of greater length.
Perhaps it was partly a lack of self-discipline but also an inability ever to be satisfied with his own works that caused him to abandon book after book when they were near completion. “His career is littered with the hulks of unfinished works”, Sisman comments. Some of the abandoned books have been “dug up” and completed for publication by other historians following his death, causing some to comment that he has been more productive in death than in life.
His grand work on the Puritan Revolution was underway so long that there in the end would not be any point in completing it as the vast amount of research into that period undertaken by other historians in the meantime had left his work outdated. It was consequently as an essayist that Trevor-Roper would leave his mark and as such he was recognised as one of if not the greatest in Britain – many of them were arguably also of great impact.
This was perhaps also a reflection of his opinion that most historians wrote for a very narrow audience mostly consisting of fellow historians rather than for the general public. He maintained that historians were generally too specialised and strove to know all the facts about one single topic – “Thus armed, they can comfortably shoot down any amateurs who blunder or rivals who stray into their heavily fortified field; and, of course, knowing the strength of modern defensive weapons, they themselves keep prudently within their frontiers”. He also deplored what he considered his colleagues’ lack of philosophy and maintained that the task of the historian was to “study problems, not periods”.
A moderate conservative (he would accept the Tory whip when he was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Dacre of Glanton in 1979, but thought that Margaret Thatcher’s “Toryism seems rather that of Charles I than of Edmund Burke”), Trevor-Roper did not share the Marxist approach to history held my many of his contemporaries. He maintained that one could not deny that there were “Marxists who have made contributions to history, but it is never as Marxists that they have done so”. He was an early British follower of the French Annales school and in the words of his biographer “embraced this new form of history with wholehearted zeal”.
Adam Sisman dedicates much space to Trevor-Roper’s private life and personality. He had a talent for finding trouble and to make enemies among his colleagues and the biographer chronicles many of these feuds. His book reviews were often very critical, perhaps unnecessarily so, and maybe a fear of “retaliation” was part of the reason why he again and again abandoned near-finished works because he thought them not entirely perfect.
Hubris will often be punished and many were therefore ready with their knives when Trevor-Roper made his huge blunder of authenticating the forged Hitler diaries on behalf of The Times and Sunday Times in 1983. Having allowed himself to be rushed into making a conclusion based on the diaries’ appearance rather than contents, his doubts came creeping up when it was already too late and Rupert Murdoch had made the decision to publish the story nevertheless.
The blunder, for which Trevor-Roper came to take most of the blame, proved to be the unmaking of his career and seems to remain what he is best remembered for. It naturally also meant that his dreams of becoming Chancellor of Oxford following Harold Macmillan’s death in 1986 were entirely unrealistic.
His biographer finds it “certain that his work will continue to be read long after his blunder has diminished into a mere footnote”, an idea which Robert Harris in his review in Sunday Times (4 July) thought “is rather like claiming that Captain Edward Smith will one day be remembered chiefly for his unblemished 32 years’ service with the White Star Line, rather than for the regrettable couple of minutes when he steered the Titanic into an iceberg”. Only time will tell.
At 598 pages Adam Sisman’s book is perhaps a bit too long, but it is mostly highly readable and is likely to remain the fullest account of the life and work of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

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