Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography

A new biography offers a sympathetic understanding of a complex and pioneering historian

By David Cesarani, September 7, 2010
Patterning the past: HT-R, seen here in 1960, loathed organised religion

Patterning the past: HT-R, seen here in 1960, loathed organised religion

By Adam Sisma
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

To readers of the Jewish Chronicle, as to most of the British public, Hugh Trevor-Roper is probably most familiar as the historian who was fooled into authenticating the "Hitler Diaries" in 1983. Yet there was far more to his life and career than this, including a sustained interest in Jewish history and a wide circle of Jewish friends.

The great merit of Adam Sisman's immensely readable biography is that he puts the lurid aspects of Trevor-Roper's life into perspective and draws attention to less well-known episodes that give us greater insight into this complex and, ultimately, rather sad figure.

HT-R, as he liked to sign himself, was born in the Scottish lowlands in 1914, the son of a doctor. After boarding school, he arrived in Oxford, where he flowered as an historian, obtaining a double-first in 1935.

He soon won a research studentship but was denied a fellowship at All Souls, a rebuff that rankled for the rest of his life. In 1937, he became a fellow of Merton, relieving him of any need to finish his doctorate. Instead, he produced a brashly revisionist study of Archbishop Laud that established animosity towards organised religion as his intellectual trademark.

In 1933 and 1935, HT-R visited Germany with the intention of learning the language. The second stay left him deeply suspicious of National Socialism. In his eyes, it had all the trappings of a fanatical religious sect. The Munich crisis convinced him that Hitler was on the warpath. After reading Mein Kampf he threw himself into the Officer Training Corps.

Trevor-Roper had a "good war" in an intelligence unit monitoring German radio traffic. It was nominally under MI5, but his superiors fought endless turf wars that he believed harmed the distribution of vital information. Eventually, he used his acquaintanceship with Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, one of Churchill's scientific advisers, to blow the whistle. It was insubordination, but he was right and ended up getting promotion and a command of his own.

As the war ended he contemplated a book about the collapse of Hitler's court, informed partly by what he had learned from captured German officers. Then, over a drunken dinner, Dick White, the head of MI5, asked him to investigate the circumstances of Hitler's death. HT-R proved adept at the job, combining the historian's skills with detective work. His report proved conclusively that Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

With White's encouragement HT-R turned his findings into a book. The Last Days of Hitler became a best-seller and made him wealthy. It generated a "golden shower of American dollars" and a stream of commissions for books and articles on the Third Reich. The downside was that they interrupted his attempts to write a major work on the English revolution. In time, he came to lament his "accidental connection with Nazi history".

In the winter of 1953-4, the Sunday Times sent Trevor-Roper to Israel. His whirlwind tour led him to call it a "squalid, pioneering, combustible, fascinating country".

He visited again to cover the Eichmann trial in 1961. But he loathed Jerusalem and confided: "Oh, to be able to slip over the frontier into civilised Arab lands". Nevertheless, his articles, and his subsequent altercation with Hannah Arendt over Eichmann, produced some of his best writing.

Trevor-Roper also covered the Auschwitz trial in 1964 and ruthlessly dissected the memoirs of Albert Speer, whom he had interrogated. In his brilliant essay on the European witch-craze of the 17th century he noted the parallel with antisemitism. Strangely, though, he maintained cordial relations with David Irving and claimed not to understand what drove him to distort history.

The Hitler diaries affair did not come out of a clear blue sky. Trevor-Roper was a magnet for hoaxers. Some of his best work was on charlatans and turncoats, though Sisman never quite makes this connection.

Nor does he inquire too deeply into why HT-R seemed pathologically incapable of finishing anything major. Otherwise, this is a frank and affectionate portrait of one of the first British historians to take Hitler seriously as a thinker and to blaze the way for later research.

David Cesarani's latest book, 'Major Farran's Hat. Murder, Scandal and Britain's War Against Jewish terrorism 1945-1948' (Vintage) was shortlisted for a golden dagger award by the Crime Writers Association.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011