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Defending Dr. Hoeppli

In response to:

The Confidence Man from the April 14, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

John Fairbank in his review of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography of Sir Edmund Backhouse in your issue of April 14 follows that author in regarding my old friend Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli as a simpleton who was taken in by Backhouse. This is a complete misconception. And I find Trevor-Roper’s reference to Hoeppli in the biography as “bon bourgeois and perhaps somewhat naïve” regrettably patronizing.

My wife and I knew Hoeppli in Peking and later in Singapore. In 1953 he came to stay with us in Sarawak and it was at this time that he told us about the Backhouse memoirs and recounted with considerable gusto much of what later appeared in his Postscript. Fairbank, incidentally, has been misled by Trevor-Roper into believing that the Postscript has not been published. Trevor-Roper refers to its having been withdrawn from the Swiss journal Asiatisches Seminar, presumably an erroneous reference to the journal Asiatische Studien. Actually it appeared in Asiatische Studien in 1974.

After Hoeppli left Singapore we corresponded with him occasionally and in 1967 I asked him to arrange for Dr. Lo Hui-Min to have access to the memoirs in connection with Dr. Lo’s work on the Ching-Shan diaries, the celebrated forgery in which Backhouse was heavily involved. Hoeppli agreed to the request but would not diverge from his promise to Backhouse that the memoirs were not to be made available until after his own death.

Hoeppli was a dignified, portly man, his manners an old-fashioned kind of formal courtesy. He liked to be treated in the same way. He had served as a German naval doctor in the First World War only to discover afterwards that he was in reality a Swiss. He later became a distinguished parasitologist. Hoeppli had a select group of friends but lived a retiring and celibate life in Peking in an elegant Chinese house in the East City which was full of beautiful things including much classical Chinese furniture. He was a fine scholar, a gourmet, and a connoisseur of jade. He gave his fine collection of jade to the Swiss people.

Behind his formal exterior there lay a lively and sympathetic interest in the oddities and aberrations of humanity and an acute, rather mischievous, sense of humor. He was extremely amusing company. His postscript on Backhouse, though kind and fair, is to one who knew him redolent with the Hoeppli humor and sense of the absurd.

I am sure it is quite mistaken to think of him as naïve. Hoeppli was a sophisticated intellectual. He was not taken in by Backhouse but despite total differences in integrity Hoeppli had enough in common with Backhouse to be able to sympathize with him and to some extent to understand him. At the same time Hoeppli was entertained by Backhouse’s bizarre and scandalous recollections. They helped to enliven a very gray wartime period and Hoeppli recorded them with the same care as he recorded ancient or primitive myths and beliefs about the origins of parasites. Apart from entertainment, however, he knew that the career and experiences of Backhouse were of a most extraordinary kind and I am sure that he did believe that the memoirs might contain some material of value for posterity.

Hoeppli was a kind man. He took on the role of Honorary Swiss Consul in Peking after the outbreak of the Pacific War largely to be of service to his friends in the British and other Allied communities. He was almost wildly generous and made little provision for his old age.

In the Halls of Valhalla Hoeppli will no doubt have enjoyed reading the Trevor-Roper/Ellmann correspondence referred to by Fairbank. But Ellmann should not be regarded as worsted in that splendid academic ding-dong. Neither protagonist had the advantage of knowing Hoeppli personally but there is no doubt that Ellmann’s perceptions of Hoeppli are much closer to the truth.

Alastair Morrison

Canberra, Australia

John K Fairbank replies:

I thought Dr. Hoeppli was an admirable figure in Peking and certainly useful there as a fine parasitologist. Not having seen Backhouse’s memoirs, I hesitate to pontificate further.

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