Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson
Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in 2003, was almost certainly the most gifted of the remarkable generation of British historians who did their best work in the decades after World War II. Yet whereas A.J.P. Taylor, J.H. Plumb, Christopher Hill, R.W. Southern, Alan Bullock, Eric Hobsbawm, Lawrence Stone, Asa Briggs, G.R. Elton, Michael Howard, and E.P. Thompson all went on to publish substantial works worthy of their talents, the general consensus is that Trevor-Roper never entirely fulfilled himself. He was a brilliant essayist and formidable in polemic, with a prose style of unequaled verve, color, and precision. But he never published the magnum opus which his admirers so eagerly awaited.
As a young man, he had made a remarkable start. After winning the top classics prizes as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, he turned to history, and, when still in his twenties, published a clever and iconoclastic study of Charles I’s archbishop, William Laud. He then embarked on a notably successful wartime career in military intelligence, where he demonstrated his exceptional ability to reconstruct a convincing story out of incomplete pieces of evidence. “My ambition,” he wrote in 1943, “is to solve intellectual problems and present my solution in satisfying aesthetic form.” This was the guiding principle behind all his subsequent historical writing. In 1945 it enabled him to bring off the great coup of proving beyond all possible refutation that Hitler had indeed killed himself in his Berlin bunker and to reconstruct the macabre circumstances of that event in scathing prose. His report, commissioned by British intelligence to scotch Soviet claims that the Führer was still alive, was published in 1947 as The Last Days of Hitler.
The book brought worldwide fame to its author, now back at Christ Church as a history tutor. It meant that in addition to his true métier as an early modern historian, Trevor-Roper had henceforth to maintain a second identity as an authority on Nazi Germany. Regularly called upon to edit or introduce documents from the Hitler era, he became, as he put it, “the prisoner (though the well-rewarded prisoner) of a casual, fortuitous, and not altogether enjoyable expertise.” Unfortunately, this expertise did not rest on wholly secure foundations; and in 1983 it would prove his nemesis, when in an ill-judged and quickly regretted moment of hubris, he publicly authenticated the forged “Hitler diaries,” whose serial rights had been acquired by the Sunday Times, a newspaper of whose parent company he was an independent director. It was an extraordinary gaffe for someone who had devoted so much of his scholarly career to exposing the errors of those he regarded as frauds or charlatans. Ironically, it is the action for which he is now best remembered by the wider public.
In the 1950s, Trevor-Roper established himself as a formidable presence in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century history. He made a devastating intervention in the controversy over the “rise of the gentry,” which dominated British historiography at …