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The Audacious Historian

NI Syndication
Hugh Trevor-Roper, when he was serving as a national director of the London Times

Adam Sisman’s biography of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who entered the House of Lords as Dacre of Glanton, was widely noticed when it appeared in England last year. It has now been published in North America with a new title, although the book itself is essentially the same. It takes its place among recent biographies of other British historians, notably Herbert Butterfield and Raymond Carr.1 Butterfield had made his reputation with a study of the Whig interpretation of history, and Carr with searching accounts of modern Spain. But neither of them had the magnetism and brilliance of Trevor-Roper, whose death a little less than a decade ago brought to an end a career that touched far more than the professorial milieu to which he belonged. He was a scholar who played with fire, venturing into fields in which he had never worked before, issuing thunderous opinions on his peers, and ultimately suffering incurable burns from the lightning he had himself brought down. He was a Faustian figure of modern historiography.

A formidable scholar by temperament and training, he allowed himself to be diverted twice into fields that lay wholly outside his expertise, and in both cases it was the novelty of the enterprise together with the prospect of public recognition that attracted him. The end of Adolf Hitler and a sensational forgery by the expatriate Edmund Backhouse in China proved irresistible. Yet his books on these unrelated subjects are even today a more enduring achievement than his early work on a seventeenth-century archbishop of Canterbury. But the beau monde, into which the fame arising from his studies of Hitler and Backhouse had provided access, eventually brought him into the inner circle of Rupert Murdoch, for whom he served as a national director of Times Newspapers Ltd. It was this affiliation that led to his tragic undoing when he authenticated the bogus Hitler diaries for Murdoch’s Sunday Times. A Mephistophelean laughter is almost audible in Murdoch’s infamous response to Trevor-Roper’s last-minute realization of his fateful mistake: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”

Trevor-Roper was raised in rural Northumberland, bright but starved of affection in the loveless union of a local physician with a wife who encouraged his gambling habit. He went on to Charterhouse, a charitable and educational foundation in London that dated back to 1611. It offered rigorous schooling for many of Britain’s future elites. There he acquired a profound knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, which enabled him to compete successfully for admission to Christ Church in Oxford. Trevor-Roper’s beginnings as an outstanding classical scholar placed him immediately among the privileged undergraduates, and the prizes he soon won confirmed his talents. His mastery of the classics never deserted him and probably served as a kind of anchor in the turbulent times that lay before him, but he chose, halfway through his undergraduate years, to switch to modern history.

This was partly a response to the deadly instruction he would have received if he had remained in classics (with notoriously uninspiring dons) and partly a desire to expand his horizons. It was a portentous step. Trevor-Roper then, as later, had an insatiable appetite for what was new to him, and this was combined with a personal ambition to move into smart social circles that would readily appreciate the taste for fox-hunting he acquired in Northumberland.

Those early years in Oxford defined the historian of the future—a scholar who was impatient with old academic preoccupations and methods and yet, at the same time, a master of traditional learning and expression. Trevor-Roper invented himself at Oxford. World War II gave him a further opportunity to grow. He had been doing research on William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury who was executed for his faith in 1645, and he managed to produce a book on Laud by 1940 that earned respectful, if not wholly approving, reviews (it was too polemical). But he soon found himself in the government’s Radio Security Service—part of MI8—and later the Secret Intelligence Service in MI6, where he watched history happen from the inside instead of studying it in the library. There he met and liked Kim Philby, about whom he wrote candidly in these pages in 1968 and in a small book, The Philby Affair.

Even the pettiness of monitoring communications afforded a glimpse of a larger world that had nothing to do with the classics, seventeenth-century history, or even Oxford. At the end of the war, in an opulent castle in Germany taken over by one of his wartime friends, he was invited to undertake an investigation to discover whether Hitler was still alive and, if not, how he had died. Trevor-Roper signed on with enthusiasm. He was promised and received ample military support, including access to knowledgeable persons. This was a kind of historical research unlike anything he had ever done before, and he obviously relished it.

The resulting book, The Last Days of Hitler, became, and remains today, a fundamental account, presented with both scholarly precision and an unmistakable historical passion. He interrogated witnesses, including Albert Speer, with a combination of skepticism and authority, and he visited the bunker in Berlin. For someone who had begun as a classicist and continued as a historian of early modern Britain, the book on Hitler was as surprising as it was successful—“a fig for Archbishop Laud,” as he described it.2 It was Trevor-Roper’s greatest triumph, but it was a dangerous triumph. It spawned overconfidence and led to increasingly fierce pronouncements about his colleagues.

Trevor-Roper had long been an admirer of Edward Gibbon. He soon forged an English style that, if not the equal of Gibbon’s, was certainly as pungent and memorable. He knew that it could be a sharp and powerful instrument in advancing his career. The success of his book on Hitler ensured that his views would be widely noticed, and he profited from his eminence to undermine two of the major historians of the postwar period—one slightly junior to himself and the other immensely senior.

His younger contemporary and former pupil Lawrence Stone had attracted international recognition with a long article in the Economic History Review on the supposed decline of the Elizabethan aristocracy in favor of the rising gentry, as famously postulated by the historian R.H. Tawney. Impelled by Stone’s use of archival documents that Trevor-Roper himself had been working on and had brought to Stone’s attention, he soon realized that Stone seriously misunderstood the system of loans in those documents. He wrote to a colleague in 1951, “I have decided to liquidate Stone.” In a long and devastating rebuttal of Stone’s work, he came close to doing just that. After years of sparring with Trevor-Roper in Oxford, Stone left England in 1963 for Princeton, where his publications and his teaching were of such distinction that a major British historian in his own field, Christopher Hill, could write twenty years later, “There can be no doubt now that Stone is the better historian. Trevor-Roper’s output looks pitiful by comparison.”

A few years after the controversy with Stone, Trevor-Roper turned with equal ferocity against the highly successful and much-celebrated historian A.J. Toynbee, author of the ten-volume work A Study of History, which was cited more often than read and widely marketed in a one-volume abridgment. Trevor-Roper was not alone at that time in his resentment of the accolades and money that were being lavished upon Toynbee. He denounced Toynbee’s “antirational and illiberal views” no less than his murky prose. Rather uncharacteristically in this case, Trevor- Roper spoke for the majority of historians. There were few who rose to Toynbee’s defense, and his reputation never recovered.

It was at this time that Trevor-Roper moved into the Regius Chair of History at Oxford and thereby pulled ahead of A.J.P. Taylor, a prolific and articulate rival who had written on the origins of World War II and was well known in the British press, radio, and television. The huge public success of The Last Days of Hitler, the immense range of learning that owed so much to Charterhouse as well as to Oxford before the war, and the coruscating brilliance of neo-Gibbonian prose swept Trevor-Roper into a position in which he could now be expected to deliver his own definitive and comprehensive treatment of the Puritan Revolution. Unfortunately that never happened. His career stalled.

In 1954 he had married Alexandra Haig, a daughter of the renowned field marshal of World War I who was seven years older than Trevor-Roper and had been unhappy in her first marriage. The couple cultivated an increasingly active social life. Trevor-Roper had engaged a literary agent two years before, and this meant that growing pressure to write for the popular press limited the leisure necessary for sustained research. The hard grind of scholarship became ever more remote. The anticipated great book on the Puritan Revolution receded into the shadows, not least because a draft of it encountered friendly but serious criticism from an esteemed colleague, J.H. Elliott, and this criticism proved to be more than its author could readily address. Trevor-Roper fell victim to the expectations that arose from his own success.

But in 1973 he confronted an unanticipated opportunity that was comparable to the Hitler investigation in its potential for drawing public attention, and it was equally remote from his professional competence as a historian. Once again he could not resist a new and undeniably fascinating distraction. It involved the forgery of a major historical document from late imperial China as well as two unpublished books that were purportedly autobiographical and indisputably obscene. When, in his capacity as Oxford’s Regius Professor of History, Trevor-Roper was asked to collect a mysterious parcel at the Basel airport in August 1973, all he knew was that the director of the Swiss Institute for Tropical Medicine had been charged by a certain Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli, a Swiss who had worked in China and recently died, to transmit to the Bodleian Library a work “of great literary and historical value.” To his astonishment the parcel turned out to contain the original manuscript and a typescript of two pornographic memoirs by a homosexual English baronet, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who had lived in Beijing since 1898 and died there in 1944.

Backhouse was hardly unknown to historians of modern China, because in 1910 he had published, together with the Times correspondent J.O.P. Bland, an influential if controversial book, China Under the Empress Dowager, for which the principal document was “The Diary of His Excellency Ching Shan.” Backhouse claimed to have discovered this diary amid the looting after the Boxer Rebellion. Another Times correspondent, G.E. Morrison, was among the first to show signs of skepticism about the authenticity of the diary. Anachronism as well as the plagiarism of documents published subsequently led to a general recognition that the “Diary of Ching Shan” was an original creation of Backhouse himself, whose knowledge of Chinese and facility in writing it were legendary in Beijing.

  1. 1

    See Michael Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science, and God (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and María Jesús González Hernández, Raymond Carr: La curiosidad del zorro: Una biografía (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2010). 

  2. 2

    The reference to Laud appears in notebooks that Trevor-Roper wrote between 1940 and 1947. Sisman had access to this material, which will soon be published in the US as The Wartime Journals, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (I.B. Tauris, 2012). There Trevor-Roper pays tribute to the Note-Books of Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, as the inspiration for his reflections on life, literature, and people. The entries do not constitute a diary or journal, although a few passages, above all on Hitler, address contemporary events. Trevor-Roper himself prepared an index to his notebooks, and they appear with minimal editing in the publication. 

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