In response to:
Wise Man from the December 17, 1998 issue
To the Editors:
May we correct misstatements made about our friends Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott?
Your distinguished reviewer, Alan Ryan, wrote too cursorily about their friendship [NYR, December 17, 1998]. It is manifestly untrue that no pleas from mutual friends healed a breach which arose from a letter Adam wrote to The Manchester Guardian early in 1934. It was a letter protesting an exaggerated report, but was hasty and unwise and he tried to withdraw it before publication. Most of Adam’s many English friends did not attribute lasting importance to it. Isaiah’s friendship certainly survived this episode.
The following year, Adam was staying as the guest of the Warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he renewed his relationship with Isaiah. He stayed there again in 1936, when they had a midnight talk with their friend in common, Stuart Hampshire. At that time, Adam was arranging to spend the third year of his Rhodes Scholarship visiting China and the USA. Isaiah helped by supplying him with a letter to Judge Felix Frankfurter.
On the verge of war in 1939, Adam twice visited England, but this time on a clandestine mission. He privately met the Foreign Secretary, Halifax, who arranged immediately for him to meet Neville Chamberlain. They, almost alone, knew of an earlier clandestine approach made the previous year before the Munich crisis. Then, the top German generals had made their offer to strike down Hitler if the British would threaten war. Because Halifax, a year later, recognized Adam as speaking for those generals, he arranged the meeting with Chamberlain. Although Adam met Isaiah during this visit, he could not possibly speak of this plot to anyone, except the one of us through whom he made his contact with Halifax. It was, of course, much too late to revive the earlier opportunity of before Munich. But this action was Adam’s first step towards his leading part in the attempted assassination of Hitler of July 20, 1944.
It is a pity Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah should have quoted from a letter by Isaiah in 1956 referring to Adam in lightly ambivalent terms. That Isaiah would not have wished these to be taken for his final view is suggested by the fact that he invited Adam’s widow and two daughters to visit him at his home in Headington in 1997. The visit lasted well over an hour and was intimate and warm-hearted. He referred to Adam as “a great friend” and later wrote to one of us saying:”I enjoyed the visit of the Trotts very much. I did indeed talk about Adam as they wished me to, and said everything I felt and thought.”