Monday 23 October 2017

Review: Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography by Adam Sisman

Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
He was the highly respected historian whose career was ended by the Hitler Diaries hoax, writes Dermot Bolger

BUNKER: Trevor-Roper pieced together Hitler's final days, as portrayed in 2005 film Downfall.
BUNKER: Trevor-Roper pieced together Hitler's final days, as portrayed in 2005 film Downfall.

A life lived to the full -- yet unfulfilled

Few political or academic reputations are made by one moment of genius, but many have been destroyed by one moment of sheer madness. The humiliation of Hugh Trevor-Roper never reached the clown-like depths of a populist politician such as George Galloway, whose parliamentary career ended when he was induced to perform a cat impersonation on Celebrity Big Brother while dressed in a leotard.

Hugh Trevor Roper (who died in 2003), was still alive when Big Brother started, but I doubt if the circles he moved in discussed it much. What his colleagues did still discuss was his own moment of madness in 1983, when he put his reputation on the line by declaring, as an expert on Hitler, brought in by the Sunday Times (which was about to spend a fortune on serialising them) that the infamous "Hitler Diaries" were authentic.

In fairness, he was working under impossible time restraints and commercial pressures from newspaper executives seeking the sort of immediate answers that are the opposite of the slow, accumulative work that any study of history requires. He made his error under duress, and was not the only major historian to fall for this hoax during those heady days, in the immediate euphoria of the "discovery" of the "diaries", when newspaper rights were being auctioned and, for fear of leaks, very little true handling or examination of the diaries was allowed.

Trevor-Roper just had his personal insights into Hitler's personality to go on, but science is different, and within a fortnight forensic scientists had conclusively proven that the "diaries" were an elaborate and extremely expensive hoax.

Other reputations might have recovered and been forgiven, but two things about Hugh Trevor-Roper had grown up since 1945, when his brilliant detective work for British Intelligence conclusively proved that Hitler had committed suicide, when Trevor-Roper almost single-handedly unearthed Hitler's will and other hidden documents, and did more than any other historian to piece together Hitler's final days in his bunker.

The first thing was Trevor-Roper's reputation as a leading authority of Hitler, based on his extraordinary odyssey as a British intelligence officer through the immediate ruins of post-war Germany, where he bribed his way with cigarettes past the Soviet soldiers guarding Hitler's dark and flooded bunker, and, by the brilliant process of intuition and elimination, tracked down the few loyalists who had been with Hitler when he died. This reputation was cemented by his hugely successful 1947 work, The Last Days of Hitler.

The other thing that grew was the number of enemies he made among fellow historians. Enemies is too strong a word in some cases, but certainly many fellow historians were deeply stung by his~ acerbic attacks in reviews and who felt little sympathy for him, after the "diaries" debacle. The man who was merciless against any perceived sloppiness in research could hardly expect targets of his caustic pen to overlook his own carelessness.

Adam Sisman's highly readable account of Trevor-Roper's life is part of a revival of interest that has seen four collections of his writings published posthumously. What neither this astutely judged (and, where necessary, judgmental) biography, or those miscellanies of his vast output as a journalist and essayist can do, is take the place of the great missing book that should have been at the centre of his life.

He may have made a splash at Oxford, with his sharp wit and brilliance and the wealth that The last Days of Hitler brought in, but as the son of a dour Northumberland doctor he was astutely conscious of class and status. His cold marriage to the daughter of Field Marshall Haig when he was 40 (and she 47) opened even more social doors and he cut a glamorous figure to spellbound students after his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford in 1957.

That appointment displayed not just his academic brilliance but his ability to network behind the scenes. Harold Macmillan helped him become Regius Professor and he in turn masterminded Macmillan's campaign to become chancellor of Oxford University. But amid the academic disputes and high-profile and high-paying journalism and television appearances, the great book he seemed predestined to write eluded him -- the masterpiece that would place him on a par with his idol, Edward Gibbon.

Amid his vast output of minor works there are half- finished drafts of books that could have been his magnum opus, but like many people cursed with too much intelligence, it never got done. Edward Gibbon never had to deal with well-remunerated requests from editors when producing his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.

Trevor-Roper was a man of his time, caught between intellectual rigor and media fame, between brilliance and social aspirations. He had his flaws but flawless men make lousy subjects for biography. It is his contradictions that fuel Adam Sisman's account of a full and yet unfulfilled life.

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