Letter-writer par excellence Hugh Trevor Roper, former Regius Professor of Modern History
By John-Paul McCarthy
In Paul Fussell’s extraordinary The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1977), he argued that such were the deceptions inherent in retrospective literary evocations that “[p]robably only a complete illiterate who very seldom heard narrative of any kind could give an ‘accurate’ account” of war. The startling suggestion here is that a truly authentic experience of war can and maybe should cripple the rhetorical impulse. This assuredly will not work for Hugh Trevor-Roper though, Oxford University’s most famous historian after 1945.
One gets a strong sense from this engaging series of interlinked essays about his life and work that his formative experience in the British intelligence operation during World War Two influenced his scholarly work and his famously stylish prose. That the war left a profound imprint on his literary tastes remains obvious throughout. Trevor-Roper’s impatience with the pedant and the specialist certainly followed from his frustrating undergraduate experience as a classics student at Christ Church. But it also had something to do with his first-hand experience of Nazism. In the charming interview with an American newspaper from 1969 reprinted here as a coda, he explained that “I greatly admire the present school of French historians. I mean the people who started the periodical Annales. Marc Bloch-he was killed by the Germans-Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel. They write sociological history and are aware that you can’t break up history into little bits…” Trevor-Roper’s friendship with the onetime Balliol don Lewis Namier also makes sense in the context of the war, Namier having been a fierce anti-appeaser during a lean time for combative Jews in the thirties. “When I wrote The Last Days of Hitler”, Trevor-Roper recalled, “he sent me a letter about it…and we became great friends.”
There’s a sense too that some of Trevor-Roper’s less winning traits also became fixed somehow during the 1939-45 period. His notorious antipathy towards Roman Catholicism looms into view here, and is well captured by the inclusion in this volume of his considered view of Ireland, who had formally opted out of the fight against Nazism: “Through all our history she clings to us, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative, defying our improvement, spoiling our appearances, exposing our pretences, an irreclaimable, irrepressible slut, dirty when we are most clean, superstitious when we are most rational, protesting when we are most complacent, and when we are most prosaic, inspired.” This type invective got him and his wife barred from most of the stately Catholic homes in England, despite the admittedly bizarre rider that Ireland was “truly my spiritual home”. But many veterans of war against Nazism spoke like this though, and it is worth recalling that the bitterness was if anything even severer in Labour Party circles. (Following the Irish Taoiseach’s formal expression of condolences on the death of Hitler, an open-mouthed editorial in The New Statesman wrote that “[i]n Mr de Valera’s condolences we can see the degradation of civilised belief which made Hitler and the Nazi regime possible.”) Seen through this prism, it is curious to reflect on the fact that in a strong field of contenders, Trevor-Roper apparently disliked Thomas Carlyle’s historical writing most of all. The Scotsman’s manic meditations on heroes, rebirth and the divine impulse reeked of the purge, the rally, and the bunker. This is ironic considering the assonances between Carlyle’s austere analysis of Catholicism and his own. (James Anthony Froude captured this well when he recounted Carlyle’s visceral contempt for Daniel O’Connell, the leader of the Irish Catholics in the Commons after 1829: “I called a real specimen of the almost obsolete species demagogue. His ‘cunning’ the sign, as cunning ever is, of a weak intellect or a weak character.”) If Hugh-Trevor Roper’s powerful reconstruction of the days that preceded Hitler’s squalid suicide largely made his public name in post-war Britain, then the Führer also famously exacted a kind of posthumous revenge.
With one eye on a large fee from The Times in 1983, the quondam Regius Professor of History at Oxford flew to Zurich where he recklessly authenticated a fake set of papers that were said to be Hitler’s wartime diaries. Payback of sorts perhaps for the former MI6 man who liked to pore over transcripts of secretly recorded exchanges between interned German generals who spoke like this:
Hess…will only eat vegetables planted at full moon; Hitler…can’t sleep any more at night, and has even wilder attacks of rage-in Munich they call him Teppich-beisser, carpet biter, …it’s quite true, he lies on the floor and snaps around like a dog…But best of all is…Göring…He was dressed completely in white silk…On his head he wore St Hubert’s stag, with a swastika of gleaming pearls set between the antlers.
The contemporary mind still reels when considering the fact that this cast of Chaucerian frauds almost took European civilization down with them.
Dr. John-Paul McCarthy took a DPhil in Modern History at Exeter College, Oxford in 2011
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Historian
Author: Blair Worden (ed.)
Publisher: I B Tauris
ISBN: 978 1 78453 124 9
Images © Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University Images, IB Tauris