On Political Books

January/February 2012 The Last Days of Hugh Trevor-Roper

How a historian who reveled in destroying the reputations of others ruined his own.

By Michael O'Donnell

An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper
by Adam Sisman
Random House, 672 pp.

Such is the hunger for new books about Nazi Germany that authors have begun chronicling the chroniclers. Last autumn Newsday editor Steve Wick wrote The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a history of the famous journalist’s dispatches from Berlin in the 1930s. The latest arrival in this genre is Adam Sisman’s An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor- Roper, a portrait of one of the most stylish historians of Adolph Hitler. This type of book is bizarre: the reader already knows about the Third Reich, yet can watch someone else learning about it for the first time and in this way refresh the horror. Whether or not the publishing trend is a gimmick, it can produce fine books. An Honourable Englishman is witty, incisive, and hugely entertaining.

It is worth reading for two reasons. First, it is a model of the biography form. Sisman is a superb writer who masterfully presents his subject—to the point where the reader somehow becomes invested in minutiae like Trevor-Roper’s decision to move from England to Scotland or to replace a Bentley with a Mercedes. The second reason is the rare pleasure of a book properly shelved in the shrinking Intellectual History section of the library. Reading about Trevor-Roper— Hitler chaser, Oxbridge don, occasional foreign correspondent, bomb thrower— means doing one’s learning collaterally, like taking in the fine view on a train ride that gets you from here to there. Strictly speaking, the book’s subject is a fusty old professor, but its pleasures and insights range far wider.

Trevor-Roper’s great work was The Last Days of Hitler (1947), which established the fact of Hitler’s suicide and recounted the hallucinogenic final days inside the bunker of the Reich Chancellery in April 1945. The slender but authoritative book grew out of an investigative report that Trevor-Roper prepared for British intelligence. The report was commissioned in September 1945, when no one knew for sure whether Hitler was alive or dead. His successor, Admiral Karl Donitz, insisted that he had fought to the last breath against the Soviet army; the Soviets claimed that he was alive and being harbored by the Allies. Rumors flared up like brushfires and were just as hard to stamp out. Hitler was said to be staying “on a mist-enshrouded island in the Baltic; in a Rhineland rock-fortress; in a Spanish monastery; on a South American ranch,” or “ living rough among the bandits of Albania.” The uncertainty compromised Allied security in occupied Germany and created tension between the Soviets and the British. The thousand-year Reich could not be pronounced dead if the Fuhrer was still alive.

As the former head of research for Allied intelligence, Trevor-Roper was just the man to find answers. He had extensive experience interrogating Nazi prisoners, spoke German, and knew his way around the country. Since—as it later emerged—Hitler’s body had been incinerated, Trevor-Roper could not establish physical evidence of his death. The next best thing was to find eyewitnesses to either his suicide or his corpse. Trevor-Roper traveled the countryside deducing who the occupants of the bunker were during the final days and interviewing those who were still alive. His most famous witness was the architect Albert Speer, who had defied Hitler by refusing to destroy German infrastructure as the Red Army approached Berlin. But Speer was not in the bunker when the end came, so Trevor-Roper also spoke with Hitler’s secretaries, butler, and physician, as well as guards of the Fuhrerbunker.

In this way Trevor-Roper not only proved Hitler’s death by suicide, he also gained an understanding of the last sputter and cough of Nazism. His book combined exciting reporting with Gibbonesque flourishes:

More and more the once sociable Fuhrer became an isolated hermit, with all the psychological repressions inherent in that dismal condition. He was isolated from persons, isolated from events. Convinced that only he could lead the German people out of defeat to victory, and that his life was therefore of cardinal importance; and yet convinced that every man’s hand was against him, and assassination awaited him around every corner; by a logical consequence, he seldom left the protection of his underground headquarters, or the banal society of his quack doctor, his secretaries, and the few spiritless generals who still pandered to his inspiration.

Trevor-Roper presented the Third Reich as a court—“as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue as any oriental sultanate.” He sketched vivid portraits of the infamous members of Hitler’s inner circle. Heinrich Himmler was a banal simpleton and Joseph Goebbels a brilliantly nefarious propagandist. Hermann Goring was a costume-wearing kook who, “in scenes of Roman luxury, feasted and hunted and entertained,” while wearing “the emblematic stag of St. Hubertus on his head, and a swastika of gleaming pearls set between his antlers.” Speer was the most interesting figure, for he alone had the intelligence and scruples to see Nazism for what it was and nevertheless abetted it. Trevor-Roper closed the book with ruminations on Speer’s fateful passivity. On the theory that the final days revealed the logical endpoints of both National Socialism and Hitler’s monomania, Trevor-Roper concluded that the Fuhrer’s “error lay in supposing that faith can move mountains by itself, instead of merely giving the decisive impetus to the spade.”

The Last Days of Hitler caused a sensation and made Trevor-Roper rich and famous at the age of thirty-three. It also portended a brilliant career at the intersection of popular journalism and academic writing. (Trevor-Roper was both a history professor and a lifelong contributor of reporting and review essays to the Times and the New Statesman.) Yet for all the promise, the book was his swan song. He had attained all the formal trappings of professional success by his death in 2003: he had been Regius Professor at Oxford, master of Peterhouse College at Cambridge, and Lord Dacre of Glanton, made a life peer in 1979. Yet his field of study was not Nazi Germany but the Enlightenment, and he never managed to write a major work of academic history on it. Beginning and abandoning many projects, Trevor-Roper struggled to get the bat off his shoulder. Margaret Thatcher herself once made fun of him for this. After she asked in front of others when she could expect his next book, he said he actually had one “on the stocks.” She replied, “On the stocks? On the stocks? A fat lot of good that is! In the shops, that is where we need it!”

Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi on January 11, 2012 2:07 AM:

    I am not blaming to Hugh Trevor-Roper or Times who published fake diaries of Hitler.Real fact is ghost of Hitler is so much facilitating to world over till you publish bit of titbit true or false of him readers run to purchase the book just like mad.Recently I published his autobiography in MARATHI one of the regional language of India. Readers purchased this out of date book so enthusiastically , I was also amazed.I think attraction of ghost of HITLER will never die.Is extreme cruelty fascinating to our psyche ?

  • Mark Etherton on January 11, 2012 4:31 AM:

    It's not Peterhouse College, just Peterhouse. And it wasn't the faculty at Cambridge who fell out with him, but the fellows of Peterhouse.

  • David Jones on January 11, 2012 8:01 AM:

    Hear hear, Sir Mark!

  • Don Phillipson on January 11, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Michael O'Donnell writes as if this is a new book. He should have told readers it wss published last year in Britain (and sold in N.America) under the title Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography.

  • Leif on January 11, 2012 2:04 PM:

    Well, last year *was* just two weeks ago.

    But in all seriousness, I see on Amazon that the book came out on December 6, and the version you mentioned came out on September 15. That's still not very far back.

    (And this is the first time I've heard of it, anyway.)

  • Chrysostom on January 12, 2012 3:49 PM:

    This brilliant biography was published in England in July 2010. I read it in a copy borrowed from a university library last year. Sisman wrote also has written a fascinating biography of another celebrated Oxford historian, A.J.
    P. Taylor. Sisman is equally revealing and the book is full of insights. Taylor is seen as an expert on the Second World War yet Sisman quotes him in 1939 as saying, "I dont think well have a war. Hitler wins bloodless victories and doesnt know any other way. He would never start a war.

  • William Bruneau on January 12, 2012 6:15 PM:

    I found Sisman's book boring in long stretches, just because it did NOT treat in depth of the great historical debates and debaters of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Yes, Sisman says a thing or two about Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone, and offers a few good sentences on notions of class and regionality in 17th-century England. But it's just nowhere near enough. The arguments between these historians were about (to give just one example) the eternal connection between power and money, a connection that can be detected in several ways in the period since the English Civil War--in politics, in the structure and mechanics of daily business (think of the old-fashioned but still excellent work of Richard Pares on 18th-century business), in the acquisition of high political office (and low office, too).
    It is for this SORT of thing that one hoped. Alas, Sisman rarely provides it. On the other hand he gives us enjoyable and mostly high-toned gossip, much of which I had not heard. I read the book from end to end and enjoyed it. It makes a nice complement to the published correspondence of T-R with Bernard Berenson). But even on the nasty business of T-R's falling-out with the Fellows of Peterhouse, one feels the book might better have been written after another decade or two had passed, so that more of the documents were available. Especially as regards T-R's Cambridge period, that would have been wise. We who so enjoy the ins and outs of down-and-dirty university politics will have to wait for another biography. Still, I'd give the book a B, a good grade by my lights.

  • Aaron Krishtalka on January 16, 2012 8:58 PM:

    The review might have mentioned the fact that Trevor-Roper published (what is still, perhaps) one of the the 'standard' biographies of Archbishop Laud in 1940, which made him well known before his "Last Days of Hitler". His occasional essays during the 1930s (on the Catholic martyrs of the Elizabethan era, say)reveal that he believed the Roman "Counter-Reformation" (a decidedly Protestant phrase) was still well underway, and prominent English converts to Catholicism, or apologists for it, were part of his evidence. He was convinced that Anglicanism was in need of a stouter defence against the Roman Catholic campaign to undo the English Reformation, and thus undermine the political and social institutions and mores that descended from it. It may be remembered in the context of the 1930s, that institutional Catholicism, when given the opportunity, made peace, if not alliance, with Fascism or proto-fascism in virtually all European states where the latter ruled.

    H. T.-R.'s later books on the possible Alpine origins of the Reformation, and on Sir William Backhouse, "The Hermit of Peking", got less public notice perhaps than his earlier edition of the Goebbels correspondence, but did sell in paperback: possibly because they had an element of mystery, conspiracy, even historical fiction in them.

  • hopeless pedant on February 15, 2012 12:01 PM:

    That would be "Adolf" not "Adolph" Hitler

  • phoebes-in-santa fe on February 15, 2012 12:25 PM:

    Here's my review of the book for Amazon.

    "Adam Sisman has written "An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper". It's not a short book and it's definitely written for the reader who has an inordinate interest in both history and History Lecturers. In other words, a history-jock, like me.

    Hugh Trevor-Roper was the writer of both popular history and more academic history. By "popular" history, I mean work that is aimed at the interested amateur history readers out there. His second book - and one that brought him the most fame, was "The Last Days of Hitler", which we wrote in 1946. He was given access to Hitler's bunker in Berlin, and was allowed to interview those people who had served Hitler in his last few months. The book - which is still in print - gave a detailed view of Hitler's end, and was a best seller world-wide.

    Hugh Trevor-Roger was born the middle child of three to a doctor and his wife in Northumberland, England, in 1914. Distantly related to members of the British upper-class, Hugh was sent off to a school when he was about 8 years old, leaving a rather love-less house and family behind. He was an immediate academic star throughout his schooling, which ended at Christ Church in Oxford. During the war he worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (the precursor to MI6) on the breaking of German codes, particularly those of the Abwehr. After the war, he remained in the Army and did "odd jobs" for military intelligence, like interviewing Nazis. He returned to Oxford and was a lecturer/tutor in the History department.

    Highly skilled at playing the academic political games needed to succeed in the high-pressure world of Oxford, he rose in stature, both within the academic community and the wider world of British government affairs. He wrote other books, traveled the world giving academic lectures, and was often the "go-to" source on questions of history. He was consulted by Rupert Murdoch when the German magazine, Stern, claimed they had found/been given the "Hitler Diaries" and wanted to sell it to the Times. After taking a cursory look at the "diaries", he first declared them the real thing, but then back-pedaled upon closer examination. His reputation took a blow when he first legitimatised them and then backed off. But he took full responsibility for his initial error. He engaged in several spats with other historians along the way.

    Trevor-Roper married when he was in his early 40's to a divorced mother of three who was seven years older than him. Alexandra Haig was the daughter of WWI Field Marshall Douglas Haig. "Xandra" was a rather emotional, needy woman, possibly not the right match for Trevor-Roper who was emotionally distant, but their marriage was a fairly happy one. "Opposites attract" at work here, I suppose. Trevor-Roper was given a "life peerage" as Lord Dacre of Glanton and ended his career at Peterhouse at Cambridge. He was not well-liked by a small portion of the administration he referred to as the "mafia", he left after serving a difficult seven year tenure. He died in 2003.

    Adam Susman's book is a lively, readable biography. It'll keep your interest and leave you wanting to learn more about Hugh Trevor-Roper and his times. "

  • Cornfields on December 29, 2012 3:32 AM:

    I find it interesting that recent mentions of both Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper entirely ignore their contributions to The Invention of Tradition.

    A bit old-hat these days (precisely because it has been so influential) but The Invention of Tradition is no doubt among the 20 most influential books for contemporary academic historians. Trevor-Roper's essay is undoubtedly the most read part of the collection.

    On the other hand, no academic historian gives a damn about his writing on Hitler.