How a historian who reveled in destroying the reputations of others ruined his own.
Born into the periphery of British nobility, Trevor-Roper cultivated himself as an aristocrat, not least by burnishing the hyphen that joined his two prestigious surnames. He collected undergraduates from the best families, supervising their studies, and socialized with ambassadors and duchesses. Dmitri Shostakovich and Francis Poulenc gave recitals in his home. Happiest when in horse, Trevor-Roper contrived to join fox hunts whenever he could, even when this meant hurrying in to read the lesson at Evensong with a surplice over his hunting costume. Sisman expertly describes the professor’s grandeur during lectures:
[He] often spoke in long sentences, consisting of multiple subordinate clauses—so many of these that on at least one occasion the audience began to applaud. He wore a rose in his buttonhole. Occasionally he would interrupt his flow to read a quotation, take a sip from a glass of orange juice, or correct his text with his fountain pen.
If Trevor-Roper remains known in the United States for anything beyond The Last Days of Hitler, it is for his merciless hatchet jobs on other historians. “I have decided to liquidate [Lawrence] Stone,” he wrote of a former pupil who scooped him on the Elizabethan aristocracy, before writing an article that nearly destroyed that man’s career. Unsportingly, Trevor-Roper himself had thin skin and was quick to call upon the libel courts. Colleagues snickered at his paltry output while wondering aloud what made him so nasty. (In a rare misstep, Sisman ridiculously suggests it was sinusitis.) His faculty at Cambridge loathed him so much that they would not break bread with him.
Sisman portrays Trevor-Roper as more Whig than Tory; an anticommunist but no cold warrior, he deplored McCarthyite witch hunts and maintained friendly relations with Marxist historians. He dragged his feet on admitting women to Peterhouse College and harbored several petty bigotries, including against Scots and Catholics. Needlessly spiking his writing with anti-Catholic jabs, he antagonized the Church and its defenders like the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who sniped with Trevor-Roper in the Letters pages of newspapers for decades.
Yet in the end it all came back to Hitler. In 1983 the Fuhrer’s alleged diaries were discovered, and the Times, hoping to buy, hired Trevor-Roper to authenticate them. Sisman’s pages on the episode that nearly ruined his subject are riveting. Trevor-Roper was given several hours to examine the documents in a five-star Zurich hotel. He relied on the sellers, who falsely claimed that expert analysts dated the ink and paper to the 1930s and ’40s. In the frenzied bidding war between rival newspaper companies, he let himself be rushed into giving an opinion of authenticity. Rupert Murdoch owned the Times and wanted to bid quickly; his editor scrubbed out Trevor-Roper’s hedges and qualifications. By the time his doubts got the better of him and he made a frantic phone call to the Times, it was too late: a banner headline and his own essay were about to go to press for the next day’s edition. “Fuck Dacre— publish,” Murdoch said, using Trevor- Roper’s title. But the diaries were forgeries. Trevor-Roper’s enemies pounced, and well they should have, for a man who revels in destroying the careers of others can hardly complain when he destroys his own.
Still, Sisman’s lenient judgment seems right: Trevor-Roper was foolish not to demand more time, but he was also the victim of impossible circumstances. Another venerable expert, Gerhard Weinberg, was also taken in. The cruel irony is that Trevor-Roper would much rather have been completing his elusive three-volume magnum opus on the Puritan Revolution. It would no doubt have been outstanding work—but it never would have outweighed The Last Days of Hitler.
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