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

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.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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.