Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, By Adam Sisman

The historian, the hoax, the hubris: Dacre decoded
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The Independent Culture

Irritable, cocky, flippant and brilliant, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre (1914-2003), was arguably the most naturally gifted historian of his generation. Before 1983, he was famous for his repeated spats with other academics and for his 1947 bestseller The Last Days of Hitler. After 1983, he was associated in the public mind with only one thing: his mistaken authentication in that year of the bogus "Hitler Diaries".

As a man of undoubted literary gifts and genuine erudition, Trevor-Roper rose to the peak of his profession. His admirers expected him to produce a magnum opus on the 17th century to put him on a par with Edward Gibbon, the historian he most admired and to whom he was most frequently compared. But he never managed it, and this very readable biography helps explain why – restlessness, perfectionism, and the distractions of administration and journalism.

The author, Adam Sisman, knew Trevor-Roper personally, but is not afraid to present his subject through the eyes of critical contemporaries, many of whom found it hard to reconcile his cruelty in print with his kindness in person. Some fellow dons considered him detached and incapable of feeling, an opinion reinforced by his comparatively late marriage. The neatest summary provided here is Malcolm Muggeridge's "nice but argumentative".

This is the well-known, public Hugh, but the book's main strength is that it also shows us a new, private Hugh, one who understood himself remarkably well. There are four especially revealing quotes, all from his own pen in early middle age. In one he compares himself to his horse – a "snob" and a "show-off", who "exhibits a malicious delight in the discomfiture of its rivals". Elsewhere he declares that "a good battle" is "absolutely necessary" for keeping up his morale. Later, he explains to his soon-to-be wife that he has "terrible, almost physical difficulty in expressing emotion", a condition he puts down to the coldness of his parents. Lastly, and most portentously, he muses that pride will, one day, be his "downfall". From this point on we can hardly avoid linking Hugh and hubris.

But his undoubted pride was only one factor in the 1983 diaries debacle. Another was familiarity. It was his expertise in Hitleriana, coupled with a long-standing relationship with Times Newspapers, that brought him to Zurich to assess the supposedly long-lost material. The forgeries fitted so well with what was known about Hitler that he initially took this as a mark of authenticity, only later considering that it was also a possible sign of chicanery.

Equally significant was the tight grip imposed on the verification process by the German magazine Stern, which reduced Trevor-Roper to little more than an intelligent layman. He was allotted only two hours in a bank vault to examine 60 volumes, and pressed for a decision. He asked questions but was given false assurances about ink, paper and handwriting. Nor was he uniquely gullible; another expert, the German-born American Gerhard Weinberg, also initially believed the "archive" to be genuine.

When on home ground within academe, Trevor-Roper's natural tendency was always to abandon projects when troubled by uncertainty, but such a luxury was not available on this occasion. At the age of 69, after a lifetime spent in the scholarly world of "probably", he found himself stranded in the "yes-no" world of business. Rupert Murdoch was determined to announce the scoop despite Trevor-Roper's mounting concerns, which were sub-edited out of his covering piece in The Sunday Times. Ultimately, unlike Murdoch, he paid a price for his mistake that could not be refunded.

Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography lays out clearly the historical controversies that defined the man, and recreates the various worlds through which he moved, including his stint in wartime intelligence. It will be a long read for anyone interested solely in the diaries, but it offers an absorbing journey through half a century of the nation's academic high life, and a multi-dimensional portrait of a rebellious conformist who struggled to balance ambition and intellectual fastidiousness with his love of conviviality.