HITLER, it has been said, both made and unmade the great Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.
With the Third Reich lying in ruins, it was to Trevor-Roper that the British War Cabinet turned to establish the fate that had befallen the dictator.
For five months after Russian troops had entered Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, the fate of the German dictator remained unknown even to Sir Winston Churchill, with speculation that Hitler had been murdered, killed fighting or had escaped.
The Oxford historian put an end to that with a brilliant piece of detective world that established Hitler had shot himself. His best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler has remained definitive.
Almost 40 years later, then Lord Dacre of Glanton, he was to endure excruciating humiliation when he wrongly authenticated The Hitler Diaries, which The Sunday Times and the German magazine Stern sensationally planned to publish at a cost of millions.
The man who had so relished exposing the errors and frauds of other scholars transformed himself into the ridiculous victim of one of the century’s most infamous – and in many ways obvious – hoaxes.
The German magazine Stern
Reputation had counted greatly to Trevor-Roper – and it has received two important boosts this month, exactly 100 years after his birth.
More than 200 academics gathered earlier this month at the Oxford University Examination Schools in High Street to attend a centenary conference, 11 years since his death.
Papers delivered on Trevor-Roper and the General Crisis of the 17th Century, Trevor-Roper and the Erasmian Tradition and Trevor-Roper as Prose Stylist, showed that his writings extended far beyond the Nazi Fuhrer.
At the same time, a new book offers fresh insight into the late Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, sometimes regarded as the epitome of the haughty senior academic, with a taste for plotting and withering put-downs.
His biographer Adam Sisman and the historian Richard Davenport-Hines have brought together 100 letters to illustrate the range of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s life and interests as a historian, traveller and lover of Oxford intrigues.
The letters were written over 58 years from September 1943, when he was 29, to December 2001, when he was 87. The first letter was written when he was working as an intelligence officer, the last composed when he was living alone in the Old Rectory at Didcot, his home since the late 1980s, widowed and almost blind, with just 13 months left to live.
“Trevor-Roper’s correspondence amounted to millions of words,“ said Mr Sisman, who came to know Lord Dacre, after starting work on a life of AJP Taylor, Trevor-Roper’s great rival at Oxford.
While he and his fellow editor could have included letters to figures such as George Orwell, Harold Macmillan, Lord Cherwell and Malcolm Muggeridge, the pair recognised that the majority of the most memorable letters were written to less prominent people.
Mr Sisman said: “I think the best letters were written to young people, when he was reaching across the generations, rather than to his peers.”
Much attention will focus on letters to Lady Xandra Howard-Johnston, with whom Trevor-Roper had a 16-month affair, originally clandestine, that ultimately ended in marriage.
She was the daughter of Great War commander Field-Marshal Haig and unhappily married to a naval officer, by whom she had three children.
Seven years his senior, she entranced the historian when they met during a visit to Earl Haig’s Scottish estate, and within months they became lovers.
When he returned to Oxford, she visited him there in secret. Meetings were rare but they corresponded regularly, sometimes writing as many as three letters a day to each other.
Even by the standards of his stiff-upper-lip generation, Trevor-Roper found it difficult to express his emotions.
In one letter she tells him off for not addressing her correctly, indicating the importance of class. He also faces criticism for being an undemonstrative lover.
His response is almost painful to read: “I must admit that I have terrible, almost physical difficulty in expressing emotion. I wish this were not so, but it just is.
“When I was a child, I never saw, in my own home, any evidence of any emotion whatever; and it was somehow conveyed to me that any show of it was not only improper but ridiculous. I felt that if I ever showed any, I would be publicly mocked; and mockery made me very miserable.”
Xandra died in August 1997, at the age of 90. One letter giving his response to the condolences of a friend talks of the emptiness of life without her yet is full of typically acidic comments about the state of the nation.
“Public affairs here are in a pretty sorry state,” he writes. “Oh for an hour of the Iron Lady – although admittedly she went mad at the end.
“We had a great orgy of mass-hysteria on the occasion of the funeral of ‘the People’s Princess’.
“Oleg Gordievsky, the ex-KGB man, compared it to the scenes in Moscow on the death of Stalin. I recalled rather those in America on the death of Rudolf Valentino.
“But I retain a touching, if also dwindling, faith in the ultimate common sense of the British people, and hope it will soon have passed – or turned into a ritual burning, on the anniversary of the Death, of effigies of the Fayed family [the then Harrods boss Mohamed Fayed in whose car Diana and his son Dodi were killed], those chosen instruments of Fate. “ For Mr Sisman, the humiliation Trevor-Roper endured from authenticating The Hitler Diaries ultimately made him a better man.
He said: “I would not wish what he went through on anyone.
“But it made him less arrogant, less opinionated.
“He did consider standing against Lord Jenkins in the election of the Oxford University Chancellor. He would have been humiliated.
“It had not properly sunk in the effect the Diaries had on his reputation. But it is a taint and not a defining taint.”
For the rest of his life, Trevor-Roper would privately complain that he had been badly misled and given false evidence as fact. Mr Sisman believes as an independent director of The Times, Trevor-Roper was also driven by a wish to impress Rupert Murdoch with his incisiveness, being all too well aware that the Australian magnate continued to view him as “a fuddy-duddy professor.”
His first glance at the diaries suggested to Trevor-Roper that they could be real, but a first glance was to be all he got. Happily, for his friends and former students, Hitler cast only a short shadow over the celebration of one of the greatest figures of 20th century Oxford.
But how did it compare with the centenary of Trevor-Roper’s greatest rival, equally brilliant and even more vain, with whom he went to battle over the origins of the Second World War.
“You know, AJP Taylor’s centenary passed almost unnoticed,” said Mr Sisman, with no hint of a smile.
- One Hundred Letters From Hugh Trevor-Roper is published by OUP (£25).