| Victim of haste
Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914 - 2003)
Hugh Trevor-Roper, the distinguished historian and former Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford, died on January 26. Trevor-Roper was born into the Welsh gentry. He went to Charterhouse and then to Christ Church. The war saw him engaged in work in the British secret service, MI5 and MI6. It was in the secret world that he became a lifelong friend of Dick White, who was later to become the head of MI6. It was White who, at the end of the war, gave Trevor-Roper his first break to fame as a historian.
White asked his friend to go to Berlin and find out what happened to Hitler, who by then had been missing for four months. The astute detective work and research carried out by Trevor-Roper produced The Last Days of Hitler (1947), which many consider to be his best work. The fact that Trevor-Roperís account of those claustrophobic days in the bunker, of Hitlerís suicide and the disposal of his body has not been corrected by subsequent historians in all but a couple of small details is eloquent testimony of his investigative and deductive powers. It is a memorable account of the last days of tyranny.
The book shot Trevor-Roper into prominence. So much so that it is often forgotten that as a research fellow at Merton College before the war, he had written a book on Archbishop Laud. After the very fruitful foray into Nazi Germany, Trevor-Roper returned to the history of 17th century England. He engaged in one of the most celebrated and fertile of historical debates: the rise of the gentry. His opponents were R.H. Tawney and Lawrence Stone. His ripping apart of Stone will rank among the best pieces of hostile polemics of the 20th century. It earned him a reprimand from Tawney, who reminded his younger colleague that academic debate was not similar to gladiatorial combat in which rivals could be smote hip and thigh.
Trevor-Roper never wrote the fat magnum opus most historians are so prone to produce. Like Isaiah Berlin, the essay, especially the long essay, was his chosen form. He lifted the historical essay to an art form. His prose was always brilliant and lucid; his erudition always evident but lightly worn; and his polemic rapier-like. His chosen field was the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Europe. He analysed intellectual and cultural history not in isolation but in its relation to, and expression in, society and politics: in the realization of ideas, the patronage of the arts, the social challenge of science, the social application of religion and the interpretation of history. His essays on these themes were brought together in two volumes: Religion, Reformation and Social Change (1967) and Renaissance Essays (1985).
He thrived on debate and his name became associated with some famous encounters: with Lawrence Stone, with A.J.P. Taylor, with Evelyn Waugh. Trevor-Roper was patrician and often ruthless and Olympian in his dismissal of opponents.
Hitler brought him fame. Ironically, it was Hitler who nearly ruined his academic reputation. He authenticated in 1985 the fake Hitler diaries for the Times Newspapers. He later regretted the unseemly haste which had led him to abandon the usual steps that historians take when carrying out such work.
In his valedictory address to the Oxford University, he recounted how, in his final barb at him, Waugh had suggested that Trevor-Roper should do two things: change his name and get a job in Cambridge. He did both. He became Lord Dacre of Glanton when he was elevated to a life peerage in 1979; he also became Master of Peterhouse in Cambridge in 1980. It was typical of Trevor-Roper to admit with laughter aimed at himself that one of his critics had been prophetic.