A few years before he died I visited the historian enveloped in a deep, English silence in his home near Didcot. He opened up to me about those Hitler diaries, Europe versus America, Oxford gossip and MI6by Duncan Fallowell / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
It was in 1968 that I first saw Professor Trevor-Roper. I was reading history at Magdalen, and he was giving a lecture on witchcraft in the Examination Schools almost opposite. Although witchcraft was not part of my syllabus, this was the psychedelic era and the subject sounded interesting. A remote, gowned figure stood on a dais at the end of a large hall built in the Jacobean style, his voice echoing eerily. With round, horn-rimmed spectacles and a shock of grizzled hair, he embodied the high-minded, 1930s Oxford style. The lecture wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. There was a lot about puritanism, very little about magic. It turned out to be the only university lecture I ever attended and I didn’t re-enter the Examination Schools until sitting my finals two years later. Some time afterwards, I glimpsed Trevor-Roper, tall and tweeded, coming out of Fribourg & Treyer, the tobacconist near Carfax which is now a souvenir shop. He always had that very slightly dandified air of distinction. One didn’t associate him with bicycle clips. My next encounter was when I interviewed him in December 1991. What follows is the piece I wrote soon after.
Didcot is an untidy railway-junction town set in Oxfordshire’s ugliest landscape of pylons, roundabouts, hypermarkets and ripped-up hedgerows. On the town’s edge, shadowed by the gigantic towers of Didcot power station, not far from the atomic energy installations at Harwell, and immediately oppressed by a dangerous main road and an estate of brick boxes, stands the grey stone bulk of a building from another age-the Old Rectory. It is no surprise that the house looks harassed and has, in consequence, become withdrawn and forbidding. One expects Catherine Earnshaw at any moment to vent her hysteria from an upper casement, aghast at finding herself trapped in this chaos of blights, this confluence of horrors, this middle England.
The Old Rectory is the home of Lord Dacre, which is what Hugh Trevor-Roper has become. He has also become notorious as the man who authenticated the Hitler diaries. Standing under a grim porch, I press the bell. Eventually he opens the front door, a more ethereal figure these days, but still active (he’s just back from America) and strikingly tall with his wuzzy white hair sticking up in a crest. Wearing those familiar round spectacles, his manner is shy but affable. The house is light and spacious within-there is a certain grandeur to the staircase-but so chill and so deeply, utterly silent. Such silence makes me feel clumsy. One’s very footsteps are desecration.
“My wife is unwell,” he says in a steady, quiet voice. He looks intently at the floor as we cross the hall and go into the study. Books, books, books, ancient and modern, from floor to ceiling. A large gilt mirror over the fireplace. Horizontal surfaces loaded up with cards, letters, invitations, notes and knick-knacks.
They used to own a house in Cambridge and another in Scotland (built by Sir Walter Scott for his daughter), three miles from Abbotsford. “I’m a Northumbrian but my wife is Scotch. When I retired from Cambridge, we decided to have just one house.”
“This is like one of those north Oxford houses.”
“It’s rather better. Early Victorian. Better proportioned rooms. My wife liked the house at once and we decided it would do. I can get to Oxford in 20 minutes by car and London in 40 minutes by train. That’s important because I go to the House of Lords now and then-I’ve been rather busy lately on the Further and Higher Education Bill. I’m lobbied by the interests involved. My vote is counted on the day of battle.”
“In what way does your peerage give you pleasure?” He became Dacre of Glanton in 1979.
“I suppose it gives one pleasure to be given a sign of recognition of some kind.”
“Are there no other pleasures in it?”
“I enjoy the House of Lords. But I don’t think it gives me a great thrill to be addressed as ‘My Lord.'”
“With regard to education, are standards lower?”
“Oh, certainly. A great deal of damage has been done-the destruction of the grammar schools for example-and it’s difficult to see how it can be reversed. Undergraduates come up to the university much less well-prepared than they were.”
Born in 1914, the son of a doctor, the young Hugh went to Charterhouse. “Frankly I didn’t… have a bad time. I was quite a nob by the end. But, looking back on it, perhaps I should be ashamed of having been so successful because… Charterhouse was unbelievably, unbearably conventional. Stowe under Roxburgh had a certain flashy, snobbish liveliness about it. Contemporaries of mine at Oxford who came from Stowe had an intellectual polish. But Charterhouse was… “
For some reason he is very jittery talking about his old school, as though speaking ill of a dead mother.
“…I should like to say as a counterbalance that I was very well taught there. I specialised in classics and I am grateful to the masters who taught me; but the school itself, the atmosphere of the place at that time, fills me with depression when I think of it.”
“My brother was in Hodgsonites,” I say (it’s one of the school houses).
“Oh! In my day, Hodgsonites was known as the Charterhouse Ritz. The housemaster was a rich bachelor who collected Chinese porcelain, and it was said he subsidised the food, which was very good.”
A shiver seems to pass through the room and in response to it, or to the memory of a cold public school before the war, he crosses to the fireplace and lights the gas coal fire whose clever fakery soon gives the room a cheerful glow. Hugh went up to Oxford in 1932 and at first read classics, then modern history.
“I worked hard at school but not as an undergraduate. I was idle and I enjoyed it.”
He has been associated with Oxford for most of his career. From 1937 to 1939 he was a research fellow at Merton. After the war he became a tutor at Christ Church and in 1957 the university’s regius professor of modern history. There was a big change in 1980 when he was elected master of Peterhouse at Cambridge, which lasted until 1987 and was attended by considerable difficulties.
“I have to be very careful what I say about that.”
“How would you characterise your time there? One’s heard that it wasn’t a bed of roses.”
“I think… er-well, Peterhouse is a college very different from any other I’ve known, rather small and introverted. I tried to open it up by, for example, introducing competition for fellowships-they had never been advertised. I had to battle all the while against a little mafia of elderly bachelor dons who dined in college every night and didn’t want change. Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue was shown on television during my time there and there were many similarities between the two situations. I laughed a lot.”
“Are Oxford and Cambridge very different?”
“Oh yes… A lot of differences in the teaching and so on. And the college system is more alive at Oxford than at Cambridge. At Peterhouse, I found more intellectual life amongst the scientists than amongst the arts people. They had general interests and I had better conversation with them than with the arts people who supposed themselves to be more civilised-and they weren’t.”
Trevor-roper’s apparently effortless ascent to the heights of academe was interrupted by his war work and yet it was the war which made that ascent more assured by giving him the subject for the book which brought him to a wide public: The Last Days of Hitler. He was-unsurprisingly-in intelligence. Can he talk about this?
“In theory no, in practice yes.”
“Was your work important?”
After a long cogitation… “Yes, it was. Although not of the highest importance. I said I was rather frivolous at Oxford but Munich and appeasement were a great shock to my generation. It was after Munich that I decided that the world was serious and there was likely to be war. I taught myself German and read Mein Kampf-I visited Nazi Germany before the war and hated it. By the time the war came, I was a cavalry officer with the Life Guards but I was soon carried off by the Bursar of my then college who’d been in the first war and wasn’t going to be left out of the second. He wangled his way into military intelligence and I found myself in Wormwood Scrubs, which at that time was the headquarters of MI5. I worked in a cell.”
“Where were the prisoners?”
“They had been removed to a prison in the country. Excuse me one moment, I must check my wife.”
He leaves the room and is immediately absorbed into that deep, secure, pellucid silence which is tinged only by the knowledge of some sick presence elsewhere in the house. Apparently, Lady Dacre is tall, smart and thin. She is the daughter of Earl Haig, the first world war general who sent so many young men over the top to their deaths. Alexandra and Hugh were married in 1954 and have no children. She is seven years older than he is and has three children by her previous marriage. Her brother was an undergraduate at Christ Church just after Hugh-and was one of those flashy, lively boys from Stowe.
No sign of pets, no sound of radio or servants or clocks; nothing except the faint hiss of the gas flames in the fireplace. One might write a whole book about such silence for it is encountered less and less often these days, but is in fact one of the highest products of English civilisation, finer than any wine, more profound than any music. Glancing about for evidence of the mundane, I notice audio cassettes of Paul Tortelier and next to them video cassettes of the television sitcom Yes, Minister. There is a view through the French windows to a fairly elaborate garden organised by Lady Dacre-it was a field when they arrived. The sky and air outside are filled with the pale peach sunlight of winter. The silence is so peaceful.
When he returns, he continues seamlessly from where he left off and I wonder whether he went to check on his wife or on something else connected to this top-secret stuff.
“We discovered accidentally-the ex-Bursar and myself-a very important source of intelligence. This caused great excitement and was regarded as too important to be entrusted to us.”
“Where was it?”
“Abroad. And MI6 was determined to get control of it and to get control of us. They couldn’t allow this knowledge to circulate outside a certain sphere.”
“Can’t you tell me what it was?”
“Well, it was a… an area of ultra. Do you know what I mean by ultra?”
“Oh. Er, well… it was, er… the enciphered radio communications of the Germans… They had to be intercepted and deciphered. The chief of the secret service insisted that we must be transferred to him. So I found myself moved physically from MI8 into MI6 and there I remained for the rest of the war. At the time of the Normandy invasion, I was transferred to Eisenhower’s headquarters. And when the Germans were defeated in France, Hitler went missing for five months. Nobody knew where he was. He was thought to be in Berlin but when the Russians arrived there-no sign of him. Finally the Russians accused the British of keeping Hitler alive for use against them. This was the last straw and I was told to find out what had happened to Hitler. I did it as a military assignment. I had no intention of writing a book. That came later, encouraged by my commanding officer.”
Trevor-Roper’s first book was Archbishop Laud (1940). “I couldn’t understand the textbook version of why Laud was executed. We were told that his doctrines were unacceptable-all right, they were. But why cut off his head? It didn’t seem an adequate explanation. Whether I found one, I don’t know. I don’t think much of that book now.”
“It keeps coming out.”
“Yes, there have been three editions so far. But I think that The Last Days of Hitler is a good book.”
Published in 1947, it was his second-short, elegantly written and judicious in its judgements (which was in itself remarkable so soon after the opening of the death camps). It has become a classic. But his favourite amongst his own works is The Hermit of Peking. This is a biography of Sir Edmund Backhouse and a work of detection in which Trevor-Roper discovers behind the mask of a demure Chinese scholar the machinations of a bizarre trickster.
“You wrote a book about Kim Philby too. When did he come into your life?”
“He arrived in MI6 a few months after I did. I knew him well and liked him. I knew Burgess-not very well. Blunt I knew well and disliked. They form an episode in the history of the English intelligentsia. I don’t think they mattered much in international affairs. But how could intelligent people be hooked in this way? It’s like Englishmen becoming Jesuits in the 16th century. I last met Philby in 1957-I was visiting the middle east after Suez and was taken on a tour by the King of Iraq. Philby, who was based in Beirut at the time, came too. By this stage MI5 was pretty much convinced of his guilt, and so was I. He made a remark referring to “all that foolish stuff about the third man,” and I remember feeling that in the context of our conversation it didn’t sound right, he protested too much. Much later, after he’d fled to Moscow, he wrote to me in a very jolly vein, trying, I thought, to initiate a correspondence, but I didn’t answer. I very much disapproved of what he’d done.”
The great strength of Trevor-Roper as an historian is his interest in character. His most memorable work has been done through the study of individuals; not only major figures such as Laud, Hitler, Charles V, Philip II, Erasmus and More, but also the eccentric or obscure such as Backhouse, Paracelsus, Prince Rupert and the Doge Foscari.
“Yes, well, I do see history as a human activity. It is not an abstract process as Hegel supposed. I don’t believe that the course of human history is entirely malleable by human will-it has its own mechanism as well-but still, men are the motor of history.”
“You’ve also written noticeably on witchcraft. I went to one of your lectures on it. Have you ever had a supernatural experience?”
“But are you a religious person?”
“Er… er… that’s a very difficult question. I’m interested in religion.”
“Is the history of witchcraft part of the history of religion?”
“Yes. The witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries is also part of intellectual history. It was not vulgar witchcraft, which exists at all times, but a complex system which is used by highly-educated people to persecute others.”
“Why are you an historian, in fact?”
“Most of my life has been determined by accident. Perhaps this is true of most people, perhaps you too.”
“I believe that is a statement of attitude, not fact.”
“I’ve always been interested in history. I was brought up in north Northumberland and the evidence of a continuous history was alive all around me there. The deposits of Roman, Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet England. If I’d been brought up in, let us say, Surbiton, I wouldn’t have had this background. My father was a doctor, without intellectual interests. I was a studious boy but there were not many books in our house. This was an average middle-class family in England. The present was rather dull up there while the past was exciting and very visible.”
“Does your sense of an organic relationship with the past extend also to the future?”
“Oh yes, oh certainly. I think Carlyle said the present is a thin film between the past and the future.”
“How do you see the future for Britain in Europe?”
“I am a European in that I’m at home in the continent of Europe and am interested in European history. I prefer Europe to America. On the other hand, I feel very English and do not wish to see England submerged in a new structure at the expense of its historical inheritance. I do believe in a common market but political Gleichschaltung I do not wish to see. Not only because of my Englishness but also on general grounds because I’m very deeply, in my mental attitude, pluralist. I believe that uniformity is death. Europe has been the most creative civilisation in the world and that is due to its pluralism. Heretics from one society could find refuge in another. There was constant competition between countries. And I hate the idea of uniformity on aesthetic grounds too. It would be the reign of Mickey Mouse. The English have always stood out against utopian ideals and I hope we always will. I agree with Burke, not Paine.”
“Isn’t Europe our best chance for avoiding being overwhelmed by American junk culture?”
“We don’t have to be overwhelmed by either.”
Lord dacre still remains the don in appearance as well as in temperament. Today it is tweed jacket, collar and tie, V-necked pullover, grey flannel trousers (frayed round the bottom), maroon leather slippers. His manner is gentle, even to the point of dreamy, but his thoughts are precise. He still goes regularly into Oxford.
“I have three colleges where I can eat: Christ Church, Merton and Oriel.”
“Is AL Rowse still alive?”
“Yes, but not at All Souls. He’s in Cornwall.”
“Is he a friend?”
“Er, we have good relations.” Smile.
“You say that in a slightly arch way.”
Broad laughter. “Well, nobody can be on equal terms with Rowse because he’s a genius far above the rest of us. Even to flatter Rowse is liable to rouse him to indignation. He gets cross that you should think yourself able to judge him in any way at all. He’s a law unto himself, but a much better historian than people make out, an extraordinary personage who oscillates between very good work and, well, conversations with his cat. He writes well. I like people to write attractively. One has no right to expect to be read if one takes no trouble to make oneself readable.”
“Do you enjoy writing?”
“I enjoy research. Actual writing I find fairly painful. Composition is a great effort.”
His prose resembles the man himself, formal but easy-going, lucid, occasionally droll, above all elegant. It seems to work. A dozen works are in print.
“Are you still writing?”
“Yes, I’m writing a book.”
“Can you tell me what it is?”
“No. I never say until it’s finished. Otherwise it evaporates in idle talk.”
“Which of your colleagues do you most admire?”
“Ronald Syme, Roman historian. He’s dead but he was a contemporary. Frances Yates. She’s dead.”
“I read her book on Bruno and I thought she included rather more of the mumbo-jumbo than was necessary. Endless transcriptions of spells.”
“Yes, yes, she got a bit buried in that. Let me see… people who’ve influenced me. Namier. Braudel-The Mediterranean is a wonderful book. But he went off in his later work. And literature-would you allow me Doughty? Arabia Deserta.”
“What about your relationship with AJP Taylor? He was left to your right.”
“He was a man of the left but he didn’t fit into any orthodoxy, he was an individualist. We were good friends. The press tried to make out we were opposed. I did criticise The Origins of the Second World War and this was blown up into a feud, but it wasn’t.”
“Wasn’t he prickly like Rowse?”
“Rowse is prickly but Alan wasn’t. He was rather vain-and vainer than he appeared.”
“He often appeared quite vain.”
“Well, the only thing that’s left is this Selling Hitler business. Do we touch on that?”
“I never saw the film.”
This was a television film. There was a book too. Both these productions successfully reran, for public consumption, the story of how a German forger, Konrad Kujau, in 1983 sold the mock diaries of the F?hrer to Stern magazine for nearly 10m marks. He went to jail for three years.
“Let me put it another way. If I were your grandson and said, ‘Grandpa, tell me the story of the Hitler diaries?’ how would you respond?”
“I’d brush it aside. It was disagreeable. I made a mistake. And I know what the mistake was. It was that I assumed that the Germans who gave me evidence were not only not dishonest but were also not fools. I had to consider the evidence that they gave me-and I cross-examined them closely and they gave absolute assurances. And I said to myself that it was not in their interest to lie, they must be intelligent enough to realise that. I’d gone out there sceptical but they gave me answers which forced me to believe that those documents were genuine. Later, I changed my mind on meeting the man who was the essential link-and I tried to stop the thing. But I was trapped because Stern moved the date of publication forward. By the time it was published, I had already withdrawn my authentication. I was prevented from correcting what was admittedly my own error in believing those wretched Germans.
“I then took responsibility for the original error. It was the only honourable thing to do. I thought na?vely that other people, who had been much more responsible for it than I, would take their share of the blame. But not at all! They all turned and made me the scapegoat. The Times was the paper which engaged me, because they were going to publish the diaries in England, but they then passed it on to the Sunday Times. As I was employed by The Times, I told them that I’d changed my mind and withdrawn the authentication-but they did not pass this information on to the Sunday Times, whose editor, Frank Giles, had a legitimate complaint over that. In fact, he felt that the whole thing had been foisted on him. What riled me was that nobody else admitted anything. They all smugly sat on their bottoms and made the most monstrous charges against me.”
But that wasn’t the end of it and Hugh recounts the final shabby episode.
“The journalists at Stern were equally outraged and they, in the end, forced the management to have an independent enquiry conducted by the attorney-general of Hamburg, and I gave evidence to him. But the management of Stern refused to allow the report to be published. And I never saw it. The whole affair was squalid. It lowered one’s view of humankind.”
This was a catastrophe for a distinguished historian towards the end of his life. The hurt and anger must run deep because Trevor-Roper is a man normally careful to avoid harsh words. At first, the damage to his standing seemed severe, but with the passing of time the catastrophe has become more of a farce and the lasting damage negligible. Indeed, it will give to his biography that touch of the outlandish which he so prizes in others. But there is no doubt that he carries away from the affair a sense of personal defilement, as of having been sucked unawares into a world of indecency. I ask what he considers the main threat to a civilised society. He replies without hesitation.
“I think the threat is implicit in the Nazi and Soviet experiences. I mean that the horrors perpetrated by both regimes were perpetrated by human beings who had arrived at that stage by a process of gradual corruption. That is to say, they were people not different from the ordinary people around us-at the start. But they found it convenient to slide into doing these awful things. If it’s happened before, it can happen again. It is evidence of the fragility of civilised behaviour. At the start of the war, to bomb an open city was seen as impermissible. When the Germans bombed Rotterdam and Belgrade just to destroy them, we were horrified. By the end of the war we were doing it ourselves; our side dropped atom bombs on open cities of the enemy. So actions which are unthinkable can become thinkable when normal restraints fail.”
As I prepare to leave this rich, enfolding pool of silence and re-enter the messed-up, clashing landscape outside, he says, “I should invite you to tea-but I’m not going to.” I know he is worried about his wife but I wonder-is this the first flicker of the unthinkable? No tea. The ending of civilisation as we know it.
At dusk, a sinuous fog is beginning to encircle the giant limbs of Didcot power station. Myriad lights have come on all over it which gives the prospect a weird magnificence and one begins to understand how a man so absorbed by the past might find in this monster of futurism a rather exciting neighbour.
My last encounter with him was in November 2000. I was a guest of Magdalen high table and he was guest of honour. During sherry in the Senior Common Room beforehand he stood there in his striped suit and dashing bow tie guarded by a ring of adoring women. From the SCR to high table involves, famously at Magdalen, an exposed walk across the pinnacled roof of the chapel, black gowns flapping in the biting drizzle-pure Gormenghast-then down and in through a tiny door. Lord Dacre had to go the long way round. One of the women told me he was now almost blind. “It’s not so much that I’m blind,” he interjected, “as that I tend to see things which simply aren’t there.”