- - Monday, February 20, 2012


By Adam Sisman
Random House, $40, 643 pages, illustrated

Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) was one of the most famous and admired British historians of his time, holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Regius Professorship. He was also widely known for his best-selling “Last Days of Hitler,” based on fresh research gathered soon after the fuhrer’s suicide, and for his many forays in newspapers and journals in his role as a public intellectual on the historical and political controversies of his day. Yet it was his misfortune, as is the way of the world, to be most renowned, notoriously, for one great blunder late in his career: his authentication of the supposed Hitler diaries soon revealed to be fake.

It is typical of biographer Adam Sisman’s fairness and ability to get beyond the surface that he gives a detailed and balanced account of this disaster. He certainly does not acquit Trevor-Roper of ultimate responsibility for the catastrophe and makes it clear that the historian himself took full responsibility in no uncertain terms. But he does show how others pressured him into a premature rush to judgment despite the doubts he harbored and had expressed. So anyone who reads “An Honourable Englishman” will be unlikely to equate Trevor-Roper only with those faked Hitler diaries.

There is no doubt that Trevor-Roper was in many ways a contradictory character. A devotee of foxhunting, he married the daughter of an earl, and duchesses seem more prominent in his social life than historians. Soon after her election, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ennobled him as Lord Dacre and sent him to sit on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords. So it is not surprising that many thought him to be a high Tory. Yet when an academic clique at one of Cambridge’s more eccentric colleges lured him away from a lifetime at Oxford to become its head, they found, to their consternation, that his views on such controversies as admitting women were surprisingly progressive.

Mr. Sisman’s account of these stormy years at Peterhouse College are among the most lovely and piquant parts of his always engrossing book. And when he informs us that a “high proportion” of passages about the incident were “removed or modified” from the original draft to comply with Britain’s stringent laws of defamation, we can only deplore the loss. Even in this diminished form, it will remind readers of C.P. Snow’s “The Masters” (as it did former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan) or perhaps still more so of Tom Sharpe’s “Porterhouse Blue” for those who have enjoyed this hilarious novel and the equally funny film made of it.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Trevor-Roper as a historian is that, unlike not merely his peers at the pinnacle of the profession but so many lesser lights, he produced only one full-length piece of true historiographical scholarship, and that at the outset of his career. Mr. Sisman’s exposition of the big projects undertaken but never completed and the various factors - from too active a social life to fear of the kind of harsh verdict he was himself wont to dish out to a genuine self-critical perfectionism - that contributed to this astonishing lack of production is fascinating, even if he, not surprisingly, cannot finally account for it. But of course Trevor-Roper did produce that stream of articles and reviews in newspapers and historical journals that showed off his keen intellect and mastery of so many aspects of history.

The title that Mr. Sisman has given his biography indicates his partiality for his subject. He knew Trevor-Roper somewhat toward the end of his long life and this has given Mr. Sisman certain insights into the character of the man that might not immediately be apparent to those who knew only his swashbuckling persona, fierce combativeness regarding historiography and rather haughty manner. The approach toward biographical methodology here is exemplary: judicious and tactful, probing but responsible. Unless there is concrete evidence to support something, Mr. Sisman refuses to go there. He acknowledges widespread speculation by others, but his own refusal to do so makes this a refreshing alternative to those biographies crammed with innuendo and ill-supported inferences.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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