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|Born||Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper
15 January 1914
Glanton, Northumberland, England
|Died||26 January 2003
|Education||Belhaven Hill School Charterhouse School|
|Alma mater||Christ Church, Oxford|
|Known for||His studies in 17th-century European history|
|Title||Regius Professor of Modern History|
|Predecessor||Vivian Hunter Galbraith|
|Spouse||Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston|
Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper (15 January 1914 – 27 January 2003) was an English historian of early modern Britain and Nazi Germany and Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. He was made a life peer in 1979 on the advice of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, choosing the title Baron Dacre of Glanton. In academe, Trevor-Roper was known not so much for his books as for his lively intellectual controversies with fellow historians. His most successful book emerged from his assignment as a British intelligence officer in 1945 to discover what happened in the last days of Hitler's bunker. From his interviews with a range of witnesses and study of surviving documents he demonstrated to the satisfaction of most analysts that Hitler was dead and had not escaped from Berlin. His book The Last Days of Hitler was a popular and critical success. However, his reputation was seriously damaged in 1983 when after a brief examination he authenticated the Hitler Diaries, which were subsequently shown to be forgeries.
Trevor-Roper was born in Glanton, Northumberland, England, the son of a doctor, and the brother of Patrick Trevor-Roper (who became a doctor and gay rights activist). Trever-Roper was educated at Belhaven, Charterhouse and at Christ Church, Oxford in Classics and Modern History, later moving to Merton College, Oxford to be a research fellow. Trevor-Roper took a first in Classical Moderations in 1934 and won the Craven, the Ireland and the Hertford scholarships in Classics. Initially, he had intended to make his career in the Classics, but became bored with what he regarded as the pedantic technical aspects of the Greats course at Oxford, and switched to History, where he obtained an honours first in 1936. Trevor-Roper's first book was a 1940 biography of Archbishop William Laud, in which he challenged many of the prevailing perceptions surrounding Laud.
During World War II, Trevor-Roper served as an officer in the Radio Security Service of the Secret Intelligence Service, and then on the interception of messages from the German intelligence service, the Abwehr. He came to have a low opinion of the pre-war professional intelligence agents but a higher one of post-1939 recruits like Kim Philby. Trevor-Roper declared in The Philby Affair (1968) that Philby was never in a position to undermine efforts by the Chief of German Military Intelligence Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to overthrow the Nazi regime and negotiate with the British government.
In November 1945, Trevor-Roper was ordered by Dick White, then head of counter-intelligence in the British sector of Berlin (and later head of MI5 and MI6 in succession) to investigate the circumstances of Adolf Hitler's death and to rebut the propaganda of the Soviet government that Hitler was alive and living somewhere in the West. Using the alias of Major Oughton, Trevor-Roper interviewed politicians, military men, and supporting staff - which were present in the Führerbunker with Hitler, and who had been able to escape to the West, including Bernd Freytag von Loringhoven. The ensuing investigation resulted in Trevor-Roper's most famous book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947, with revised editions as late as 1995), in which he described the last ten days of Hitler's life, and the fates of some of the higher ranking members of the inner circle as well of those lesser figures whose evidence was important for reconstructing this penultimate chapter of the war. Trevor-Roper transformed the evidence he gathered during his fact-finding mission, evidence that was often lurid, confused, and plain wrong, into a literary work, with sardonic humour and drama, that brings out incidentally how much he was influenced by the rhetorical prose styles of two of his favourite historians, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay. In response to The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper received a death threat from the Stern Gang for his supposed over-emphasis on Hitler's charisma, which the authors of the death threat felt had exonerated the German people.
In June 1950, Trevor-Roper attended a conference in Berlin of anti-Communist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Franz Borkenau that resulted in the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. In the 1950s and 1960s, he served as a frequent contributor to Encounter, but in private was sometimes bothered by what he regarded as the magazine's overly didactic tone, particularly in allegedly strident pieces by Koestler and Borkenau.
Trevor-Roper was famous for his writing style (see above). Especially in his many reviews, he could be pitilessly sarcastic, devastating in his mockery. In his attack on Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History, he accused the eminent scholar of regarding himself as a Messiah complete with "the youthful Temptations; the missionary Journeys; the Miracles; the Revelations; the Agony".
For Trevor-Roper, the major themes of early modern Europe were those of intellectual vitality, religious quarrels and of divergence between Protestant and Catholic states, the latter being outpaced by the former economically, politically and constitutionally. European expansion overseas was incidental to these processes. In Trevor-Roper's view, one of the major themes of early modern Europe was that of expansion. By expansion, he meant overseas expansion in the form of colonies and intellectual expansion in the form of the rise of nationalism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. In Trevor-Roper's view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the reaction against growing doctrinal pluralism, and were ultimately traced back to the conflict between the rational worldview of such thinkers as Desiderius Erasmus and other humanists and the spiritual values of the Reformation.
Trevor-Roper argued that history should be understood as an art, not a science, and asserted that the key attribute of the successful historian was the power of imagination. For Trevor-Roper, history was full of contingency, and the story of the past was neither a continuous advance nor decline, but was rather resolved by accident and through the particular choices that particular individuals made in the time at question. Though Trevor-Roper often acknowledged the impact of social trends upon history, in his view, it was the actions of the individuals that made the difference. However, in his studies of early modern Europe, Trevor-Roper did not focus exclusively upon political history, but rather sought to examine the interaction between the political, intellectual, social and religious trends of the period. His preferred medium for expressing himself was the essay rather the book. In his essays in social history, written during the 1950s and '60s, Trevor-Roper was increasingly influenced by — though he never formally embraced the work of — the French Annales School, especially Fernand Braudel, and did much to introduce the work of the Annales school to the English-speaking world.
In Trevor-Roper's opinion, the dispute between the Puritans and the Arminians was a major, although not the sole, cause of the English Civil War. For him, the dispute was over issues of free will and predestination, of preaching and the importance of the sacraments, and only later over the structure of the Church of England. The Puritans desired a decentralized and more egalitarian church with an emphasis on the laity, while the Arminians wished for ordered church with a firm hierarchy with the bishops on top and an emphasis on divine right and salvation via free will.
As a historian of early modern Britain, Trevor-Roper was most famous for his disputes with fellow historians such as Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill, whose materialist (and in some measure "inevitablist") explanations of the English Civil War he enthusiastically attacked. Trevor-Roper was a leading player in the so-called "storm over the gentry" (also known as the "gentry controversy"), a dispute with Christian Socialist R. H. Tawney and Stone about whether the English gentry were, economically, on the way down or up in the century before the English Civil War, and whether this had anything to do with the outbreak of that war in 1642.
Stone, Tawney and Hill all argued that the gentry were rising economically, and that this caused the Civil War. Trevor-Roper argued that, whilst office-holders and lawyers were prospering, the lesser gentry were in decline and that that was the Civil War's cause. A third group, revolving around J. H. Hexter and Geoffrey Elton, argued that the causes of the Civil War had nothing to do with the gentry at all. In 1948, a paper put forward by Stone in support of Tawney's thesis was vigorously attacked by Trevor-Roper who, in a rancorous counter-essay, showed that Stone had exaggerated the debt problems of the Tudor nobility. He then attacked Tawney's theories concerning the rising gentry and declining nobility, arguing that the latter was guilty of selective use of evidence and of misunderstanding the statistics.
Trevor-Roper's attacks on the philosophies of history advanced by Arnold J. Toynbee and Edward Hallett Carr, and on his colleague A. J. P. Taylor's account of the origins of Second World War, were also widely noted. Another notable dispute was with Taylor and Alan Bullock over the question of whether Adolf Hitler had any fixed aims or not. In the 1950s, Trevor-Roper was ferocious in his criticism of Bullock for his portrayal of Hitler as a “mountebank” (i.e., opportunistic adventurer) instead of the ideologue that Trevor-Roper believed him to be. When Taylor offered a picture of Hitler similar to Bullock's in his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, the same debate continued, very publicly, between Taylor and Trevor-Roper.Another notable feud Trevor-Roper carried on in the 1950s-60s was with the novelist and Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, who saw Trevor-Roper as a severe critic of the Catholic Church, and was often vocal in expressing his criticism of him.
In regard to the Globalist-Continentalist debate between those who argued that Hitler had as his aim the conquest of the entire world, as against those who argued that he sought only the conquest of the continent of Europe, Trevor-Roper was one of the leading Continentalists. He argued that the Globalist case rested upon taking a wide scattering of Hitler's remarks over several decades and attempting to turn these views into a systematic ideology. In his opinion, the only consistent objective Hitler sought was the domination of Europe.
A notable thesis propagated by Trevor-Roper was the “general crisis of the 17th century.” He argued that the middle years of the 17th century in Western Europe saw a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, social, religious, economic and political problems. In this “general crisis,” various events, such as the English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the climax of the Thirty Years' War in Germany, troubles in the Netherlands, and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia, were all manifestations of the same problems. The most important causes of the “general crisis,” in Trevor-Roper’s opinion, were the conflicts between “Court” and “Country”; that is between the increasingly powerful centralizing, bureaucratic, sovereign princely states represented by the court, and the traditional, regional, land-based aristocracy and gentry representing the country. In addition, the intellectual and religious changes introduced by the Reformation and the Renaissance were important secondary causes of the "general crisis."
The “general crisis” thesis generated much controversy between those, such as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who believed in the thesis, but saw the problems of 17th-century Europe as being more social and economic in origin than Trevor-Roper would allow. A third faction comprised those who simply denied there was any “general crisis,” such as the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard, and the Soviet historian A.D. Lublinskaya. Trevor-Roper's "general crisis" thesis provoked much discussion, which led to experts in 17th century history such as Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, E. H. Kossmann, Eric Hobsbawm and J. H. Hexter all expressing themselves as to the pros and cons of the theory.
At times, the discussion became quite heated; the Italian Marxist historian Rosario Villari, speaking of the work of Trevor-Roper and Mousnier, claimed that: "The hypothesis of imbalance between bureaucratic expansion and the needs of the state is too vague to be plausible, and rests on inflated rhetoric, typical of a certain type of political conservative, rather than on effective analysis." Villari went on to accuse Trevor-Roper of downgrading the importance of what Villari called the English Revolution (the usual Marxist term for the English Civil War), and insisted that the "general crisis" was part of an idealistic Europe-wide revolutionary movement. Another Marxist critic of Trevor-Roper was the Soviet historian A. D. Lublinskaya, who attacked the concept of a conflict between "Court" and "Country" as fiction, and thus argued there was no "general crisis;" instead Lublinskaya maintained that the so-called "general crisis" was merely the normal workings of the emergence of capitalism.
In 1973, Trevor-Roper in the foreword to a book by John Röhl endorsed the view that Germany was largely responsible for World War I. Trevor-Roper wrote that, in his opinion, far too many British historians had allowed themselves to be persuaded of the theory that the outbreak of war in 1914 had been the fault of all the great powers. He went on to note that this theory had been promoted by the German government's policy of selective publication of documents, aided and abetted by most German historians in a policy of "self-censorship." Finally, he praised Röhl for finding and publishing two previously secret documents that showed German responsibility for the war.
One of Trevor-Roper's most successful books was his 1976 biography of the Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, 2nd Baronet (1873–1944), who had long been regarded as one of the world's leading experts on China. In his biography, Trevor-Roper proceeded to expose Backhouse's life-story and virtually all of his scholarship as a fraud. The discrediting of Backhouse as a source led to much of China's history being re-written in the West as many of Backhouse's assertions, such as his claim that the Dowager Empress ordered the murder of her son, were proven to be false.
In 1960, Trevor-Roper waged a successful campaign against the candidacy of Sir Oliver Franks who was backed by the heads of houses marshalled by Maurice Bowra, for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, and had his old friend and publisher the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan elected instead. In 1964, Trevor-Roper edited a festschrift in honor of his friend, Sir Keith Feiling's 80th birthday. In 1970, he was undoubtedly the author of The Letters Of Mercurius, a satirical work on the student revolts and university politics of the late 1960s.
The extent of Trevor-Roper’s influence can be seen in the list of prominent contributors to History and the Imagination, the festschrift in his honor. Some of the more notable contributors were Sir Geoffrey Elton, John Clive, Arnaldo Momigliano, Frances Yates, Jeremy Catto, Robert S. Lopez, Michael Howard, David S. Katz, Dimitri Obolensky, J.H. Elliott, Richard Cobb, Walter Pagel, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie Pearl, and Fernand Braudel.
The topics contributed by this group of American, British, French, Russian, Italian, Israeli, Canadian, and German historians extended from whether the Odyssey was a part of an oral tradition later written down to the question of the responsibility for the Jameson Raid.
Another aspect of Trevor-Roper’s general outlook on history and on scholarly research that has inspired controversy is his viewpoint on historical experiences of pre-literate societies. Evoking Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon and — especially — Hegel, in 1963 he made the now-famous remark that Africa had no history prior to European exploration and colonization, saying rather that “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness." and described its past only as "the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe." These comments, recapitulated in a later article which called Africa “unhistoric”, was criticized by Africanists in various fields of academia, spurring intense debate, up to today, between historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and those in the emerging fields of postcolonial and cultural studies on the definition of “history."
The conflict centers around what factors must be present in order for a society to qualify as having a “history,” which Trevor-Roper thought required documentable evidence of if and how a society's “movement” toward change and development was accomplished. Many historians have agreed with this central claim but think historical evidence should also include oral traditions as well as an established system of written history, which had previously been the litmus test for a society having left "prehistory" behind. Other critics of Trevor-Roper’s claim have questioned the validity of systematic interpretations of the African past, whether by materialist, Annalist, or, like Trevor-Roper, conservative methods. Still others have gone as far as saying that all approaches which compare Africa with Europe or directly integrate it into European history are not sufficient for an accurate description of African societies and cultures. Nevertheless, although virtually all scholars now agree that Africa qualifies as having a “history," Trevor-Roper's statements played an indirect, but important role in the development of post-colonial African studies by motivating wide-ranging discussions about Africa’s role in the present and historical world.
At the age of sixty-seven, he became Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His election, which surprised his contemporaries, was engineered by a group of fellows led by Maurice Cowling, then the leading Peterhouse Historian. Despite this, his relations with the conservative members of the fellowship (and indeed the porters) of Peterhouse subsequently proved to be difficult.
The nadir of his career came in 1983, when as a director of The Times he "authenticated" the so-called Hitler Diaries. The opinion among experts in the field was by no means unanimous; David Irving for example, initially decried them as forgeries but subsequently changed his mind and declared that they could be genuine, but then finally stated that they were, in fact, a forgery. Two other historians, Eberhard Jäckel and Gerhard Weinberg, also authenticated them. But within two weeks forensic scientist Julius Grant had demonstrated unequivocally that the diaries were a forgery. The embarrassing incident gave Trevor-Roper's enemies at Peterhouse and elsewhere the opportunity to criticise him openly.
Trevor-Roper's initial endorsement of the alleged diaries raised questions in the public mind not only about his perspicacity as a historian but also about his integrity, because The Sunday Times, a newspaper to which he regularly contributed book reviews and of which he was an independent director, had already paid a considerable sum for the right to serialise the diaries. Trevor-Roper denied any dishonest motivation, explaining that he had been given certain assurances as to how the diaries had come into the possession of their "discoverer" and that these assurances had been wrong, prompting the satirical magazine Private Eye to nickname him Hugh Very-Ropey.
Despite the shadow that this incident cast over his later career, he continued writing (producing Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans in 1987) and his work continued to be well received.
On 4 October 1954, Trevor-Roper married Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston (9 March 1907 – 15 August 1997), eldest daughter of Field Marshal the Earl Haig by his wife, the former Hon. Dorothy Maud Vivian. Lady Alexandra was a goddaughter of Queen Alexandra and had previously been married to Rear-Admiral Clarence Dinsmore Howard-Johnston, by whom she had had three children. There were no children of his own marriage to her.
His brother, Patrick Trevor-Roper, was a leading eye surgeon and prominent gay rights campaigner, one of only three gay individuals willing to testify before the Wolfenden Committee, which was investigating whether British law on this should be changed.
Hugh Trevor-Roper was awarded a life peerage in 1979 and chose the title Baron Dacre of Glanton, of Glanton in the County of Northumberland. His choice of title reflected the fact that he was the great-great-great-grandson of Reverend the Hon. Richard Henry Roper, second and youngest son of Anne, 16th Baroness Dacre, from her second marriage to Henry Roper, 8th Baron Teynham.
Five books by Trevor-Roper were published posthumously. The first was Letters from Oxford, a collection of letters written by Trevor-Roper between 1947–60 to his close friend, the wealthy American art collector Bernard Berenson, who lived in a villa outside of Florence, Italy. The second book was 2006's Europe’s Physician, an unfinished biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, the Franco-Swiss court physician to Henri IV, James I and Charles I. The latter work was a manuscript Trevor-Roper had largely completed by 1979, but for unknown reasons did not finish. The third book was The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, a critique written in the mid-1970s of what Trevor-Roper regarded as the myths of Scottish nationalism. It was published in 2008. The fourth book was History and the Enlightenment: Eighteenth Century Essays, which was published in 2010. The fifth book was The Wartime Journals, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, published in 2011. The Wartime Journals are from Trevor-Roper's journals that he kept during his years in the Secret Intelligent Service.
|Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge