Trevor-Roper was born on 15 January 1914 in Glanton, Northumberland, England, the son of a doctor. He was educated at Charterhouse and at Christ Church, Oxford, later moving to Merton College, Oxford, as a research fellow. Though initially intending to make a career in the classics, he switched to history, publishing his first book - a revisionist biography of Archbishop William Laud (see also My picture fallen) - in 1940.
During the Second World War, Trevor-Roper served in the Secret Intelligence Service, helping to decrypt German intelligence material and to establish the need for further such work at Bletchley Park. In late 1945, he was ordered to investigate the circumstances of Adolf Hitler’s death, and to rebut Soviet propaganda that the dictator was alive and living in the West. He used the results of his investigation to write a book - The Last Days of Hitler - which would become and remain the most famous of his publications.
After the war, Trevor-Roper returned to Oxford as a fellow of Christ Church college, choosing to battle established historical norms or ways of viewing history rather than working on and writing any major books for himself. Some called him a controversialist, and his feuds were ‘many and slashing’ (according a New York Times review of Adam Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper - An Honourable Englishman). He was a much sought after writer, contributing essays, reviews and travel writing to high quality newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1953, Trevor-Roper began an affair with Xandra - Lady Alexandra, wife of Rear-Admiral Howard-Johnston - who was 11 years his senior. They married the following year after her acrimonious divorce. Thus, he acquired three step-children (he never had any of his own). Again according to the New York Times review, the marriage ‘did not entirely dispel rumors that he was gay’. Around this time, Hugh’s brother, Patrick, a leading eye surgeon, was one of the first people in the UK to ‘come out’ openly as gay, and to campaign to decriminalise homosexuality.
Trevor-Roper was appointed regius professor of modern history in 1957, entailing a move to the smaller Oriel college, from where he engineered a campaign to elect Harold Macmillan as university chancellor in 1960, and from where he continued his eclectic approach to historical studies. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s government made him a life peer, and he took the title Baron Dacre of Glanton. The following year, he stepped down from the regius chair to become master of Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Then, in the early 1980s, came the Hitler diaries affair. Richard Davenport-Hines, historian and author of Trevor-Roper’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (login required), says this: ‘[Trevor-Roper] had sacrificed some of his best energies to journalism; and the great calamity of his life, in 1983, arose from his involvement with the newspaper world.’ He had been a director of Times Newspapers for some years, and a regular contributor, when, in 1983, he was asked to fly to Switzerland to look at a stash of over 60 diaries, supposedly written by Hitler.
Trevor-Roper quickly authenticated the diaries, and his authentication of them was published in The Times just before The Sunday Times published the actual diaries. Soon after, the full extent of the fraud was uncovered. According to Davenport-Hines, Trevor-Roper developed sharp misgivings about the diaries almost immediately, but these doubts were not conveyed to The Sunday Times, and his reputation was ‘permanently besmirched’. Brian MacArthur, deputy editor of The Sunday Times at the time wrote in the Telegraph a few years ago that The Sunday Times recovered (it had published an apology the following Sunday), ‘but Trevor-Roper’s reputation never did’. (See also Fake diary debacles.)
Thereafter, Trevor-Roper continued to write and publish. He left Peterhouse in 1987, and nursed his wife who died in 1997, by which time he himself was suffering various ailments. He died in 2003. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or numerous obituaries (BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times).
The (forged) Hitler diaries are not the only diaries Trevor-Roper deserves to be remembered for. When a young man, during the war, he kept diaries himself, though these were more a collection of private thoughts than a daily record. He kept these diaries secret from everyone, even his family and friends, and they were not discovered until after his death, when they were edited by Davenport-Hines and published by I. B Tauris in 2011 as The Wartime Journals. They show Trevor-Roper brimming with intellectual zest and plenty of controversial opinions.
The publisher’s blurb states: ‘As a British Intelligence Officer during World War II, Hugh Trevor-Roper was expressly forbidden from keeping a diary due to the sensitive and confidential nature of his work. However, he confided a record of his thoughts in a series of slender notebooks inscribed OHMS (On His Majesty’s Service). The Wartime Journals reveal the voice and experiences of Trevor-Roper, a war-time ‘backroom boy’ who spent most of the war engaged in highly-confidential intelligence work in England - including breaking the cipher code of the German secret service, the Abwehr. He became an expert in German resistance plots and after the war interrogated many of Hitler’s immediate circle, investigated Hitler’s death in the Berlin bunker and personally retrieved Hitler’s will from its secret hiding place. [. . . The journals] provide an unusual and privileged view of the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany. At the same time they offer an engaging - sometimes mischievous - and reflective study of both the human comedy and personal tragedy of wartime.’
The book was well reviewed - see The Telegraph, The Times - and much of it can be read freely online at Googlebooks or Amazon.
‘The Secret Service: How can I describe it? A colony of coots in an unventilated backwater of bureaucracy? A bunch of dependant bumsuckers held together by neglect, like a cluster of bats in an unswept barn? O for a broom, I cry, to drive them twittering hence! But expostulating voices say, No! for it is a consecrated barn protected by ancient taboos. An so another image rises in my mind, of the high-priests of effete religion mumbling their meaningless ritual to avert a famine or stay a cataclysm. And then I remember the hieratic indolence of those self-inflated mandarins, their Chinese ideograms, their green ink, their oriental insincerities, their ceremonious evasions of responsibility, their insulation from the contemporary world, and the right image has come, of Palace eunuchs in the Great Within.’
‘In general, women repel me. I discovered this truth sitting on top of a bus that was taking me down the Haymarket the other day. The contemplation of my female fellow-passengers made me shiver. ‘But they aren’t all like this’, I protested to myself, and I looked down into the street to make sure. Alas, they were no better; and in the restaurant, at lunch, I looked around me, and it was just the same. Without features, without grace, soft, shapeless lumps, like brown-paper parcels, or the wingless females of less interesting moths, they repel without fascinating. I put this to Stuart Hampshire. ‘They cumber the earth’, he said, and remarked on their ugly gait and soft complaisant grimaces; to which I added other details, their foolish birdlike minds, their twittering voices. But then I thought of those women whom I so like, who belie their sex by possessing features and understanding the art of growing old; aged dowagers with aquiline faces, who sit erect and stately in their high chairs, giving orders to their servants, and disapproving the low standards of the age in life, taste and manners - the three arts of which women may, without impertinence, be a judge.’
‘If I had a religion (and I sometimes feel that I behave as if I were in search of one), I would be a pagan. For it is among meadows and hills, clear streams and woodland rides, that I find serenity of mind; in deep forests and dark caverns, among lonely crags and howling tempests that I feel the inadequacy of man; in the starry night and by the desolate seashore that the triviality of temporal existence oppresses or comforts me. If satyrs were one day to pop up and pipe to me among the Cheviot Hills; if a troop of nymphs were suddenly to rise with seductive gestures from a trout-pool in the Breamish; if dryads and hamadryads were to eye me furtively as I hunted the tangled thickets of Hell Copse or Waterberry Wood; I would not feel in the least surprised - I already half assume their presence their. But if God were to speak to me through the mouth of a clergyman, or to appear to me in any of the approved Christian attitudes, then indeed I would begin to ask questions.’