It is easy to view historical figures as sepia-toned strangers or faceless names on a page. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s great gift as an historian was his ability to see his subjects animated, in vivid colour and profoundly relevant to his own time.
This is patent throughout the essays in ‘Hugh Trevor Roper: The Historian’, a volume edited by Blair Worden, re-released as a paperback a few weeks ago. Across the volume quotations from Trevor-Roper’s works showcase Trevor-Roper’s intimacy with the past. Considering how the sixteenth-century humanist Erasmus would be treated in the modern age, Trevor-Roper declared that whilst the sixteenth century had ‘accused him of levity, flippancy’ and ‘irreverence’ twentieth-century critics would ‘accuse him of “journalism”’. For Trevor-Roper, the Nazi top brass were not the alien architects of a totalitarian regime but ‘a set of monkeys’ and ‘flatulent clowns’. It helped that Trevor-Roper not only investigated history but found himself at its beating heart. Though he predominantly researched early modern Europe, he would write the authoritative account of ‘The Last Days of Hitler’, first as an MI6 report and then as a work of history. This research brought Trevor-Roper eyeball-to-eyeball with men at the heart of the Nazi regime. Yet he showed similar familiarity with figures who had died more than four hundred years before he was born.
The essays in this book illustrate how Trevor-Roper’s intimate engagement with the past underpinned his most brilliant work. Trevor-Roper was a specialist but he frequently stepped out of his own area of expertise, boldly traversing the chronological and topical boundaries that limit many academic historians. Trevor-Roper compared Hitler and Cromwell as dictators, tested his ‘Town and Country’ thesis across centuries and defined the politicians who brought the Cold War to détente as ‘Erasmian’. As Rory Allan argues, Trevor-Roper understood that human behaviours were not ‘locked in chronological cages’. Colin Kidd concurs, suggesting that Trevor-Roper’s brilliance stemmed from his lack of ‘respect for the frontiers which demarcate the fiercely defended bailiwicks and modest cabbage patches of less versatile academics.’ Trevor-Roper saw history for what it is at its best: a potent tool for understanding the behaviours and questions that have shaped humanity across the ages.
Trevor-Roper’s strong views on issues past and present could lead him astray. Brian Young argues that Trevor-Roper’s view on the Reformation was shaped by his own bitter taste of the divisive politics of the 1930s and Cold War. Elsewhere it seems that contempt for ideological polarisation and authoritarianism made him hostile to post-Reformation Catholicism and hardline Protestantism. Fair enough, you might say. But Trevor-Roper’s contempt for the Catholic Church led him to factual flaws. In ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ he coolly stated that the führer ‘had no trouble from the Churches’. Surely Catholic authorities would not object to a regime that shared its character as ‘an authoritarian system, based on dogma, fundamentally opposed to toleration, free enquiry, and individual liberty’? Trevor-Roper even went so as far as to compare Goebbel’s propaganda to ‘the Jesuits’ and Himmler to the ‘inquisitor’ Robert Bellarmine. Yet it is widely known that many German bishops and, eventually, the pope himself boldly denounced the Nazi regime. And Bellarmine was never an inquisitor, only a consultant to the Holy Office.
Trevor-Roper’s historical vision could also lead him to conceive impractically ambitious theses and to abandon projects that could not do his ideas justice. Blair Worden describes how Trevor-Roper gave up on a book for the tercentenary of the death of Oliver Cromwell when he realised that the anniversary offered ‘too cramped a theme’. Moreover, when Trevor-Roper conceived a history of the ‘English Ruling Classes’, from ‘the silent, patient, nibbling rat-faced country landlords and lawyers of early Tudor days’ to the present, the project quickly became too ambitious to be completed by any historian. Trevor-Roper’s perpetual curiosity and belief in the broader importance of history also prevented him from fulfilling promised projects. In 1975, he failed to write up his Wiles Lectures, despite the stipulations of the invitation and pleas of the organisers. This was not due to any lack of industry. During the period in which he was due to produce the manuscript he finished two books, worked on his biography of Theodore de Mayerne, became master of Peterhouse and a life peer. For Trevor-Roper professional promises could never outweigh new and potentially valuable avenues for his energy and interests.
This book offers a kaleidoscopic view of Hugh Trevor-Roper: as an historian, classicist, public intellectual, writer and MI6 agent. Across the contributions we see a man intimate with history, with a profound interest in human behaviour and the links between the past and present. Trevor-Roper’s anti-Catholic barbs had always made me bristle. Whilst the essays in this volume do not excuse his factual errors, they do reveal the merits of the vision that could lead him to wrong conclusions. They also show us the lessons that Trevor-Roper can teach our own age. In Britain, history is popular but popular history is sometimes mere entertainment. Whilst academic history can be specialised to the point of incomprehensibility. Trevor-Roper made mistakes. But he never faltered in his convictions that bold theses should be tested and controversial questions should be up for debate. As he said himself: ‘In the long run, the errors of great historians are more valuable than the correctitudes of minor’ ones.