Lord Dacre of Glanton — who, before one of Margaret Thatcher’s honors lists elevated him to the peerage, was called Hugh Trevor-Roper — died of cancer last Sunday at a nursing home in Oxford. He was 89. Many of the obituaries, like that in the New York Times, missed the point of his life. The death notices dwelt upon the episode of the “Hitler Diaries,” forgeries which, in 1982, Trevor-Roper imprudently pronounced genuine. But the incident should not be allowed to obscure the great accomplishment of Trevor-Roper’s career; as a historian he fought brilliantly to save his art from the depredations of those barbarians who have darkened the face of modern learning.
It was not simply that he exposed the foolishness of the Marxist historians who were once in vogue, and who prepared the way for subsequent generations of academic hacks; Trevor-Roper’s most important achievement is to be found in his fidelity to the great traditions of historical writing in English. The young historian who published The Last Days of Hitler in 1947 served diligently at the flame of the great English historians; and like his model, Gibbon, Trevor-Roper entertained the “ambitious hope that he might tread in the footsteps” of the masters.
That the aspirant succeeded in his object is proved by The Last Days itself, one of the great works of history written in the last century. The writing betrays a sophistication of style quite alien to the ideals of modern academic historians; it is not simply Trevor-Roper’s ironies that save his sentences from the threat of dullness, but also the “luxe, calme, et volupté” of the underlying rhetoric. Style was for Trevor-Roper what it was for Gibbon, an instrument of moral analysis, a tool with which to probe the recesses of barbarism; and it was this instinct for language, polished up to the brightness of art, that enabled the historian of the immolation of Hitler to make vivid the uncivilized nihilism of his fanatic tribe. In the “last days,” Trevor-Roper wrote,
when all hope and profit had departed, when all rivals had been eliminated or had fled, and the Party, in indisputed power, had nothing positive to offer any more, it was to this nihilism that it returned as its ultimate philosophy and valediction. The voice that issued from the doomed city of Berlin in the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945 was the authentic voice of Nazism, purged of all its accessory appeals, its noonday concessions, and welcoming one more the consequences of its original formula, World Power or Ruin.
What stimulated this acute feeling for style? Anyone possessed of an even mildly Tory sensibility will see at once that Trevor-Roper’s writing owes something to the bitter incentives of the English system of rank. Gibbon once said that he did “not blush to descend” from the cadets of his family who had gone into trade. Ah, but he did blush; and in his memoir he offered an elaborate apology:
before our army and navy, our civil establishments and Indian Empire had opened so many paths of fortune, the mercantile profession was more frequently chosen by youths who aspired to create their own independence. Our most respectable families have not disdained the counting-house or even the shop: their names are enrolled in the livery and companies of London: and in England as well as in the Italian commonwealths, heralds have been compelled to declare that gentility is not degraded by the exercise of trade.
Like Gibbon, Trevor-Roper grew up in atmosphere of decaying gentility. He was born at Glanton, in Northumberland, in 1914, the son of a country doctor. His family, he said, preserved the memory of a descent from “rather grand gentry” in Wales; and his mother in particular was anxious that the descendants of knights remain unstained by the polluting touch of the bourgeoisie. The lawyer who lived across the street was for all intents and purposes untouchable; a social connection with his family “wouldn’t be at all suitable,” Trevor-Roper’s mother declared. What would Mrs. Grundy say?
The traumas of class, whatever else they may be, are marvelous incitements to style. Gibbon, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, Pater, Waugh — how many of the most accomplished of the modern stylists have emerged from families uneasily situated in the borderlands between the gentle classes and the middle classes? Some of these masters, like Trollope and Trevor-Roper, were spawned by the declining gentry, others, like Macaulay and Ruskin and Waugh, were sired by rising burghers. For all of them the effort to master a style was a defensive measure — they sought to create a bulwark that would prevent them from slipping back into the puddle out of which they had so recently climbed, or which would stave off the deluge which threatened to swamp a fallen family. The Marxists, wrong in so many things, were right to insist that the organization of the classes has a great deal to do with the artifacts which a particular civilization produces. The levelers erred only in supposing these hierarchies to be evil. No socialist state will ever produce art remotely comparable to Henry IV or Pride and Prejudice — they have no knights. Where there are no knights, there can be no Thersites, and no tension between the classes. What is left to write about it? But we must not be complacent; democracy doesn’t produce very good novelists either — or historians.
Trevor-Roper won scholarships, first to Charterhouse, then to Christ Church, Oxford; he bought a horse and learned to ride to hounds at the same time he learned to write graceful English sentences. He took a double-first at Oxford, and soon afterwards he published a study of Archbishop Laud, the last English primate to exercise great powers in the state, and the last to be executed. During the Second World War Trevor-Roper worked in British intelligence; in 1945 he was assigned by his superiors to write a report on the death of Hitler. The Last Days of Hitler was in its earliest iterations a bureaucratic exercise. The sentences must have startled staff officers accustomed to a different style of official writing. Hitler did die — Trevor-Roper was sure of that; he had no patience for the obfuscations of Stalin, who affected to believe that the dictator had fled to the Argentine. Hitler’s philosophy, Trevor-Roper argued, demanded a pyre:
In his last days . . . Hitler seems like some cannibal god, rejoicing in the ruin of his own temples. Almost his last orders were for execution: prisoners were to be slaughtered, his old surgeon was to be murdered, his own brother-in-law was executed, all traitors, without further specification, were to die. Like an ancient hero, Hitler wished to be sent with human sacrifices to his grave; and the burning of his own body, which had never ceased to be the centre and totem of the Nazi state, was the logical and symbolical conclusion of the Revolution of Destruction. The prospect of universal destruction may be exhilarating to some aesthetic souls, especially to those who do not intend to survive it and are therefore free to admire, as a spectacle, the apocalyptic setting of their own funeral. But those who must live on in the charred remainder of the world have less time for such purely spiritual experience . . . .
The language is perhaps a little too nervous and self-conscious; Trevor-Roper is here very close to his models. But you must remember that he was only 33 when The Last Days was first published, and in the midst of the uneasy transition between apprenticeship and mastery.
He never produced the work of mature history which The Last Days prepares us for, a grand analysis of morality and character in the narrative tradition of Gibbon, Macaulay, and Strachey. Trevor-Roper’s essays, while very good of their kind, are at times plodding and academic; and we remember that he himself was that which Gibbon resolved never to be, a don. Trevor-Roper had a great love of Oxford; after the war he returned to Christ Church, where he was a “student,” as the fellows of that college are known. In 1957 Macmillan made him Regius Professor of Modern History in the university, preferring him to A. J. P. Taylor, though Taylor was his senior by almost a decade. There was an agreeable flavor of Trollopean intrigue in this exercise of crown patronage; and not long after Trevor-Roper was made Regius he worked assiduously for his prime minister’s election as chancellor of the university.
Gibbon speaks of the “monks” of Oxford, steeped in port and prejudice; but by the twentieth century a don could enjoy the luxuries of an Oxford life — the cellars are still very good — without forsaking other pleasures. Fellowships were no longer conditional upon celibacy (Trevor-Roper married, in 1954, Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston, the daughter of Field-Marshal Earl Haig); and if the prejudices of Oxford in Gibbon’s day might conceivably have been thought barbarous, Trevor-Roper’s own prejudices were all on the side of sweetness and light. His commentaries, in The Spectator, on the progress of barbarism at Oxford during the saturnalia of the Sixties are brilliant exercises in satire. He was, to the end, a student of the old Greek civilization. (In his youth he had aimed to be an eminent Grecian, but he was bored by the pedantic aspects of classical scholarship.) He adored the British Constitution and was of course contemptuous of the European Union and the bureaucracy of Brussels. It goes without saying that he could not have obtained a post in a modern American university, for he was unwilling to sacrifice candor to political correctness.
With so many diversions, Trevor-Roper never wrote the Great Book that was expected of him; such a work would, perhaps, have required too many sacrifices. Gibbon says that he “never found my mind more vigorous, or my composition more happy, than in the winter hurry of society and parliament.” But surely that is unusual, and as a rule the man who would produce a Decline and Fall must extend his midnight lucubrations well into middle age. Trevor-Roper’s duties as Regius and, later, as Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge (a university he apparently despised), conspired to frustrate the creation of a masterpiece; but those with an interest in eccentric mandarinism will always be grateful for his book, A Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the story of an English baronet and benefactor of the Bodleian Library who “went native” in Peking. A great treat; scoop it up on the Internet, if you can, under its American title, The Hermit of Peking.
David Hume once said that Swift wrote the “first polite prose we have” in English, by which he meant the first civilized prose in our language. A dubious judgment, I think: Trevor-Roper himself would doubtless have pointed to one of his own favorites, the Earl of Clarendon, and asked Hume precisely what he meant by civilization. Whatever the merits of Hume’s judgment, I am not without a sneaking fear that with the passing of Lord Dacre we are witnessing the end of a long tradition of civilized historical writing in English.
— Michael Knox Beran is author of The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.