Of the best-seller that launched Trevor-Roper on the public stage — The Last Days of Hitler — Heilbrunn writes:
It was a piece of sleuthing that had been assigned to him by the secret services. Trevor-Roper’s friend Dick White, a brigadier commanding the counterintelligence bureau (later the head of MI5 and MI6), hit upon the idea of the inquiry and encouraged Trevor-Roper to carry it out beginning in September 1945. The idea was to dispel Stalin’s propaganda efforts to suggest that Hitler had escaped and was in hiding (in fact, the Russians had dug up his body in May 1945, and legend has it that Stalin used Hitler’s skull as an ashtray). Trevor-Roper displayed real initiative: it was a onetime opportunity to make history himself. He interviewed numerous Nazi bigwigs and tracked down Hitler’s last will and testament. He formed the fullest picture of Hitler’s final days, demonstrating beyond doubt that the Nazi leader had expired by his own hand in April 1945 and that his and Eva Braun’s corpses were doused with gasoline by his lackeys and set on fire. The skill with which Trevor-Roper fashioned his intelligence report bears comparison with the greatest historians:
“In the absolutism, the opulence, and the degeneracy of the middle Roman Empire we can perhaps find the best parallel to the high noonday of the Nazi Reich. There, in the severe pages of Gibbon, we read of characters apparently wielding gigantic authority who, on closer examination, are found to be the pliant creatures of concubines and catamites, of eunuchs and freedmen; and here too we see the élite of the Thousand-Year Reich a set of flatulent clowns swayed by purely random influences.”
Trevor-Roper’s most basic insight was that, for all its pretensions to totalitarian control, the Nazi system was, in essence, an inefficient and chaotic court system that consisted of rival paladins each seeking Hitler’s blessing.
It is surely significant, however, that Trevor-Roper had not alighted upon the topic of his own accord. The criticism for the rest of his life would be that he never produced anything that matched it. Perhaps Trevor-Roper stumbled into his work as a historian more than he, or anyone else, really cared to admit. What’s more, the Nazi era turned into a lucrative gig for Trevor-Roper; as Sisman underscores, he was repeatedly called upon over the decades to attest to the reliability and provenance of Nazi documents, a task he was prepared to undertake as long as it was accompanied by an imposing fee. The Last Days alone paid for his Bentley.
I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by Trevor-Roper, particularly by his mordant wit and elegantly mannered literary style. He spent most of his life in Oxford and lost no opportunity to assert its superiority over Cambridge, but then astonished everyone by accepting the Mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His time there made Tom Sharpe’s great comic novel about Peterhouse, Porterhouse Blue, look like a publicity brochure. Trevor-Roper spent much of his time at war with the Fellows, and the mutual contempt with which both sides regarded one another was a thing of wonder.
A friend of mine, a liberal American historian whom we will call X, was astonished once to receive an invitation to call upon Trevor-Roper Arriving at the palatial Master’s Lodge on Trumpington Street, he was ushered into the great man’s study. The dialogue then went something like this:
T-R: “Ah, X, good of you to call by. I would like to seek your advice”.
X: “How can I help?”
T-R: “I was wondering if you knew of any black, lesbian American historians”.
X: “I’m afraid that nobody matching that description comes to mind.”
T-R: (Thoughtfully) “Pity.”
X: “Might I ask why you are seeking such a person?”
T-R: “The Fellows are seeking to appoint a College Lecturer in history and I was looking for a candidate who would really annoy them”.
At this point the telephone rang. T-R picked it up and listened intently for a moment. Then, noticing that my friend was still there, he motioned for him to go, explaining “it’s my gardener”.
There’s a great screenplay to be written about T-R’s time in Peterhouse and Alan Bennett’s just the man to do it. He must know the background pretty well: after all, he played Trevor-Roper in the film of Robert Harris’s book, The Hitler Diaries.