Don't Speak Well of The Dead

If you ever wondered why celebrities tend to publish their invented biographies while alive, here’s one to read at all cost. The author manages to stay out of most cat fights, but the truth is hurting enough without the need to add slander. This is not how historian Hugh Trevor-Roper imagined to be remembered.

by +Lucas Dié on Books

Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography by Adam Sisman was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Hugh Trevor-Roper will always be remembered as the historian who accepted the fake Hitler diaries as the real thing. As if this wasn't bad enough, he spent his life making enemies, before and after the catastrophic Hitler blunder. Welcome to the hell British historians care to call their professional field. Even seven years after his death, his enemies still set booby traps to blacken his memory, as if that was necessary after the flop with the diaries.

The author cleverly put the list of acknowledgements at the front of the book with good reason. He states that several sources ‘pleaded’ to be omitted from the list. I knew at that point that I had a find of a book. A bit later Adam Sisman stated that he found certain stories he had been told to be untrue or at least highly suspect.

The book paints no pretty picture, neither of the person of Hugh Trevor-Roper nor of the professional circle surrounding him. Constant infighting, outfighting, cross fighting, and a general disdain for everybody else hampered Hugh Trevor-Roper to ever achieve anything worthwhile. When you spend your time fighting over a geranium plants on the window sill time is lost for real work on history, I suppose. Maybe he just knew more about geranium than about history.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was a ferocious social climber coming from the mud to marry an aristocrat. His inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History was attended by more duchesses than colleagues. He was a living Narcissus writing admiring comments about the author (i.e. himself) into the few books he published. His superior intellect elevated him above everybody else, at least in his humble self assessment. And he communicated this to everybody who didn't want to know.

When the Hitler Diaries hoax blew into the face of Hugh Trevor-Roper, it proved to be a field day for just about everybody (as just about everybody loathed him to bits). An anecdote has it that someone bribed the newspaper agent opposite Peterhouse to leave the placard reading ‘Hitler Diaries A Hoax’ standing for weeks. And remember, whenever you want to quote Hugh Trevor-Roper as a source, that’s the guy who fell for that very obvious hoax and had to walk past that placard every day.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was a member of the board of The Times for many years and in later years was made a life peer calling himself Lord Dacre. This didn't hinder The Times to announce his death in 2003 with the headline ‘Hitler diaries hoax victim Lord Dacre dies at 89.’ They handed the writing of his obituary over to his archenemy Maurice Cowling as well. To be fair on The Times, they probably couldn't have found a single historian that wasn't an set enemy of Lord Dacre.

Adam Sisman has managed to write a witty book that anybody interested in history should read. It tells the readers what historians are made of and disabuses them of any idea that history is a science. History is a collection of personal views held by historians; preconceptions they defend in the teeth of better evidence and without ever bothering to consider what someone else has to say; they really do believe that they are the only competent agency to decide what is historically correct.