Machiavellian power games in Oxford and the cause célèbre,
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This review is from: Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (Paperback)
Many inhabitants of Oxford have little contact with the colleges and the university. As in the past town and gown have parallel lives. Occasionally, the press reports strange incidents, and Colin Dexter's Morse stories enliven the daily routine. One event in 1983, a Sunday Times scoop on the diaries of Hitler, damaged the reputation of Lord Dacre, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and for many years previously Fellow of Christ College, Oxford. The cynical reply that today's scoop is tomorrow's fish and chip paper, often forgotten, is for anyone involved quite untrue, and heartless. Adam Sisman's specialist biography may be an eye-opener to the general reader.
S/he will learn that at the end of the Second World War, rumours of the whereabouts of Hitler went into overdrive: the Soviet agency Tass even reporting having eye witnesses seeing him in Dublin disguised in women's clothes, but it was Trevor-Roper who discovered the two vital informants, SS Col. Zander and Maj. Johannmeyer with copies of the Führer's final will (the second incidentally interrogated by the future press magnate Robert Maxwell but who failed to gain to obtain the necessary details), from which he was able to recompose the events which led to the publication in 1947 of his bestseller and now classic The Last Days of Hitler Last Days of Hitler.
This one event changed his life, becoming subsequently a public figure and commentator (some added he was given a patent) on anything of the Third Reich, even if his historical specialisms covered the classical and the early modern world. He became a respected authority on new works: from the first revisionist work, by his Oxford rival, AJP Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (1963) The Origins of the Second World War, where he dismissed Taylor's thesis that the War occurred by accident and Hitler's policy was no different to his predecessors desiring to free Germany from the Treaty of Versailles; to taunting David Irving's claim in Hitler's War (1977) Hitler's War that Hitler was unaware and never authorised the mass execution of the Jews, by using the dubious skill of extracting one piece of one document, building onto it a conclusion, and overlooking every known contrary evidence. To his credit, T-R's historic visits in 1945-46 had permitted him to meet Albert Speer, to see through the charming enigma fašade, and describe him as "the real criminal", immoral and amoral, who allowed the educated elite to comply so readily with Nazi murder, a view which virtually pre-dated Gitta Sereny's detailed account in the 1970s.
In wartime this young don was recruited in 1939 by MI5, and came to work and know John Masterman (author of The Double-Cross System in the War in the 1970s opening the door to the hidden story of Enigma and Bletchley Park) and "Dick" White (later head of MI6). T-R was in a small section, RSS, that picked-up signals and messages from a relay station for German agents in Britain, shown to be radio-transmissions of the German secret service, the Abwehr, more than a year before the first breakthrough of BP. As a historian, he believed individual pieces of information had greater relevance if spread around and integrated into a wider structure. He first unearthed divisions inside Germany, with Himmler's SS SD encroaching and watching over the disloyal Canaris (the first seed which eventually germinated into Count Stauffenberg's plot against Hitler in 1944), and led him to speculate that German intelligence was not administered as imagined in a "pyramid", unitary top-down model, but as a "vortex" of personal ambitions, a microcosm of the wider Nazi society, each minister running their personal conflicting intelligence bodies in competition with each other as courtiers around their sovereign. This unique view has since again become gospel.
His deduction on the running of the enemy organization gave rise to the various deception operations: beginning with Operation "Mincemeat" to deceive the Axes in the attack on Sicily in July 1943, and later "Fortitude", to deceive the foe that the main attack on the continent in Overlord, in June 1944, would take place in northern France, in the Pas de Calais and not in Normandy.
At this time he encountered HR "Kim" Philby and found his actions and responses unexpectedly "odd". They confirmed White's suspicions (including the idea to scotch any links with non-Nazi German Resistance). After the War T-R kept in touch with his colleague, in particular first after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled, meeting Philby in Baghdad, and was in no doubt then he was a traitor. Years later Philby fled to Moscow, in 1963, and published his story hinting of others still being involved, implying without naming White who he wished to destroy; it was T-R who dismissed any innuendoes of his ex colleague "Dick". If White was grateful, however, T-R's outspokenness caused irritation among a future generation of leaders in MI6, which did not benefit the academic.
The cause célèbre, the Hitler Diaries, is recounted and commented in full on the possible reasons why T-R took certain decisions. Given that the Sunday Times immediately received all moneys it had paid to Stern, the only losers in Britain was the image and ethos of the Sunday Times - which the owner Rupert Murdoch surprisingly showed no concern (and in the wake of the Levinson inquiry over the phone taping scandal since 2007 neither he, nor his son have demonstrated any contrition for the misdeeds nor loyalty towards his dismissed staff when the News of the World closed), as well as the professional reputation of T-R.
The author hints that Murdoch's dislike of academics, of the British establishment, and the academic's irritating fly-like opposition to his own modern ways on the Times board may ultimately have pushed him to order publication despite sufficient proof and conviction by T-R of malpractices and forgeries. The Times' decision to remain silent and consequently to hold Dacre accountable was both callous, cowardly, and heartless. For Murdoch, T-R was simply another aging, na´ve, self-opinionated pommy prima donna, meriting all his criticism, the mockery and damage which he brought upon himself; whereas for T-R the age of the gentleman at the Times was over and this was the owner-potentate's message that he, his Brit serf, was no longer required in the new confident, snob-free, but arrogant international empire.
Sisman also gives the general reader a vision of the close-knit, virtually incestuous self-appointment life at Oxford, arranged as chess table 18th century power games with the young enthusiastic Turks, AJP Taylor and T-D, overlooked by irrelevant nominees favouring permanent inaction and reaction. Over 40 years history teaching and administration moved away from the old top brass consisting of narrow English history specialists, who were reluctant to publish, or risk expressing opinions, and preferred the safer road of editing useless "monastic laundry books". This sleepy era of dinosaurs was transformed in the late 1950s into one encouraging a regular continuous new output, with academics initially evaluating the quality of their own work, and unhappily for the system from the early 1980s came to be measured by management / business trained outsiders on the basis of the size and quantity of material appearing in print, and more questionably for historians on the economic value of the material to the country.
T-R was involved in most of the lively debates with colleagues: Lawrence Stone, Richard Tawney, Christopher Hill, and Edward Hobsbawn on the changing interpretations of the rise of the gentry in Tudor England and its effects on the English "Revolution" and the Civil Wars. It involved a changing assessment in Marxist methods, his preference for sociological techniques after Weber, and looking across the continent to the Annales School in France, under Braudel, with a desire that traditional historians work much closer with other social scientists, such as economists, art historians, anthropologists, philosophers, even scientists, for as he realised in wartime by widening the framework the collected makes the analysis more thorough.
Furthermore, T-R wished to prevent the growth of ideologies as he felt they stopped free-thinking: he like Orwell despised Catholicism as much as Communism, and fought tooth and nail against all witch-hunt crazes: for him his study of 17th century witches was comparable to anti-Jewish persecution in the 19th and 20th century, as each were attacked and not tolerated for non-conformity. The author, however, never refused Marxists in the debates. Arrogant, a prima donna, he would never deny he was not; he always wish to keep an open-mind, maintaining both a balanced professional respect and friendship with all who desired it.
All the debates sounded like violent political antagonistic crusades and personal tirades, resembling the movements of the 17th century England which to outsiders might appear over-dramatic, pointless handbag spats, each protagonists behaving like children with inflated egos. A look at Jeffrey Archer's Fourth Estate The Fourth Estate on the fictionalised battles between press magnates, such as the Maxwells and the Murdochs in the late 1980s do make Oxfords history wars like child's play, but there exist common similarities. All the historians were image builders, and because T-R was making a name and money from outside academia through journalism, radio and TV much envy arose over the years. Some friction and angry bad mouthing even caused temporary or more lasting breaks and silences with former friends and colleagues, as well as a new younger generation of disciples, considered little more than medieval retainers. T-R may have wished to treat all fairly, as the sweet Bobby to the wicked JR Ewing of Dallas fame, but his rivals with points to score saw him differently, and at times his loving spouse Xandra, daughter of FM Haig, behaved to him like JR's neurotic wife, Sue Ellen.
Unfortunately, for T-R his admirers he was a disappointment, for he never succeeded in accomplishing a definitive study afterwards. In time he was identified as an eccentric: he became a renaissance prince intellectual, interested in a myriad of subjects from Constantine to Hitler rather than a specialist limited to a single theme or period; his labour of love was to collect material, information, and truth per se, and it mattered little if the material was not used, if any commenced project remained unpolished or incomplete. Indeed, by taking on too many projects his journalism, historiographical commentaries and book reviews took on part of his proper work in progress which he incorporated into his essays.
To T-R's credit, according to John Kenyon, some of these essays have affected the way scholars think of the past much more than that of others major works. Indeed, since his death in January 2003 publishers have felt that posthumous incomplete works are still valuable tools for present students and future professional scholars, marketable and are being published. Consequently, for T-R and his history is still not at an end in itself; it is continually seen as a work in progress, a means, being re-read and re-interpreted - something he always said when he was alive.
T-R had admirers: AJP Taylor (another biography written by Adam Sisman), and Alan Clark whose The Donkeys The Donkeys offended Xanda, to name just two; but far more enemies: three generations of Waughs for T-R's constant anti-Catholic fervour and sarcasm, and Maurice Cowling. This biography is specialised as it is aimed for a very select species of beasts. It is fly on the wall account of Machiavelli power games in the late 20th century, but it also deals with many subjects which most general readers may be familiar. They may still view gown-like as highbrow and detached from contemporary town life. Those in the know realise T-R's works were always readable, clearly written in a Gibbon-like entertaining manner; now in death Sisman's biography makes his hero's cremated ashes recompose anew into life, and live on. One word is sufficient to conclude: brilliant!