Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who investigated “The Last Days of Hitler” in his most famous book but sullied his own reputation by incorrectly authenticating diaries said to have been the tyrant’s, died Sunday. He was 89.
Trevor-Roper, who received the title Lord Dacre of Glanton in 1979, had been ill with cancer and died at Sobell House, a hospice in Oxford, England, his family announced.
He gained steadily in stature throughout his career and was Oxford University’s Regius professor of modern history for 13 years before becoming master of the University of Cambridge college, Peterhouse.
“He is the most eloquent, sophisticated and assured historian of our age, and has never written an inelegant sentence or produced an incoherent argument,” critic and fellow academic Noel Annan said of him.
It was Trevor-Roper’s 1947 examination of Adolf Hitler’s demise, commissioned by the British government, that brought him the widest renown.
During World War II he had served in British intelligence, and he was selected by the government to establish precisely what had happened to Hitler at the end of his life in an underground bunker in Berlin. The book was described by the Observer newspaper as “a masterpiece of narrative and of historical detective work.”
It was Trevor-Roper’s stature as a Hitler expert that led to his embarrassment over the “Hitler Diaries” hoax in 1983.
On his authentication, the Sunday Times agreed to pay the German magazine Stern for serialization rights to diaries supposedly written in Hitler’s own hand. The German government revealed they were forgeries before the London newspaper began publication, and its money was returned.
Trevor-Roper said Stern had assured him that all tests for authenticity, including those by three handwriting experts, were positive.
The historian made a public apology and explained that he had seen the diaries “for a few hours only” under supervision, and had been impressed by the bulk of the material -- 60 volumes -- in light of confirmation of the physical tests.
A Stern reporter and the confessed forger were each sentenced to more than four years in prison.
Trevor-Roper was ridiculed in the press, perhaps more than he would have been had he not had a reputation for confrontation, including public feuds with writer Evelyn Waugh and historian Arnold Toynbee.
Waugh, who had argued with him over religion, later wrote that Trevor-Roper’s appointment to the Regius history chair “showed malice to the church.”
Trevor-Roper “has never suffered fools gladly, never tempered intellectual disdain with feigned civility, never pulled his literary punches,” the Observer wrote in 1982. It quoted his longtime friend, the philosopher A.J. Ayer, as saying of the young Trevor-Roper, “Some might think him lacking in charity.”
A.L. Rowse, the eminent historian of the Elizabethan period and himself a famously prickly academic, described Trevor-Roper as “our most riveting historical essayist.”
He went on in a less flattering vein: “Brightness, briskness illuminate the pages, but there are no shadows, no subtlety, not much perception of character, no pathos or insight into the soul or human suffering. Plenty of wit and cynical observations; no sense of the tragedy -- or the poetry -- of history.”
Born Jan. 15, 1914, in Glanton, northern England, the son of a doctor, Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper earned a double first-class degree at Christ Church College, Oxford.
He made an impressive debut as a historian in 1940 with publication of a biography of Archbishop Laud, the powerful 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury who suppressed Calvinism and Puritanism.
After the war, he returned to Oxford as a fellow of Christ Church College until 1957, and fellow of Oriel College from 1957 to 1980.
On retirement from the Regius professorship, he moved to Cambridge, where he was master of Peterhouse until 1987. While there he made headlines in a struggle to remove a college fellow with whom he had a personal conflict.
In 1954, he married Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnstone. They had no children, but Lady Alexandra, who died in 1997, had a son and daughter from a previous marriage. Trevor-Roper is survived by his stepchildren.