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Home Uncategorized Sharp Mind, Sharp Tongue

Sharp Mind, Sharp Tongue

Éamon Ó Cléirigh
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Phoenix, 624 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0753828618 Hugh Trevor-Roper had an enviable professional career. As a young historian, whose research on the England of Archbishop Laud had been interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, he found himself working with the Secret Intelligence Service, in areas involving penetration and deception of German intelligence. As a result, when the war came to an end, he was exceptionally well placed, both in terms of connections and skills, to investigate the mystery surrounding Hitler’s fate. It was urgent that this should be clarified. Although the government quarter in Berlin, including Hitler’s bunker, had fallen in April 1945 to Soviet troops, the Stalin regime, which certainly knew the truth but preferred mystification, professed to believe that the dictator was still alive. In a short but intensive period of investigation Trevor-Roper located and interviewed a number of those who had been present with Hitler at the end, tracked down a copy of Hitler’s political testament (a predictably barren document), reconstructed the sequence of events during the final weeks, and managed to capture the hysterical edge, a peculiar combination of banality and desperation, of life inside the bunker. He also established beyond any doubt that Hitler had taken his own life. The work that resulted, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), was a masterpiece of forensic history whose insights – for example that Hitler presided over a court rather than a government – are still compelling. In the postwar period Trevor-Roper established himself as a leading authority on seventeenth century England, his method being to use disagreements with fellow historians as a means of clarifying fundamental issues. He emerged in disputes with opponents such as RH Tawney and Lawrence Stone, regarding the economic causes of the English Civil War, as a dangerously well informed and at times merciless controversialist. He also had other registers, most notably on display in his essay on Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, where he employed a combination of empiricism and knockabout comedy to puncture what he saw as vatic nonsense dressed up as history. (The piece was never republished, perhaps because it was so rude.) For Trevor-Roper the “storm over the gentry”, as his exchanges with Tawney and Stone came to be known, widened out into a broader enquiry into the transformations to which seventeenth century Europe was subject. Although unusual among English historians of…



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