The recent publication, and its grand critical reception, of a collection of one hundred letters by Hugh Trevor-Roper – edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the historian’s birth – has brought to mind my own memories of interviewing him in 1992, and its surprising aftermath.
At the time, Lord Dacre (he was made a life peer by Mrs Thatcher in 1979) was still pilloried in some quarters for his association with the Murdoch press and the forged Hitler Diaries fiasco. But his reputation as an exceptional writer of English prose and a fiercely independent thinker has only continued to grow since his death in 2003. This wonderful collection is a well-deserved tribute to a man of outstanding intellectual depth.
He wrote me a number of letters, in his beautiful script, once recalling our interview and paying me a wonderful compliment: ‘What a wide range of entrepreneurial activities you command!’ he said. ‘In spite of which you are by far the best – the most professional – of interviewers!’ He even, despite his often excessive workload, agreed to Auberon Waugh’s request that he review my collection of interviews, More of a Certain Age, for the Literary Review.
Under its subheading – ‘Who is This Subtle Man Who Asks the Questions?’ – he began with a mild warning: ‘If you are to be interviewed by Mr Naim Attallah, do not suppose that you will get off with easy answers, for he comes well briefed and will press you hard.’ But he also tempers such possible advice with the gentle observation that those who ‘bare their souls’ do so to ‘so perceptive and sympathetic an inquisitor’. His final paragraph was the kindest cut of all: ‘In the end, one of the most interesting persons in these discussions is Mr Attallah…’
Reading this latest selection of his letters has reminded me once again of what I consider is one of my most compelling interviews.
Why exactly did you choose the title Dacre? I gather it upset the wife of William Douglas-Home who already had the title Lady Dacre and is a baroness in her own right.
That is right. I chose it after consulting the Garter King of Arms. It was a title which had been in my family, so Garter considered it was reasonable for me to take it, provided it was differentiated by being of something. And so it became Lord Dacre of Glanton.
Did you predict that you would upset Lady Dacre by choosing that title?
No. Time was short but I rang her up and asked her if she had any objections. She said she had none, so I went ahead. Parliament was going into recess and it therefore had to go through at once, so once she had agreed I told the Garter, and it was duly registered. By the time she expressed second thoughts it was too late. When I reminded her that she had had no objection, she said that she had been suffering from mussel poisoning at the times and hadn’t really been herself. We had a correspondence afterwards which was at times animated, but in the end she wrote me a very charming letter and peace was restored.
You have spent most of your life in the universities. There is quite a lot of talk at present about grading universities in such a way that only some of them do research. To an outsider the whole idea of research in, say, Greek noun phrases or the negative in Middle English seems a strange one. What is it for in your view?
Knowledge does not advance on any front without research. A university without a research side is like a hospital which has no teaching branch to it; it tends to stay put. You make a legitimate point in that some subjects are not worth researching into; research can become a fetish and like all professional subjects it is in danger of over-professionalization, with academics writing for other academics on smaller and smaller topics. That is an inherent danger in any research unless it is carefully controlled. People build empires out of research and sometimes the conquests are not worth making. But research is the basis of a university; otherwise it is simply a school.
What sort of duties did you undertake during the war? I know that you were with the security service, but what did that entail?
You must know I’m subject to the new official secrets act. However, I can say that I came to be in the security service by accident, that is to say I came to work on the activities of the German secret service, which was not what was intended for me. My superior officer and I discovered and identified the radio communications of the German secret service which created a great convulsion in the intelligence world. We were then moved into the secret service proper, and from then on we became an essential part of the business of reading and working out the organization of the German intelligence services.
Among you colleagues in the security service was Kim Philby. It rather undermines one’s confidence to discover that our security service not only catches spies but recruits them. How were people recruited in those days? To an outsider it all has the air of ‘there’s this chap I know’, and so many turned out to be duds.
I think it is true that at the beginning of the war and before, the secret intelligence service, MI6 was recruited on a personal basis by people of rather limited experience. They couldn’t advertise of course, and the people chosen were not always ideal. Accidents happened.
In your own case, how were you recruited?
I was recruited because of the work which we had already done. The secret service judged it essential to keep control of this work which had been done outside the secret service, and therefore I was moved as part of an organizational change. I was not chosen personally.
But how did this work start in the first place?
Accidentally. I was drafted at first and had a territorial commission. We were given a task which had nothing whatever to do with intelligence but by chance we made a huge discovery. To begin with no one would take it seriously, and consequently my superior officer and I worked on it in the evenings privately in our flat which we shared, and we deciphered the messages. It was a very simple cipher and I’m not claiming any great achievement, but once it was realized that we had discovered the operations of the German secret service, there was quite a storm. We were severely rebuked for making the discovery, and even more so for having deciphered it.
How do you think people ought to be recruited for such services? Is there, do you think, any way of ensuring loyalty, or at any rate of limiting the damage of disloyalty?
I don’t know of any infallible test which would exclude the wrong people. I myself was astonished when Philby joined SIS. I was already there and was surprised to hear people talk with great enthusiasm about his appointment. I knew that Philby had been a communist.
You knew then?
Yes, but I was wrong as everybody else, only in a different way. Lots of people, my friends included, had been communists at university, but it was not taken seriously. It was a passing phase, and it all evaporated at the time of the Russo-German pact. I considered that our superior officers in the security service were often unreasonable, seeing reds under the bed all the time, and turning down clever people on the grounds that they had left-wing views. When Philby joined I was rather glad someone had got through the net. It never occurred to me that he was a communist still, even less that he would be a communist spy. So we were all mistaken on this. Recruiting policy, however, was not the only thing that kept able people out. It wasn’t a job in the usual sense, in that you couldn’t talk about your work, not even to your wife, it was not well paid because the budget was small, you disappeared in the morning, came back in the afternoon, and it led nowhere. It was not a very glamorous job unless you lived in a world of fantasy, in the Bulldog Drummond, Philip Oppenheim kind of world, which of course some of them did. People were therefore chosen out of a rather limited pool; they generally had some money of their own and they often lacked normal ambition. I was pretty censorious about them at the time, though I came to perceive the difficulties inherent in the situation. Nowadays of course recruitment is on a different basis; it’s no longer done in clubs.
If money was not the motivating factor, did people join for a sense of adventure?
I suppose it was adventure of a kind, at least for people who joined in peacetime. In wartime we didn’t so much join as end up there. I made a distinction between the armatures and the professionals. The armatures thought, and were blamed for thinking, in short terms; we wanted to win the war and we had no long-term aims, but the grandees of the service tended to regard the war as an inconvenient interruption and were determined not to allow the amateurs to burst the system. Philby was obviously determined to stay a professional, and he played the professional game. We made nuisances of ourselves since we didn’t care if we were kicked out, but Philby didn’t cause trouble; he was ingratiating and very competent. I don’t think he did us any harm during the war. He did afterwards, but if he did pass information to the Russians during the war, they either had it anyway, or they didn’t use it. I doubt if he actually did anything dangerous or contrary to British policy or aims during the war.
Setting aside the war, how much harm do you think Philby, Blunt and company actually did?
It’s difficult to be sure in concrete terms. One can of course say that they gave a bad name to their service, they spread distrust and suspicion and did a great deal of harm within their own world, the society to which they belonged. They certainly damaged the aims and interests of the British government and the West as they were at that time. It is possible, for example, that Albania would not have fallen so completely into the communist grip if it hadn’t been for Philby revealing the operations of the SIS or the CIA. Equally, you can look back on it and say, well, perhaps it wasn’t decisive after all, perhaps the CIA and SIS operations were rather madcap. Some people were killed, but then Philby would have said that the secret service involves everybody taking risks, and it’s the luck of the game. Another thing Philby did quite early on was to prevent the exposure of the Russian espionage system in Britain. There was a Russian defector to Istanbul called Ivanov who offered to provide the British government with the names of the Russian agents operating in the British intelligence world. If that information had reached the right people it would have exposed Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean at an early date, but Philby had got himself into the position of being able to take charge of the matter. He obviously informed the Russians, who kidnapped Ivanov and he’s never been heard of since. There’s no doubt that he was shot. In this way Philby protected himself and the others from exposure.
When you reflected on why it should have been Cambridge rather than Oxford that produced communist spies in the 1930s you blamed a certain puritan high-mindness, but in itself that is surely no bad thing. What was it that narrowed that outlook to the point of treason?
I don’t know. Supposing there had been a high-powered Russian recruiter operating in Oxford, can I be sure that he wouldn’t have found Philbys there? I honestly can’t answer that. That puritanism, however, that extraordinary self-satisfaction which I do ascribe to Cambridge is lacking in Oxford. People don’t take themselves so seriously at Oxford. Cambridge people issue writs against each other inside the university, which I find laughable. There is a world in Cambridge which takes itself extremely seriously, and if you do that, it’s a stage nearer deciding that your conscience is more imperative than convention, humanity and loyalty to the government. It’s that kind of high-mindedness which I ascribe to Cambridge.
The present government’s determination to maintain secrecy at every level appears to many people to be perverse. Do you think it right that the defence of national interests should be barred in that anyone who has gone through ‘the proper channels’ with suspicions about Philby or Maclean or Blunt would have got nowhere?
Many people have found their way round these restrictions; sometimes they do it by going through the proper channels and sometimes they do it by knowing how to create interest in the right quarters. For all I know it may sometimes be done with official encouragement. I hold the view that most secrets are in print if you know where to look for them, and half the time the secrecy rules are merely a means of preventing the public knowing what is already known to the foreign governments from which ostensibly is being concealed. For instance, during the war, and indeed until recently, one couldn’t even name the head of the British secret service, nor could people say that anyone was in it, yet the entire professional staff of the secret service was known by name in Germany and had been publicised in the German press in October 1939. I have seen it for myself and they were all named.
Were they accurate?
Absolutely accurate, and I know exactly how they came by the names. Right at the beginning of the war agents from the German secret service lured two British secret-service officers in the Netherlands to the frontier under the pretence of being the representatives of an anti-Hitler group. They then kidnapped them by force and carried them off to Berlin. The British officers were kept prisoner throughout the war, and under interrogation they revealed all the facts. When I was in Berlin in 1945 I found in the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters a secret document which set out the structure of the British intelligence services and ascribed its knowledge, some of which was coloured by German fantasy, to these two men. But MI6 knew perfectly well that all their names had been blown away because Himmler, after the seizure of these two officers, had made a public speech about information received, and this was then reported in the German press.
Of course I can see that one doesn’t want to encourage too much curiosity into the operations of the secret service which, whatever one says about it, does have its useful functions – we live in a world of terrorism after all – but I do think it’s carried too far and that the secret services tend to breed within themselves a separation from reality. I’ve known several cases of people who have simply become fantasists, and Peter Wright of course is an instance. A kind of mania can develop, a paranoia, a sort of mini-McCarthyism which feeds on itself.
Why do you think the government went to such lengths to ban Wright’s book?
I cannot say. I think it was mad, but I don’t know where the move came from. I suppose it grew gradually and was probably a question of pride. They started by thinking they could stop it at a lower level without any fuss, and then when that failed, they had to stop it at a slightly higher level. But it was absurd, because he lived outside the jurisdiction and he could publish outside the jurisdiction.
Do you think fascism has really been put behind us? The neo-Nazi movement seems to be gaining ground in an alarming way now.
People are misled by words. What is meant by fascism? Fascism and Nazism were quite different, although fascism was taken prisoner by Nazism in the course of the war. Mussolini’s regime was not anti-Semitic until it fell under German control, yet anti-Semitism was absolutely central to German Nazism. They are different movements with different origins, and yet we call them both fascism. Since I’m something of a pedant, I like words to be used so that one can argue on the basis of them, and therefore they must be used accurately. I believe that the movements we knew in the 1930s which reached their head in the war are dead, because they were inseparable from a particular political conjuncture which is now over and which will never be repeated in the same form. If by fascism we mean the Italian fascism of Mussolini, and if by Nazism we mean the German Nazism of Hitler with its total philosophy and aims, they cannot happen again. But if we use the terms in a vulgar way, meaning thuggary, right-wing xenophobia, brutality, stamping on the lower classes and so on, that is a far more generalized thing, and is liable to break out at any time.
At present there are some historians, such as David Irving, suggesting that Nazi atrocities were either the result of Allied propaganda or were grossly exaggerated. Will it ever be possible, do you think, to rewrite history, given the pressures for European unity?
Assuming that Europe, whether united or disunited, remains liberal, and that we have free press and free exchange of information, I don’t think that historical revisionism of that kind is possible. History is always being revised, but it’s revised from within rational norms; when we have more evidence, and different documents are produced, we see things from a slightly different point of view, but assuming a certain honesty in the historical profession, that is not a sign of perversity, it’s just a sign of what is always happening.
But isn’t history largely a matter of interpretation?
Yes, but what historians call historical revision is reinterpretation of agreed objective evidence, whereas what people like David Irving are trying to do is to rewrite history in defiance of the evidence. They thereby exploit legitimate revisionism in order to argue a political thesis, which in my opinion is unarguable. Their interpretations are scandalous, not honest.
Do you think the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during the war could have been exaggerated?
In the First World War there had been atrocity-mongering which afterwards was proved to have been false, and therefore there were people during the Second World War who did not believe all the talk of atrocities which they fully expected to be disproved afterwards. But one of the advantages of the Nuremberg trials was that it put the evidence on the record in a way in which it couldn’t be contested. After the First World War the victorious allies didn’t occupy Germany, they didn’t change the government of Germany, they didn’t confiscate or even have access to German secret documents, and therefore the Germans were able to build up the theory of the stab in the back, the myths on which Nazism afterwards fed. In 1945 it was different: Germany was totally defeated and occupied, documents were seized and trials were held, and whatever one may say about the trials, the fact is that all the documents that were produced were put to the court and could be ruled illegitimate or irrelevant. The defence had lawyers whose business it was to disprove allegations if they could, and no German historian has suggested that the documents used at Nuremberg were not valid documents. The evidence is public and has been agreed and cannot be contested, and that is the great difference between the post-1945 position in relation to history and the post-1918 position. So I don’t think that revisionism which exploits the mood of incredulity or the desire for European unity, or the wish to forget the past to the extent of negating well-established and undeniable facts, I don’t think that is a possibility now.
I gather you read Mein Kampf in the original when you worked for intelligence. What sort of impression did it make on you at the time?
That’s not quite true. I read Mein Kampf in German in 1938 as a consequence of an article by Ensor, a very able historian, who had been prophesying that there would be a major international crisis resolved either by European war or by a climbdown by the West in the autumn of 1938. One thing he said was that the beginning of wisdom in international affairs was to read Mein Kampf, and that it had to be read in German because it was not fully translated. People at that time tended to regard Hitler as a mere froth-blowing demagogue, nasty, but slightly comic, whereas Ensor was claiming he was very dangerous. That article decided me to read Mein Kampf in the original. I could see it was the work of a man with a powerful mind who had already achieved much of what he had threatened to achieve and showed no signs of weakness of any kind. It was a coherent ideology, a horrible one but nevertheless coherent and I decided that it was serious. And I became rather serious myself in consequence; I’d led rather a frivolous life up to that time, but I reckoned then that we were in for a war. I did not believe as many others did that Hitler was a clown, a mere adventurer. He was a gangster, though not only a gangster; he was a dangerous and effective political force.
How do you view someone like Lady Diana Mosley who admired Hitler and believes that many of the atrocities attributed to him are not possible?
She is one of those people who think that because somebody is polite and considerate to her personally, he can’t possibly be a criminal. The world is full of people who are conned by confidence tricksters, ladies who listen to honeyed words and can’t imagine such a nice person having another side to him. I once wrote a review of an article about Goebbels, and she wrote a letter of protest, saying how monstrously I had misrepresented Goebbels. She said she had often dined with Goebbels and his wife who were such kind hosts and conversation was so agreeable and they lived in quite modest style. It was the same with Hitler. I’m afraid she’s just a gull, as was her sister Unity.
Do you think the last war was the inevitable outcome of the Versailles Treaty?
The Treaty of Versailles provided the excuse. The real reason was that the Germans did not believe that they were defeated. They were of course defeated, but there’s a difference between defeat and reorganizing defeat. The ruling classes maintained that they have been deprived of victory; and in the spring of 1918, just as in 1940, they considered they had won the war, and couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t then surrender. And then suddenly at the end of 1918, they were totally defeated, which came as a great shock. The entire organization of propaganda, the doctoring of documents, even before Hitler, shows that they were determined that this be rectified. They needn’t have done it by war; they could have tried to build up German power and negotiate from strength. But Hitler wanted war; he was an all-or-nothing man, and he was determined that it could be done only in his lifetime. It was the same argument used in 1914, that Russia was going to be too powerful and that the social basis of Germany had to be changed. This is where anti-Semitism comes in. Hitler’s complaint in Mein Kampf is that the Kaiser’s Germany was a Byzantine Judaized aristocratically-run incompetent Germany; it had all the German virtues of racial and military strength, if only it had been properly led. In order to be sure of victory this useless aristocracy had to be eliminated and replaced by an organization based on blood. He really believed in race and blood, and elimination of the Jews. According to Hitler the social structure had to be changed in order to liberate the full energies of Germany and then, led by him, they could win. That was the real cause of the war, in my opinion.
What do you consider the origin of anti-Semitism to be. Is there a definitive historical explanation, or is it specifically religious and cultural?
I’ve thought a good deal about this, and I’m sure that it is not religious. In the Middle Ages there was anti-Semitism in Germany and in Spain, and it was religiously based. The Jews were the people who had crucified Christ and had refused to accept Christianity, and were consequently public enemy no. 1. But in the eighteenth century this sectarian attitude dissolved with the weakening of religion and religious persecution; and yet anti-Semitism didn’t disappear. In the nineteenth century it revived with vengeance and adapted to an industrial society, this time not for religious reasons at all, but on the basis of blood. This was equally irrational, because there is no such thing as Jewish blood. The only way you can define a Jew is by religion. Hitler had no interest in religion, Jewish or Christian. His problem was how to identify Jews among German lawyers or German police, or indeed Germans in general. It was simple when Jews had come in from Poland, for example, and were called Moses or Abraham, but among Germans how could you distinguish who was a Jew and who wasn’t? The only way to distinguish them was by religion; and in this way we have the phenomenon that anti-Semitism survives its particular explanations. Different rationalizations are produced at different times, but one has to ask, what is the real basis of it? My own theory is that it is the determination inherent in the human race to find a scapegoat for one’s misfortunes, particularly in an unassimilable group in society. They may be religious dissenters, they may be as in the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people who just don’t mix, who don’t fit in, who make their neighbours uncomfortable, who seem to belong to a different world. Any minority group is liable to persecution, even genocide. Often the unassimilable group is relatively prosperous, like the Armenians, or Parsees in India, or the Ismailis in East Africa, or even the Quakers in England; they’re shut in on themselves, perhaps they don’t even try to become assimilated, so they concentrate on business and they become rich, and in turn they become envied. The Jews single themselves out, and they fit into all these categories, and that is my explanation.
I believe you covered the Eichmann trial for the Sunday Times. Did you undertake the work as a historian, or was it primarily a journalistic assignment?
I was asked to go by the Sunday Times and was glad to do so for my own education. (I had attended the Nuremberg Trials, and I afterwards attended the Auschwitz Trials in Frankfurt.) I was interested both in the revelations in the evidence, and in the procedure. I had been in Israel before and was interested to see the way in which the Israelis would handle the trial.
Your historical researches have covered a number of periods. Which has given you the most satisfaction?
Although I have studied and written about Nazi Germany, it does not give me satisfaction. I find it in some ways a repulsive subject and I have not allowed myself to be tied to it. If I’m an expert in anything I suppose it is sixteenth-and seventeenth-century history, but I don’t really think in ‘periods’. I came to the conclusion at one time that political history is really rather small beer; seeing people digging deeper and deeper into a petty cabinet crisis in eighteenth-century English politics – I found that poor stuff. Humanity does not live for this, I thought, and I gradually found myself more drawn to intellectual history. So rather than being interested in a particular period, I’m interested in a particular side of history, the intellect of man rather than the politics. I consider that intellectual history is not separable from its context in practical history; that is to say, ideas do not develop out of previous ideas. This is falsely maintained by professional intellectual historians who, as it were, follow an idea from one generation to another as if people read the books of their predecessors but didn’t live in the context of the present. I’m Marxist to the extent that I would allow that ideas are conditioned by the context, which means that one is going to understand the intellectual views of this century, and the same is true of any other century.
I understand that your political antennae were developed in the thirties but gradually your imagination was captured more by academic rather than political intrigue. How did this come about?
I find this a rather offensive question. It implies that I am only interested in ‘intrigue’ and merely changed direction within that constant. I am not interested in intrigue. If I have occasionally found myself in controversy it has always been open – perhaps too open for my own good (but that, in my opinion, is because I am a victim of the media!) My answer to the substantive question – how did I come to prefer academic to political life (not intrigue) is quite simple. I was an undergraduate at a very political college – several of my friends and several of the dons went into politics – and I did at one time think of a political career. Munich made politics very actual to me. But then came the war; and during the war I decided that my real interest was in literature and the study of history. I also valued my independence, or perhaps my ease. The thought of constituents, ‘surgeries’, public meetings, party conferences, whips (not to say scorpions) repelled me. I also loved country life and shrank from smoke-filled rooms in London. I’m afraid I was rather indolent in those days.
You are a distinguished historian, so I ask this question rather diffidently. Why does history matter? I can see that chemistry, physics, medicine, computer technology, agriculture, even perhaps psychology, have real consequences, but history seems to fall into a different category. By the time we meditate on the past it’s all over. The study of literature may make us aware of the way language is used to manipulate, but it sometimes seems as if the clashing opinions of historians only catalogue possible past mistakes…
I agree with Gibbon who says that history is little else than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. I nevertheless think that it is worth studying because I think that nations are conditioned even though they may not recognize this by their history. If one cuts oneself off from one’s history, one is losing a capacity to understand the present, or indeed perhaps the future, not that anyone can understand the future but at least you can speculate. I also think that the study of history enriches the study of thought and art and literature. If somebody totally ignorant of his history goes round a picture gallery, let us say, and relies entirely on his aesthetic sense, his appreciation is entirely different. I’m not saying that paintings should be studied solely as historical documents, because obviously they have an aesthetic quality which transcends that context, but I do think that appreciation is deepened and made intelligent and articulate by an understanding of history.
Historians are constrained by facts, but even in the selection of which facts to highlight, there is a degree of interpretation involved. Since interpretation is necessarily subjective, do you think there can be such a thing as a correct perspective in history?
No, and indeed I don’t want to be. Interest in history really depends to a large extent on the problems which it raises, and the idea that it can be reduced to a science as people thought about 1900 (and the Marxist continue to maintain) is very perverse in my opinion. The attempts to reduce it to a science have all failed and now look very ridiculous. History is made up of continued pressures and options and mistakes. At every point in history there are decisions to be made; decisions can be wrong in a technical sense, I will allow this, if they are simply impossible in the context of the times, but one cannot say that there are no alternatives, that there is a course specifically plotted, because there is no such course. And indeed that is the interest of it; that is what makes it a living subject, not a dead subject.
What is your view of the relationship between history and biography. Are they very different animals, or can they be ‘cross bred’?
I think they can be cross bred. A biography reduced to mere biography would be a very jejune affair. Of course I can envisage a biography of some unimportant shoemaker in Nottingham simply describing his life in shoemaking, but that’s not of great moment. He may be a very worthy person but it’s not of much interest. But the greatness of an intellectual or artistic figure depends on his response to his times. You can’t detach the biography altogether from the context.
There has been rather disturbing work done in France in recent years which seems to undermine the legitimacy of history. I’m thinking of the views of men like Jacques Derrida and Foucault. Is there any answer to the charge that we make history in our own image?
I think this is a defeatist view. We write history in a more social way than that, we test our arguments against other people’s arguments, whether in books or in discussion. Obviously there are subjective interpretations, but honest historians try to discover an objectivity. I’m afraid I’m not in love with Derrida and Foucault.
It would not be too far from the truth to say that you are anti-clerical. Is it that you think priests hypocrites or fools?
I’d have you know that I am a doctor of divinity. I don’t think I’m particularly anti-clerical, but I’ve long ago given up thinking what I am. People say that I’m so many different things that I’ve decided to let them say it. It’s true I don’t like folly combined with persecution, and I can’t take theological doctrine very seriously. I regard it as at best legitimate myth to which one pays lip service but one doesn’t engage one’s mind with it. I find it rather absurd when the clergy involve themselves with abstruse doctrines, when they give themselves airs and try to dictate to us or to persecute us or to persecute each other; then I’m anti-clerical I daresay, but I don’t feel anti-clerical.
Are you a believer?
I think the answer is no. If you mean, do I believe the content of the Athanasian Creed, no I certainly don’t. Do I believe in the Virgin Birth, certainly not.
Do you believe in God?
I’m a sort of eighteenth century deist really. I would adopt the position of Voltaire and Gibbon.
My research would seem to indicate you are anti-Catholic … and that you reserve a particular dislike for convert to Catholicism.
The great Lord Halifax, George Savile, said at the end of the seventeenth century that the impudence of a bawd is modesty compared with that of a convert. I often think of this when I meet certain converts. They also tend to revile the church from which they have been converted, which is a form of intolerance I dislike. I was fairly anti-Catholic at the time when the Catholic Church was ruled by Pope Pius XI, whom I regarded as one of the more disastrous figures of this century. The Papacy was responsible for the dictatorship of both Mussolini and Hitler. I know that is a very serious charge, but it is one I can document. If it hadn’t been for the activity of Pope Pius XI in suddenly forbidding priests to take part in politics, thereby wrecking the Christian Democrat Party, Mussolini would not have been able to take power in Italy, And if it hadn’t been for his persuading the Centre Party in Germany to vote for the Enabling Act which gave Hitler his dictatorial powers, he could not have become a legitimate dictator. The Papacy wanted to get a concordat with Italy and Germany which it would never have achieved if it had had to operate through a liberal government dependent on a parliament containing agnostics, protestants and so on; but it could do a bargain with a dictator. Of course Hitler and Mussolini both broke the concordants, but the Papacy was silly in making them; it should have realized it was dealing with crooks.
But do you see a role for the church in politics nowadays?
I think the church’s intervention in day-to-day politics is generally disastrous. I sometimes listen in the House of Lords to bishops making speeches on subjects about which they seem to me to know very little. I draw a veil over that; there’s quite enough for the church to do outside politics.
They should be saving souls, you mean…
Precisely, though saving souls is a metaphor. I don’t mean that they should be forcing their particular doctrines on people.
There have surely been good men and women who drew their strength from their faith. Why do you think so many people turn to religion? The Soviet Union tried to suppress it for seventy years without success.
People come to the conclusion, which is a legitimate one, that the purpose of life is not political orthodoxy, not even political success, that politics and public life contain a great deal of ambition and hypocrisy, and that if we have a purpose in life it should be rather higher. We have at times to think of what are vulgarly called higher things, and religion is a kind of distillation of one’s loftier aspirations; the trouble is that it is distilled into such an extraordinary crystallized from that is difficult to take, or it becomes sectarianism, or a sort of conventional sanctimonious church-going. To put it bluntly, I think that one needs an awareness of a metaphysical dimension in order not to be absorbed in what may be at best dreary and at worst dishonourable courses.
Do you think that your attitudes towards religion ever put you at a disadvantage professionally? I am thinking of occasions such as attendance at conferences like the proposed one at the Vatican on Eastern Europe.
It has never occurred to me that my views on religion were objectionable or even eccentric. I am not irreligious. I do not believe, with Freud, that religion is an ‘illusion’ which can be ‘ended’ by psychoanalysis. Rather, I regard psychoanalysis as a superstitious illusion. I consider that a sense of religion is necessary to a complete man: it is a framework giving metaphysical coherence to the natural and mortal world, the primitive myths which it retains having been converted into metaphor. Of course I do not believe these myths – who does? – but I am happy to accept them as metaphors representing the mysteries of nature and the human condition, insoluble as intellectual problems. I regard theology – the attempt to create a system out of these myths – as absurd: an absolute historical curiosity; but I get on perfectly well with (sensible) clergy, whom I regard with respect as a useful body of men – provided they don’t pontificate or persecute.
You’re a conservative, but of what sort? Are you an old Macmillan conservative with what one might call a sense of obligation, or one of the newer Thatcherite type?
I can’t quite answer that. I approve of Mrs Thatcher in as much as I think she saw that a moment had come when consensus had been turned into a continuing slide of appeasement; it was no longer a consensus from a position of rationality and strength. I was therefore in favour of her strong measures. On the other hand, I think there is an unacceptable side of Thatcherism, a kind of ruthlessness which I find unattractive.
So you’re more of a Macmillan conservative?
I am, but Harold Macmillan did sell the past in a way. He believed, or behaved as if he believed, that one could always go on yielding a bit more for the sake of consensus, but consensus is a game at which two have to play, otherwise it loses its reality. If the trade unions on one side believe in pursuit of power at the expense of consensus, then it’s got to stop. I was a director of The Times when it was losing millions and faced ruin. The unions were totally unappeasable, and what were described euphemistically as ‘old Spanish practises’ were rife – people drawing salaries under false names for no work, and so on. They thought they had the management in their hands and that somehow this gravy train would go on for ever, on the grounds that the Thomson Organisation which was then in charge was so rich from its other activities that it would go on paying this Danegeld for ever. Rupert Murdoch turned that round by being as rough to the unions as the unions had been rough to the Thomson Organisation. I think a consensus has to depend on a willingness of both sides to consent, and that had been sacrificed in the Macmillan period.
You have a reputation for being something of a dandy…
Oh really? My wife would be very surprised to hear me described as a dandy. I did read somewhere that I gave a tutorial in hunting clothes, but it is a complete myth.
Is it fair to say you are a social climber?
I don’t think so. I like intelligent people really. I have moved in bits of the beau monde, that I admit.
Would you consider yourself a snob?
Yes, I am in a way. Except that I don’t take it seriously. I think snobbism is a harmless affectation. To say that somebody is a snob tout court is not an offensive thing; it’s rather like saying that somebody is interested in going to race meetings. I’m interested in going to race meetings. I’m interested in the diversity of humankind, but yes, I quite like sophisticated parties.
Well, that’s no sin. In 1957 when you gave your inaugural lecture as regius professor of History, I understand that a notice appeared on the board to the effect that your lecture was cancelled and that A.J.P. Taylor was lecturing in your place. This was presumably symptomatic of the animosity and rivalry between you … what was the origin of those feelings?
First of all, it isn’t true. It was entirely invented by the press, and Alan Taylor objected to it as much as I did. We were always friends and we differed only on the thesis of his book The Origins of the Second World War. The book became a succès de scandale and because I’d reviewed it critically I had to appear on television with him and the whole thing was blown up by the press. Alan and I both got very bored by it. There was an issue about which we dissented, as scholars are entitled to dissent from each other, but the rest is a myth.
But was he expected to be appointed at the time instead of you?
Well, yes. It is true that Alan was tipped, and, being a vain man, he believed he was really entitled to it. This was what surprised me about Alan: generally speaking he adopted a tolerant attitude towards history, he accepted that everything is chance, anything can happen, there is no directing purpose in it, that things always turn out differently from what is expected – this was really his basic, rather nihilistic philosophy. But the one point where he failed to apply it was to his own history. Deducing from his general historical attitudes I would have expected Alan to say, well I expected to be made regius professor, but the right person is never appointed, things never turn out as we expect, well, that’s how things go … but he never applied this attitude to himself. He considered that he was entitled to the chair, that he was the most distinguished person in the running and that it was a miscarriage of justice. But he never blamed me for this; he blamed Harold Macmillan. Later he said he would not have accepted it from this hand stained with the blood of Suez.
Talking of Harold Macmillan, what prompted you to promote him as candidate for the chancellorship of Oxford in opposition to Lord Franks? Did you not feel that it would be interpreted as a quid pro quo? After all he had appointed you.
I don’t really care about what people say, but I certainly didn’t like the way Maurice Bowra had pushed through the nomination of Franks (whom I respect). After Lord Halifax died, the vice chancellor took ill, and Maurice became acting vice chancellor. Maurice was a bully, quite an agreeable bully, but a bully nevertheless, and he always fought to win. He summoned a meeting of the heads of houses who were all very feeble, and he simply railroaded Franks through. I wasn’t there, of course, but I had full accounts, and Maurice was so determined to get his candidate appointed that he simply vetoed other names in his brutal way. When Lord Salisbury was mentioned, for example, Maurice said, ‘He’s no friend to this university,’ and moved on to the next man. Harold Macmillan, who after all was prime minister, a distinguished man and a scholar, a man of intellectual interests who would have been very suitable , was never even mentioned. I thought that this was improper. I had means of communicating with Harold who was in South Africa at the time, and I asked him if he would be willing to stand. He sent back a message to me, saying, ‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure. I shall not shrink from the contest.’ Those were his very words. It was a very enjoyable contest.
Was it a real battle?
It was rather a good battle because Harold won, yet it was not humiliating for Franks. And Maurice Bowra was furious. There was no nonsense about a secret ballot, and he sat there receiving the votes, examining each one, and either scowling or beaming.
Do you ever regret going to Peterhouse?
That’s a difficult question. On the whole I value experience what I learn from it. I learned something at Peterhouse, and I made many friends there, especially among the scientists, but I’d rather not say too much about Peterhouse.
Peterhouse is well known for reaffirming the importance of high politics and intellectual movement against the fashionable concerntration on the grass roots and the masses. Is this something you applaud?
No. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, but in Peterhouse it was combined with politics so reactionary that I found them both ridiculous and rather offensive.
People have said of you that in the background of your life and career there lurks a book, the magnum opus that you didn’t write. Is that something that worries you?
Not greatly. I would like to have written a great work … who wouldn’t … but when I consider historical writing I see that it very quickly perishes and if it’s any good it is boiled down into an article. Students of history have not read the books that they talk about; they’ve only read concentrations of the argument.
You were, I believe, the author of the wonderfully funny series in the Spectator under the pseudonym Mercurious Oxoniensis.
I know nothing about Mercurious.
You weren’t involved in it at all?
I’ve heard people suggest I was involved, but I’ve never acknowledged it.
But you were the author?
Well, you’ve said so. I haven’t. I don’t contest whatever people say about me.
Do you deny that you are the author of it?
Is that a half-hearted denial?
No. Toto animo.
You are of course a member of the House of Lords. Do you think it proper in the late twentieth century that there should be an unelected body of legislators, however distinguished, in parliament?
I see nothing wrong in an unelected body. The hereditary principle I admit is very difficult to defend. But it’s irreformable in a way, and any replacement would, of course, be liable to different objections. The House of Lords carries some fat, if one may use the phrase, but then so does the House of Commons. The Lords is much more of a real debating chamber than the Commons, because there’s not so much of a party side to it.
Do you think it will ever be possible to forge a real federal state in Europe out of the animosities of the last thousand years?
Neither possible nor desirable. I am very much a pluralist and I consider that the pluralism of Europe is what has been the essential feature, if not cause, of its superiority. The various states have distinct identities, irreconcilable attitudes, which compete against each other and these have been the main factors in Europe’s effervescence and efflorescence, and I don’t wish to see it all homogenized. I support the idea of a free trade area in order that Europe may pull its weight in the world, but that does not mean that it should be ruled by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, establishing identical norms everywhere.
You must sometimes reflect ironically on the forged Hitler diaries when you recall your own work on Backhaus. In the appendix of your book you list ‘three learned forgers’. Is that something which made matters worse for you?
No, I didn’t think about it. What was traumatic was my inability to prevent extracts being published, which was due to complicated muddles at The Times. I couldn’t stop the process which was forced by a series of episodes outside my control. When the business blew up I decided the only honourable thing to do was to state publicly that I had made a mistake, although I had tried to remedy the mistake and had been prevented from doing so. The mistake wasn’t the one I was accused of making, but still, I said I had made a mistake, and I thought naïvely that the other people whose responsibility had been far greater than mine would admit their part in it. But not at all; they all turned on me and kept completely silent about their own involvement, and regarded me as a sort of expendable scapegoat. All the media persecution was concentrated on me, and the rest sat smugly behind their barriers. That was a shock. It lowered my opinion of human behaviour. One likes to feel that people are honourable, and it’s painful to find that they aren’t.
Your enemies of course delighted in your mistake. You have always maintained that other people’s opinions of you were of little importance. Is that really the case, or have you put a brave front on it?
No. Long before that episode I decided that other people’s opinions, within limits, are not of interest to me. I’m afraid it’s a rather arrogant thing to say, but I don’t really respect the opinions of people whom I don’t know. I think it’s as simple as that. If a trusted friend were to say harsh things about me, that would upset me, but if a journalist whom I’ve never met makes statements about me I’m quite indifferent to it. I have a kind of proud stoic attitude in this; I just say a man is himself, not what strangers say of him. To thine own self be true, that’s my philosophy.
What was your feeling when you learned that a TV series was to be made of the Hitler diaries saga?
I paid no attention at all. I neither saw the film nor read the book. And I declined to write to the papers about it. I simply treated it as non-existent.
A.J. Ayer once said of you: ‘Some may think him lacking in charity’, and it is true that over the years you have joined battle with a number of enemies, often distinguished people, such as Lawrence Stone, Evelyn Waugh and Arthur Toynbee. The last of these you demolished in an article in Encounter. Some people, while admiring the scholarship of that article, detected a streak of cruelty. Is that something you are conscious of?
No. I may say it was Evelyn Waugh who declared war on me, not I on him. Lawrence Stone also asked for it. He borrowed transcripts which I had made from documents in the Records Office, and that was the basis of this half-baked article which he wrote and which I criticized. He behaved very badly. I don’t think I’ve ever severely criticized any young scholar; it’s when people give themselves great airs and are taken seriously, that’s what arouses me.
I have always heard it said that in your eagerness to win battles you do not shrink from making personal attacks on colleagues. Do you accept that charge?
I am not aware of having made personal attacks on colleague. If I have engaged in controversy, it has always been because I thought at the time that a serious issue was at stake. I wonder what colleague I am said to have attacked personally?
Richard Cobb has spoken of your love of combat, your readiness to jump into the fray over public issues. Is this something you have ever had cause to regret?
I don’t think I love combat: it’s true I enjoyed the election for chancellorship of Oxford, but it was a genial, good-tempered affair, and there was a serious issue involved. Maurice Bowra, by bouncing a single gathering of heads of houses, had effectively disfranchised the university. This was widely felt (hence the strong support I received). Of course once the battle was on, Maurice was determined to win, and so was I. Have I ever regretted controversy? I regret them all in so far as they were extended (largely by the media) beyond their original terms. I regret having been involved with Evelyn Waugh, whose writing I admired. But he opened fire on me in 1947, both publicly (in the Tablet) and privately (in an abusive letter to me), and continued the one-sided vendetta for nine years before I finally took notice of him in the article which provoked his onslaught on my historical scholarship; to which I felt I had to reply.
The controversy whose extension I most regretted was with A.J.P. Taylor. I criticized his book The Origins of the Second World War because I thought his thesis wrong, indeed irresponsible. But the press took over; and from then on I was always represented as the constant adversary of A.J.P. Taylor. In fact I never criticized any other work of his. I minded this, as did he. In 1979 he wrote, in the London Review of Books: ‘I often read that Trevor-Roper and I are rivals or even antagonists. On my side, and I can confidently say on Hugh’s, this is totally untrue. We have always been good friends and no cross word has ever been passed between us.’ And he wrote to me in 1983: ‘I can assure you that my feelings towards you have always been those of friendly affection.’ It was the repeated (and successful) attempts of the press to persuade the world that Taylor and I were permanent adversaries that bred in me that distaste for the media which, I’m afraid is now ingrained in me. (Of course, the affair of the Hitler diaries strengthened it.)
Another controversy was my critique of Toynbee. I admit that I was nauseated by the pretensions and sanctimonious humbug of Toynbee, and (especially) his message which was defeatist and obscurantist; disgusted too by the idiot sycophancy towards him of the American academia and media. But effectively all I did was to quote his own words, which none of his sycophants had read – they had only read Somervell’s potted one-volume abridgement of his first six volumes, whereas the real revelation of his purpose, and his vanity, was in volumes seven to ten, published later. I do not regret this episode! Toynbee’s recent biographer, William McNeill, says that Toynbee’s reputation never recovered from my essay. That pleases me!
But neither here nor in any other controversy was I drawn in merely by ‘love of combat’; there was always a real issue on which, at the time, I felt strongly: Stone’s total misrepresentation of historical documents which he pretended he had discovered (when in fact he had borrowed my transcripts and had not tried to understand them); Bowra’s contempt for the Oxford electorate and its rights; Taylor’s special pleading for Hitler; Toynbee’s hatred of reason and the Enlightenment … As I don’t think I was wrong, intellectually, in any of these encounters (or in my critique of E.H. Carr), I don’t regret them – only the personalization of them, or some of them. Perhaps it is all the fault of my style: not enough emollient, shock-absorbing pulp, sawdust, stuffing, etc…