Hugh Trevor-Roper’s study of Hitler’s death was published by Macmillan 60 years ago this month. It won the Oxford historian an international reputation and remains one of the most powerful and readable accounts of the Nazi regime. It has never been out of print, yet this enduring quality is surprising. Trevor-Roper’s book was not the product of calculated research but resulted from an official enquiry. It was instant history, written very quickly a year after the events it describes, when many sources were not yet available. Nevertheless, the author constructed not only one of the most vivid portraits of Hitler but developed an analysis of his regime later confirmed by the specialist studies of German historians.
In September 1945, British Intelligence called in Trevor-Roper, its leading expert on the Nazis, to solve a mystery of Stalin’s making. Although the Soviets had found Hitler’s body in early May, an undead Hitler was more valuable to Stalin than a corpse. Such a Hitler could be used to scare the peoples of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The West could be accused of hiding the Nazi leader and tarnished with the brush of Fascism. In June the Soviet Commandant of Berlin declared that Hitler might be hiding with Franco. Next the Soviet news agency Tass reported that Hitler had been seen in Ireland. Although this Hitler had cleverly disguised himself in women’s clothes, it seems he was given away nevertheless by the toothbrush moustache. Other rumours alleged that Hitler was hiding with Albanian bandits or that he had fled to Arabia. All this speculation could only distract the Germans from the task of reconstruction. It was essential to find out what had really happened to Hitler.
Trevor-Roper had great advantages in carrying out his mission. Although the Russians would not help, he could request British and American agencies to instigate enquiries or interrogations in their occupation zones like a team of research assistants armed with official powers. But he did much of the work himself. In less than two months he completed his investigation and reported that there was no evidence whatever to support any of the theories that Hitler was still alive.
Trevor-Roper’s finest hour as a British intelligence officer came shortly after his report was accepted. The first copy of Hitler’s political will then surfaced, and he was called back to Germany to investigate. In three weeks’ travel around Germany, due to his energy and skill as an interrogator he unearthed two further copies of Hitler’s will, arresting one of the couriers, a former Party official, at 2.30 a.m. The other courier he located was Major Willi Johannmeier, a tough veteran of the Eastern Front, who persistently denied possessing any documents. Trevor-Roper eventually wore down Johannmeier and convinced him of the futility of further resistance. Johannmeier then led his interrogator to a corner of his garden and dug up a bottle containing another copy of Hitler’s political will and a covering note from the Chief Wehrmacht Adjutant to the Commander of Army Group Centre. One of Trevor-Roper’s intelligence colleagues told him that ‘everyone … is full of admiration for the speed and efficiency with which your investigations were concluded’. After his return to England, Brigadier Dick White of MI5, who had commissioned the original enquiry, suggested he write up his findings as a book.
Trevor-Roper wrote The Last Days at an astonishing pace. His manuscript suggests that more than two-thirds of the book was completed in less than a month in early 1946, and this impetus helps explain the fluency and clarity of his writing. Once he had fixed the topic in his mind he wrote it out very quickly. He deploys a devastating irony to expose the absurdities of the Nazi leaders, keeping Hitler’s raging egomania at the centre of the book. Yet Trevor-Roper never underestimates his subject: ‘Hitler still remained, in the universal chaos he had caused, the sole master whose orders were implicitly obeyed.’
On publication the book provoked intense reactions from readers, most very favourable, some downright hostile. The foremost historian in Britain, Lewis Namier, wrote to Trevor-Roper that ‘You have made a truly excellent job of it and combined very thorough scholarship with a lightness of touch and a style which I am glad to see is not yet extinct at Oxford.’ Many readers wrote to express their enjoyment of the book. However, this was not shared by Evelyn Waugh, who was annoyed by Trevor-Roper’s references to the Catholic Church. To clarify Himmler’s mentality Trevor-Roper had compared him with a Grand Inquisitor, and to illustrate Goebbels’s propaganda he had chosen the Jesuits, as he was under the impression that they had taught Goebbels and were too lenient in the confessional. Waugh wrote to Trevor-Roper asking, ‘Can it be you are one of those who believe Galileo was burned? … I wish you would direct me to the Jesuit confessor who would try and persuade me I am sinless. I find they take quite a different line.’ Trevor-Roper had further enquiries made about Goebbels’s schooling and discovered he had never been taught by Jesuits. So four references to the Jesuits were removed from the second edition of the book. By contrast, Trevor-Roper retained his comparison of Himmler with a Grand Inquisitor.
Inevitably, some of his judgments have not stood the test of later research. His assessment of Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, is one example of this. Trevor-Roper questioned Speer at the beginning of his enquiry, and on this occasion the interrogator had the wool pulled over his eyes, accepting Speer’s self-depiction as a non-political technocrat. Soon after publication of The Last Days, the American economist J. K. Galbraith, who had also interrogated Speer, wrote to Trevor-Roper to express a different view of Hitler’s Armaments Minister: ‘He was really a superb actor … he assumed an attitude of complete indifference to his personal fate … an admirably devised and executed scheme for survival.’ Later writers have also taken a more negative view of Speer and shown that he took part vigorously in power struggles within the Nazi state and that his office helped distribute confiscated Jewish property in Berlin. Many years later Trevor-Roper honestly conceded that he had been misled by Speer and concluded that the Armaments Minister was a highly intelligent man corrupted by power:
Conversations with him after his release from Spandau confirmed this. How, I asked myself, had this cultivated man been able to share the podium at the Berlin Sports Palace on 28 February 1943 with Goebbels and applaud his dreadful tirade of hate against the Jews?
After Trevor-Roper had spent a day with Speer in Munich he read Goebbels’s speech and felt sick.
On 18 March 1947, the formal publication date of his book, Trevor-Roper was with another Oxford expert on Germany, A. J. P. Taylor. Later the two engaged in furious controversy over Hitler, but even after this row no one praised The Last Days more than Taylor. In 1968 he wrote in the Observer that Trevor-Roper’s
brilliant book demonstrated how a great historian can arrive at the truth even when much of the evidence is lacking or, as in this case, deliberately kept from him … This was all the doing of one incomparable scholar.