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Naim Attallah talks to Hugh Trevor-Roper

Blog | By Naim Attallah | Jul 05, 2021

In an article first published in 1992, the distinguished author and historian is interviewed by Naim Attallah

In the war you were with the security services. What did that entail?

I came to be in the security service by accident. I was drafted 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 the flat we shared, and we deciphered the messages, identifying the radio communications of the German Secret Service. This created a convulsion in the intelligence world. We were severely rebuked for making the discovery, and even more so for having deciphered it. We were then moved into the secret service proper, reading and working out the organisation of German intelligence.

Among your colleagues was Kim Philby. How were people recruited in those days?

MI6 was recruited on a personal basis by people of limited experience. They couldn’t advertise, and the people chosen weren’t always ideal. Accidents happened. In my case I was recruited because the service wanted to keep control of the work we’d done outside the secret service.

How do you think people ought to be recruited?

I don’t know' of any infallible test that would exclude the wrong people. I myself was astonished when Philby joined SIS. People talked with great enthusiasm about his appointment. But I knew that Philby had been a communist.

You knew then?

Yes, but I was as wrong as everybody else. Lots of people, friends included, had been communists at university. 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 services were often unreasonable, seeing reds under the bed and turning down clever people on the grounds that they had left- wing views. When Philby joined I was glad that 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: 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 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 limited pool; often with money of their own, and lacking normal ambition. Nowadays recruitment is different: it’s no longer done in clubs.

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. They gave a bad name to their service, they spread distrust and suspicion; they damaged the interests of the British government and the West. Some people were killed, but then Philby would have said that the secret service game involves everybody taking risks, and it’s the luck of the game. Early on Philby prevented 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.

The present Government’s determination to maintain secrecy at every level appears to many people to be perverse.

People have found their way round these restrictions by going through the proper channels and by knowing how to create interest in the right quarters. Most secrets are in print if you know where to look for them; half the time the secrecy rules are a means of preventing the public knowing what is already known to foreign governments (from whom ostensibly the secrets are being concealed). Until recently one couldn’t name the staff of the British secret service, yet the entire staff had been published, accurately, in the German press in October 1939. The German secret service lured British secret service officers in the Netherlands to the frontier under pretence of being the representatives of an anti- Hitler group, kidnapped them and kept them prisoner throughout the war where under interrogation they revealed the facts. In Berlin 19451 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 to these two men. MI6 knew that their names had been blown because the information was reported in the German press.

On the matter of secrecy: I do think it’s carried too far, and the services tend to breed within themselves a separation from reality. Several people have simply become fantasists, such as Peter Wright. A kind of mania can develop, a paranoid mini-McCarthyism which feeds on itself.

Why do you think the government went to such lengths to ban Wright’s book?

I suppose it grew and became a question of pride. But it was absurd, because he could publish outside its 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. 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 accurately so that one can argue on the basis of them. I believe that the 1930s fascist movements are dead, because they were inseparable from a particular political conjuncture which is now over. But if we use the terms in a vulgar way, meaning thuggery, right-wing xenophobia, brutality, that is a more generalised thing, liable to break out at anytime.

Some historians, such as David Irving, suggest that Nazi atrocities were greatly exaggerated. Will it ever be possible to rewrite history, given the pressures for European unity?

Assuming that we have a free press, I don’t think historical revisionism of that kind is possible. History is always being revised, but from within rational norms.

But isn’t history largely a matter of interpretation?

Historical revision is reinterpretation of agreed objective evidence, whereas people such as David Irving are trying to rewrite history in defiance of the evidence. Their interpretations are scandalous, not honest. One advantage of the Nuremberg trials was that it put the evidence on record in a way that couldn’t be contested.

You read Mein Kampf in the original.

I read Mein Kampf in German in 1938 as a consequence of an article by the historian Ensor. People regarded Hitler as a mere froth-blowing demagogue, nasty, but slightly comic, whereas Ensor claimed he was dangerous. Mein Kampf struck me as the work of a man with a powerful mind: a coherent ideology, though horrible, and I decided it was serious. And I became rather serious myself in consequence. Up till then I had led rather a frivolous life.

Do you think the last war was the outcome of the Versailles Treaty?

The Treaty of Versailles provided the excuse. The real reason was that the Germans did not recognise their defeat: at the end of 1918 it came as a great shock. The organisation of propaganda, even before Hitler, shows that they were determined that this be rectified.

What do you consider the origin of anti-Semitism to be?

I’m sure that it is not religious. In the 18th century, with the weakening of religion and religious persecution, anti-Semitism didn’t disappear. It revived in the 19th century, adapted to an industrial society, this time on the basis of blood. This was equally irrational: there is no such thing as Jewish blood. You can define Jews only by religion. Different rationalisations are produced at different times, but what is the basis of anti- Semitism? My theory is that the human race is determined to find a scapegoat for its misfortunes, particularly in an unassimilable group in society. They may be religious dissenters, they may be people who make their neighbours uncomfortable. Any minority is liable to persecution.

Your historical researches have covered a number of periods. Which has given you the most satisfaction?

Although I have written about Nazi Germany, I find it in some ways a repulsive subject. I suppose I’m an expert in 16th- and 17th-century history, but I don’t really think in ‘periods’. I concluded at one time that political history is rather small beer: seeing people digging deeper and deeper into a petty Cabinet crisis in 18th-century English politics — I found that poor stuff. Humanity does not live for this, I thought, and found myself drawn to intellectual history. I’m interested in the intellect of man rather than politics, which isn’t 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 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. Ideas are conditioned by the context, which means that one must study the terrible experience of this century to understand the intellectual views of this century; and the same is true of any other century.

Your political antennae were developed in the 1930s but gradually your imagination was captured more by academic than political intrigue. How did this really come about?

I find this a rather offensive question. I am not interested in intrigue. If I have found myself in controversy it has been open — perhaps too open for my own good (but that, in my opinion, is because I am a victim of the media!) As to how I came to prefer academic to political life: I was an undergraduate at a political college — several friends and dons went into politics — and I did think of a political career. Munich made politics actual to me. But during the war I decided that my real interest was in literature and the study of history. I also valued my independence, my ease. The thought of constituents, meetings, party conferences, whips, repelled me. I also loved country life and shrank from smoke-filled rooms in London.

You are a distinguished historian. Why does history matter?

I agree with Gibbon who says that history is little else than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. Nevertheless it is worth studying because nations are conditioned, even though they may not recognise 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. And the study of history enriches the study of thought and art and literature. Obviously pictures have an aesthetic quality which transcends their historical context, but appreciation is deepened and made intelligent by an understanding of history.

Historians select facts, which already involves a degree of subjective interpretation. Is there such a thing as a correct perspective in history?

No, and I don’t want there to be. Attempts to reduce it to a science now look ridiculous. History is made up of continued pressures and options and mistakes: one cannot say that there is a scientifically plotted course. And indeed that is what makes it a living subject.

What is your view of the relationship between history and biography?

A biography reduced to mere biography would be a very jejune affair. The greatness of an intellectual or artistic figure depends on his response to his times.

There has been work in France in recent yearsDerrida and Foucaultwhich seems to undermine the legitimacy of history. Is there an answer to the charge that we make history in our own image?

This is a defeatist view. We write history in a more social way than that, we test our arguments against other people’s. Honest historians try to check their own interpretations against rival opinions which might also be subjective, and try to discover an objectivity. I’m afraid I’m not in love with Derrida and Foucault.

Do you believe in God?

I’m a sort of 18th-century deist really. I’d adopt the position of Voltaire and Gibbon.

My research seems to indicate you are anti-Catholic, and that you reserve a particular dislike for Catholic converts.

The great Lord Halifax said at the end of the 17th 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 that I dislike. I was fairly anti-Catholic at the time when the Catholic Church was ruled by Pope Pius XII, whom I regard as one of the more disastrous figures of this century. In my view the papacy was responsible for the dictatorship of both Mussolini and Hitler. If Pope Pius XII hadn’t forbidden priests to take part in politics, thereby wrecking the Christian Democrat Party, Mussolini wouldn’t have been able to take power in Italy. And if he had not persuaded 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.

But there have surely been good people who drew their strength from their faith.

People come to the legitimate conclusion that the purpose in life is neither political orthodoxy, nor 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. Religion is a kind of distillation of one’s higher aspirations. At the same time I regard theology — the attempt to create a system out of these myths — as absurd, an absolute historical curiosity.

Yet I’m not irreligious. I do not believe, with Freud, that religion is an ‘illusion’ which can be ‘ended’ by psychoanalysis. I regard psychoanalysis as a superstitious illusion, and consider a sense of religion necessary to man, a framework giving metaphysical coherence to the world.

You’re a Conservative. Are you one of the newer Thatcherite type?

I approve of Mrs Thatcher in as much as she saw that a moment had come when consensus had been turned into a continuing slide of appeasement. On the other hand, there is an unacceptable side of Thatcherism, an unattractive ruthlessness.

So you're a Macmillan conservative?

I am, but Macmillan did sell the pass in a way. He believed one could always yield 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 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 facing ruin. The unions were unappeasable.

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, except I don’t take it seriously: snobbism is a harmless affectation. To say that somebody is a snob tout court is not an offensive thing; it’s like saying you’re interested in the races. I’m interested in the diversity of humankind, but at the same time yes, I like sophisticated parties.

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, it isn’t true. It was 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 succes de scandale and because I’d reviewed it critically the whole thing was blown up by the press. Alan and I both got very bored by it.

But was he expected to be appointed at the time instead of you?

Alan was tipped, and, being a vain man, he believed he was really entitled to it. Generally Alan adopted a tolerant attitude towards history; his rather nihilistic philosophy accepted that everything is chance, but he never applied this attitude to himself. However, he didn’t blame me for this, but Harold Macmillan. Later he said he would not have accepted it from that hand stained with the blood of Suez.

You were Master of Peterhouse, 1980-1987. Peterhouse is well known for reaffirming the importance of high politics and intellectual movement against the fashionable concentration on the grass roots and masses. Is this something you applaud?

No. It’s a reasonable point of view, but in Peterhouse it was combined with politics so reactionary that I found them both ridiculous and rather offensive.

You have spent most of your life in the universities. There is a great deal of talk at present about grading universities so that only some do research. What is research for in your view?

Knowledge does not advance without research. A university without research is like a hospital with no teaching branch: it tends to stay put. Of course research can become a fetish, with academics writing for other academics on smaller and smaller topics. But research is really the basis of a university; otherwise it is simply a school.

People have said of you that in the background of your life and career there lurks a book that is perhaps the magnum opus that you didn’t write. Is that something that worries you?

I would like to have written a great work — who wouldn’t — but historical writing quickly perishes, and if it’s any good it is boiled down to an article. Students of history have usually not read the book, only concentrations of the argument.

You were, I believe, the author of the wonderfully funny Spectator series under the pseudonym Mercurius Oxoniensis.

I know nothing about Mercurius.

But you were the author?

Well, you’ve said so, I haven’t. I don’t contest whatever people choose to say about me.

Do you deny that you are the author of it?

(laughs) Yes.

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 20th century that there should be an unelected body of legislators, however distinguished, in Parliament?

I see nothing wrong in an unelected body, although the hereditary principle is difficult to defend. It’s irreformable in a way, and a replacement would only be liable to different objections. But the Lords is 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 1,000 years?

Neither possible nor desirable. I consider that the pluralism of Europe is what has been the essential feature, if not cause, of its superiority. The states have distinct identities which compete against each other and these have been the main factors in Europe’s effervescence and efflorescence; I don’t wish to see it homogenised. 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 it should be ruled by a bureaucracy in Brussels, establishing identical norms everywhere.

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. Have I ever regretted a controversy? I regret them all in so far as they were extended beyond their original terms. I regret having been involved with Evelyn Waugh, whose writing I admired. But he opened fire on me in 1947 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. The controversy whose extension I most regretted was with A. J. P. Taylor. I minded this, and so did he. The Origins of The Second World War was the only book of his I ever criticized. And it was the press, who persuaded the world that Taylor and I were permanent adversaries, that bred in me that distaste for the media which 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 pretentious and sanctimonious humbug of Toynbee, and his defeatist, obscurantist message; disgusted, too, by the idiot sycophancy towards him of the American academia and media. But all I did was to quote his own words, which none of his sycophants had read, having only read Somervell’s potted abridgement. The real revelation of his purpose, and his vanity, was in his volumes 7-10, 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.

You must sometimes reflect ironically on the forged Hitler diaries when you recall your own work on Backhouse. 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. When the business blew up I decided the only honourable thing to do was to state publicly that I had made a mistake. I thought naively that the other people whose responsibility had been far greater than mine would admit their part in it. But not at all; the media persecution was concentrated on me, and the rest sat smugly behind their barriers. That was a shock.

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 of no interest to me. I don’t really respect the opinions of people whom I don’t know. But if a trusted friend were to say harsh things about me, that would upset me. A man is himself, not what strangers say of him. To thine own self be true, that’s my philosophy.