May 16, 1983 12:00 PM

British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, 69, felt a surge of scholarly excitement. Before entering a Swiss bank vault last month to examine what were claimed to be the private diaries of Adolf Hitler, Trevor-Roper was fairly sure they were fakes. But as he studied the distinctive, crabbed handwriting, the Cambridge don decided he was reading the genuine article—Hitler’s own “dear diary” record of the momentous years from 1932 up to his 1945 suicide in a Berlin bunker.

But Trevor-Roper’s enthusiastic authentication of the Hitler diaries has trapped him in an academic foxhole. Largely on his say-so, the London Sunday Times, of which he is a director, agreed to pay $400,000 for the right to publish excerpts from the papers. And then came the storm. Lights went on in universities all over Europe as historians rushed to denounce the diaries as forgeries. Wilting under the onslaught, Trevor-Roper hastily backtracked from belief to skepticism. “I’m not quite as sure as I was,” he hedged at a press conference. “There can be such a thing as a perfect forgery.”

The historian’s retreat began, he explained, as a tiny worm of doubt. According to Gerd Heidemann, a reporter for the West German newsweekly Stern, the 62 diary volumes were found in a plane that crashed near Dresden in 1945. Heidemann says a German Army officer retrieved them and sold them to him some 35 years later, stipulating that the officer’s identity not be disclosed. When Trevor-Roper became belatedly suspicious of this tale, he grilled Heidemann for more details. The journalist rebuffed his questions and the miffed historian vowed to suspend judgment on the diaries.

Trevor-Roper’s switch staggered and embarrassed Stern and the Sunday Times. Fleet Street razzed the discovery, one paper spoofing that it had unearthed the diaries of Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, from a secret compartment in her handbag. The affair certainly lent comfort to critics who view the eminent historian as an intellectual hot dog. Since he burst into prominence with a precociously brilliant biography of Anglican Archbishop Laud (1573-1645), Trevor-Roper has delighted in waspish feuds with such luminaries as Evelyn Waugh, A.J.P. Taylor and Arnold Toynbee. He served with British intelligence during World War II, counting among his acquaintances Kim Philby, later exposed as a Soviet spy. Assigned by Winston Churchill to verify Hitler’s death, he parlayed the mission into a 1947 best-seller, The Last Days of Hitler.

The diaries are still in limbo—either a fantastic scoop or the hoax of the century. One expert is predicting that having made up his mind—twice—Trevor-Roper may yet wind up on the wrong side. Says British Hitler historian David Irving, now a believer, “he overreacted in the Swiss bank, and when other historians rose against him en masse, he overreacted again.”

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