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Butler, Rohan D'Olier (1917–1996), historian and civil servant, was born on 21 January 1917 at 74 Boundary Road, Hampstead, London, the younger son of , civil servant, and his wife, Olive Augusta Newenham, daughter of Samuel Abraham Walker Waters, assistant inspector-general of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He grew up largely in Geneva, acquiring fluent French and German. He was educated at Summer Fields preparatory school, Oxford, as an oppidan at Eton College under Robert Birley, and privately abroad. He then read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford, where his principal tutor was Benedict Humphrey Sumner. He graduated with first-class honours in 1938, and in the same year was elected a prize fellow of All Souls College, which thereafter remained one of the centres of his life; from 1961 to 1963 he was sub-warden, and from 1984 fellow emeritus.

In 1939 Butler published The Roots of National Socialism, 1783–1933, arguing that Nazism derived largely from elements deeply embedded in German history and culture. It was influential during and immediately after the war and underpinned Butler's later arguments for the formal suppression of the state of Prussia, which helped to shape the decisions of the allied council of foreign ministers after the occupation of Germany in 1945. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he volunteered for the navy but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He worked instead at the Ministry of Information, his time there interrupted by a brief spell in the Special Operations Executive in 1941 and nine months as a pay corps private in 1941–2. He also served in the Home Guard (1942–4). In 1944 he was transferred to the Foreign Office, where he had a major role planning the allied occupation of Germany and Austria. Inter alia, he suggested the posthorn design for Austrian stamps.

Butler declined a post-war Foreign Office career and offers of tutorial fellowships at Balliol and Christ Church, Oxford. He was an editor (1945–54) under Sir Llewellyn Woodward, then senior editor (1955–65) of the official, multi-volume Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939. The series showed his rigorous and exacting scholarship. He also planned the succeeding post-war series, Documents on British Policy Overseas, and edited the first volume, published in 1984. From 1963 to 1982 he was historical adviser to the secretary of state for foreign affairs, a post in abeyance since 1929. His enthusiasm for this resulted from his belief in the beneficial contribution which historians could make towards formulating foreign policy. As adviser he wrote extensively, especially on German and Russian themes; as Sir Julian Bullard wrote, ‘there were few important British ministerial speeches in that period in which the argument was not strengthened and the text not embellished by a contribution from Rohan's distinctive pen’ (Bullard and Rogister, 4). A scrupulous historian, he deplored the harm done by official ‘weeders’. He was made CMG in 1966.

On 6 August 1956 Butler married, in Copenhagen, Lucy Rosemary Butler (1912–2009), daughter of Eric Byron, civil engineer, sister of , traveller and writer on art, and former wife of Butler's elder brother, Ewan. Through his marriage he gained three stepdaughters, and his wife's family home, White Notley Hall, near Witham, Essex, became his home. Their marriage was happy: she helped sharpen his interest in cultural history, and shared many of his intellectual interests.

Butler contributed to several Festschriften and to the New Cambridge Modern History. His magnum opus was Choiseul: Father and Son, 1719–1754 (1980). Massively researched, over 1000 pages long, it embodied his aim of ‘history from the inside’ and placed Choiseul in his French and international context. It covered only Choiseul's early life, and Butler died before he was able to complete the intended three or four subsequent volumes. In 1981 he graduated DLitt from Oxford and in 1982 he was awarded the prix Jean Debrousse of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Paris: a unique distinction for a work written in English. Friends and admirers were surprised that he did not receive further British recognition, and it was suggested that he was ‘perhaps the victim of some academic malice’ (Bullard and Rogister, 14). He was large and physically impressive, with a memorable, loud laugh. Despite a stammer, he was a brilliant conversationalist and raconteur who enjoyed entertaining friends, and he was generous with his time. He died on 30 October 1996 at the Lawns Nursing Home, Lawn Lane, Springfield, Chelmsford, Essex, of stomach cancer, and was survived by his wife and stepdaughters.

Roger T. Stearn


The Independent (5 Nov 1996) · Daily Telegraph (6 Nov 1996) · The Times (14 Nov 1996) · The Guardian · WWW · J. Bullard and J. Rogister, memorial service, addresses, 1997, All Souls Oxf. · private information (2004) [Lucy Butler] · b. cert. · d. cert.


Bodl. Oxf.


photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Guardian

Wealth at death  

under £180,000: probate, 11 Dec 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales