The Magazine

Scholar-Gentleman

‘Well done, Wheeler-Bennett,’ as historian and sage.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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"Tonight my country stands alone,” the British historian and diplomat John Wheeler-Bennett told the American people in a radio broadcast on the night of June 17, 1940, the day that France capitulated to Hitler. He continued:

Alone before the embattled might of totalitarian Europe, Nazi Germany rooted in hatred and cruelty and perversion, and Fascist Italy standing forth at last in her true colors, wearing a suit of tarnished blackmail and with the bar-sinister upon her shield. Tonight for the first time in many years, your country sees an unfriendly power established on the far shores of the Atlantic. France, immortal and glorious France, has fallen at our side.

As well as being Britain’s finest hour, that speech to the Institute for Public Affairs of Charlottesville, Virginia, was to be Wheeler-Bennett’s, too. Speaking off the cuff—with a minimum of preparation, since the news of the fall of France had been received only hours earlier and Wheeler-Bennett had to take the place of the British ambassador, Lord Lothian, who was dealing with the unfolding emergency from the British embassy in Washington—he went on to liken Britain’s situation to John Milton’s defense of free speech during the English Civil War, which describes a nation “not degenerated or drooping to a final decay, but casting off the old and wrinkled skin of corruption, to outlive these pangs and wax young again, entering into the truth of prosperous virtue, destined to become great and honorable in these later ages.”

Of all the many tributes Wheeler-Bennett was to receive for his inspiring speech, the one which he said gave him “the greatest pleasure and gratification” was from Lord Lothian himself, who confined his praise to: “Well done, Wheeler-Bennett.”

As this well-researched and well-written book makes clear, that night in June 1940 was only one of a series of very many times when John Wheeler-Bennett happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time. A debonair, charming, and decent man, Wheeler-Bennett was one of those fortunate historians who, like Lord Macaulay and Winston Churchill and precious few others, actually made history as well as writing it.

Born in 1902, the son of a successful English businessman and his Virginian wife, Wheeler-Bennett suffered from asthma, a stammer, and a facial tic after his prep school was bombed by a Zeppelin airship in the Great War. Bullied at his minor public school, he became “a sceptic and a rebel” and, in 1920, he traveled around the world. It was felt that his constitution—he was later also to suffer from insomnia, fainting fits, jaundice, mastoids, pneumonia, nervous exhaustion, and a weak heart—was not strong enough for him to undergo the rigors of Christ Church, Oxford. However, his world tour engendered a love of travel, but also a belief that the League of Nations, for which he began working full-time when he returned, might abolish war, a naïveté that he later admitted was a “youthful illusion.”

Wheeler-Bennett discovered his lifelong love of observing politics while watching the 103 ballots be cast in the 1924 Democratic convention in New York. “One danced on the St. Regis roof garden and always had the address of a reliable bootlegger and a respectable speakeasy,” he recalled of the city he loved. He soon became one of the greatest exponents of the value of close Anglo-American amity and, in the course of some 30 books, the founder of what has become the international relations school of history writing.

Charming, well-off, handsome, and intelligent, Wheeler-Bennett smoked cigars, drank brandy, was a member of Brooks’s, Pratt’s, and the Beefsteak clubs in London, and made friends easily—especially interesting ones in high places. Blanche “Baffy” Dugdale, Ian Fleming, Harold Nicolson, Lewis Namier, Ralph Richardson, the Duke of Windsor’s best man “Fruity” Metcalfe, H. A. L. Fisher, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Robert Vansittart, Averell Harriman, Dorothy Thompson, Adam von Trott zu Solz, Lord Lloyd, Isaiah Berlin, King Fuad of Egypt, Chiang Kai-shek, and Anthony Eden waft in and out of these pages, testaments to Wheeler-Bennett’s talent as an indefatigable networker.

Editing the newsletter of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (at Chatham House in London) brought him into contact with Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines. After taking a house on Lüneburg Heath in the early 1930s while researching his magnum opus, the biography of Paul von Hindenburg, he befriended Chancellor Heinrich Brüning of the Weimar Republic and spotted the dangers posed by the Nazis early on. This also brought him into contact with Field Marshal Hindenburg, General Erich Ludendorff, and the ex--kaiser Wilhelm II, whose illegitimate son he was reputed (without any truth) to have been.