The Magazine

Scholar-Gentleman

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

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Wheeler-Bennett also got to know Franz von Papen, who, when Wheeler-Bennett warned him in 1933 about Adolf Hitler’s ambitions, replied: “Nothing to worry about, my dear fellow; we can always outvote them in cabinet.” After seeing the smoldering ruin of the burnt Reichstag, helping Brüning escape from Germany in May 1934, and having some acquaintances killed in the Night of the Long Knives two months later, Wheeler-Bennett was persuaded to quit Germany and to warn Chatham House that, in his own meetings with the new führer, “What struck one was Hitler’s utter lack of humanity or humour. He gave the impression of a self-invented, self-inspired robot.” He concluded that although the Nazis would probably not last in power for more than four years, “it behooved the Continent to look to its armaments and defenses.”

During his next set of travels, he met Pope Pius XI (who he thought spoke many languages badly), Benito Mussolini (whose heart he pronounced to be “of a lighter shade of black”), and Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who was shortly afterwards assassinated by Austrian Nazis. In the Soviet Union in 1935, he met the Czech playwright Karl Radek shortly before Radek’s murder by the NKVD; later on, he met Leon Trotsky only weeks before his assassination in Mexico in 1940, and Jan Masaryk before his probable murder by Communists in Prague in 1948. It seems as though the Grim Reaper was never far behind a request for an interview from John Wheeler-Bennett.

Editing the anti-Nazi magazine Review of Reviews in the late 1930s earned Wheeler-Bennett a much-coveted place on the SS “Black List” of Britons to be executed upon capture. But it was after being turned down for enlistment in 1940—aged 38, due to heart murmurs—that Wheeler-Bennett made his greatest contribution to history. He became a gifted propagandist for American intervention in the war, operating out of the 44th floor of the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Center. He debated isolationists like Charles Lindbergh, coordinated the activities of pro-interventionist Hollywood producers such as Alexander Korda and Sam Goldwyn, organized ticker-tape parades down Broadway for British servicemen, instigated undercover operations masterminded by Wild Bill Donovan of the OSS and William Stephenson (code-named Intrepid), encouraged the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany, and met Winston Churchill at Downing Street during the Blitz, all while working for any number of political intelligence departments of the British secret state.

After D-Day, he moved into the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris to continue his war work, and after the war he attended the Nuremberg Trials with Rebecca West. He edited German foreign policy documents for publication in the late forties, and was given a room at Buckingham Palace by the queen, where he could write the official life of George VI, for which he received a knighthood.

His happy marriage, at age 42, to the American Ruth Harrison Risher, curtailed his habit of smoking cigars at breakfast but was otherwise a delight to him, and she proved a superb chatelaine of their beautiful Tudor home,  Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.

Dying in 1975, John Wheeler-Bennett can be said to have led the perfect English historian’s life, full of friendship, decency, patriotism, scholarship, and gently ironic wit, as exemplified by his superb autobiography, Knaves, Fools and Heroes. And at that supreme crisis moment of his nation’s history, on the day that the battle of France was lost and Americans turned on their wireless sets to discover what the British would do next, his resolute tones and mastery of the English tongue left them in absolutely no doubt.

 

Andrew Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.