‘Well done, Wheeler-Bennett,’ as historian and sage.
Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
"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:
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.
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.