JOHN WHEELER-BENNETT – HIGH-CARB HISTORIAN
Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett
Victoria Schofield, New Haven: Yale University Press 346 pp., $50
Yale University Press promises that Witness to History “will fascinate anyone interested in the great political figures of world history during the twentieth century.” On this book’s back cover, Alistair Horne hails John Wheeler-Bennett as
a gifted historian . . . one of the outstanding, though unsung, certainly unrepeatable Britons of his age.
It is an academic publisher’s job to drum up interest in its latest addition to a world up to its oxters in academic books, and Sir Alistair is entitled to his views. Yet the reader immediately wonders why Wheeler-Bennett is“unsung.”Is this a fluke of fate or fad, or is there some profounder reason? Perhaps even dullness? The word witness also conveys coolness, passivity— the opposite of engagement, let alone the fascination guaranteed by Yale. So even before we have opened the volume, we have a faint sense of deflation, dénouement before the fact—as if we are about to meet a Mr. Dryasdust, someone about whom a biographer has felt duty-bound rather than determined to write.
But there is no reason why it should be this way. Wheeler-Bennett was a formidably intelligent chronicler of his too-exciting century, the ultimate insider who saw many of its pivotal moments at first
hand (and even helped to facilitate some). No mere witness, after all. He was besides friend to, or at least acquaintance of, many of the 20th century’s most famous figures. His address book groaned with greats and not-so-greats, and we imagine the mantelpiece at his Elizabethan manor house snow-drifted with stiff cards bearing coats of arms, alphabets of impressive acronyms, and invitations. He met King George VI (whose biographer he became), Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Tomáš Masaryk, Karl Radek, John Buchan, Edvard Beneš, Roosevelt, Franz von Papen, Mussolini, Trotsky, Hitler, and all sorts of others. He went “everywhere,” and met “everyone.” At his funeral, Sir Patrick Dean would comment that “Never was there a man with so many ‘special relationships’” – a reference not only to Wheeler-Bennett’s contacts, but also to his role as a leading Atlanticist.
His diaries are full of startling details narrowly observed. He was startled by Egypt’s King Fuad, who “barked like a dog” before he spoke. (A would-be assassin’s bullet had wounded him in the throat.) He met “foxy Ferdinand,” ex-czar of Bulgaria, a portly, bearded man sporting ribbons and decorations on his coat who wore white kid gloves held on by heavy-jeweled rings and a gold and sapphire bracelet and devoted his plentiful post-royal leisure time to studying North Africa’s avifauna. He saw with sang-froid “a decomposed communist head on every lamp post on the main thoroughfare” in Shanghai. At the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1929, he noted how Stalin moved to and from his box in the theatre after the lights had been dimmed:
He was ever after to me that man of shadows, sealed in the crepuscules.
Ex-Kaiser Wilhlem II’s parting words to him in the summer of 1939 were shrewd but self-exculpatory –
Come back and see me again next summer, if you can. But you won’t be able to, because the machine is running away with him as it ran away with me.
Yet despite such anecdotes, and the author’s gift for storytelling, his memoirs are disappointingly discreet, more floury than flowery.
This well-connected watcher naturally attracted the attentions of one of the world’s leading imprints, and also of Victoria Schofield, a proficient historian in her own right. All the ingredients are in place for an illuminating account of our recent past as seen from the stage- wings, in the form of an overdue tribute to a man who has indeed long remained unaccountably unsung.
Yet from the outset, we seem unable to extricate ourselves from the suspicion of stodge. For those who are familiar with the purlieus of southeasternmost London and northwesternmost Kent, to learn that Wheeler-Bennett was born in Keston in 1902, the son of an importer, evokes certain slightly cloying ideas – rising middle classes minding their Ps and Qs to prove their respectability, comfortably conservative politics admixed with imperialism, chapel or Anglican evangelism, Victorian villas looking onto substantial grounds bordered by privet, curtseying domestics, stiff collars for Papa, parasols for Mama, sailor suits for little Johnny. As a bigger Johnny reflected,
I spent my childhood in the age of security.
These are caricatures, yet life at Ravensbourne (as the villa was named in honor of the little river that runs from near Keston to debouch into the Thames at Deptford, from which watercourse the family had siphoned off a small lake) was sometimes lonely for John, whose sister and brother were respectively seven and fourteen years older. Unathletic and serious-minded, he developed precocious preoccupations with European politics, America, and China, and, much less predictably, with world peace.
After leaving Malvern College, he obtained a voluntary job with the League of Nations Union and found his calling as international mediator manqué. He joined the newly founded British Institute of International Affairs and traveled extensively in its service, collaborating with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations and falling under the spells of the likes of Arnold Toynbee, Lewis Namier, and Anthony Eden. Inspired by the CFR, he founded his own ostensibly unbiased Association for International Understanding, and under this imprint began to issue his own books: Information on the Permanent Court of International Justice, The World Court in 1925, Information on the Problem of Security, and Information on the Reduction of Armaments, among others. Perusing the titles of these productions, we begin to discern precisely why Wheeler-Bennett is unsung. From having been ankle-deep in stodge, we are now wading up to our waists. The stodge levels are rendered positively injurious to health by some extracts. Did Schofield really need to quote Wheeler-Bennett’s artery-clogging tribute to an assistant?
His knowledge of the German language and the able assistance which he has rendered me on every occasion has contributed very materially to the amount of information which I have been able to obtain.
Similar examples abound, although mercifully we are spared Wheeler-Bennett’s thank-you letters for birthday presents and notes to his tailor. Such farinaceous foodstuffs might be more palatable if all his earnest efforts had actually had any impact, but, as we know, they did not. In retirement, he admitted that his pacifist ideals had been “youthful illusions.”
There were also youthful errors, such as when he assured a doubtlessly relieved Royal Institute of International Affairs (into which his Association had subsumed itself ):
Hitler, I am convinced, does not want a war. He is susceptible to reason in matters of foreign policy. He is greatly anxious to make Germany self-respecting and is himself anxious to be respectable. He may be described as the most moderate member of his party.
Wheeler-Bennett’s optimism did not survive the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung, and others (including some of Wheeler-Bennett’s friends), were judicially murdered by their erstwhile alte Kameraden. He only visited Germany twice more before the war, but his time there was well spent, researching for two books, Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan (1936) and Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace (1938), the latter still a standard reference. Always afterward critical of appeasement and acting as a semi-official (although unpaid) British agent, he forged and maintained contacts with conservatives who disliked Hitler’s cruel and déclassé regime. He shared with these aristocratic patriots contempt for the Versailles settlement and a love of horses, making a name for himself among the jodphur-wearing fraternity through such accomplishments as keeping in place his monocle without rim or cord while jumping a fence. He continued cultivating what links he could during the early part of the war when he worked for British intelligence in Washington, helping to inveigle the United States into the war by giving influential lectures on international relations country-wide, including at the University of Virginia Law School, where his auditors included Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., and “a most pleasing open-countenanced blue-eyed young man” named Jack Kennedy. He would later be accused of brutal cynicism when he wrote, after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s Operation Valkyrie of July 1944:
By the failure of the plot we have been spared the embarrassments, both at home and in the United States, which might have resulted from such a move, and, moreover, the present purge is presumably removing from the scene numerous individuals which might have caused us difficulty, not only had the plot succeeded, but also after the defeat of Nazi Germany. . . The Gestapo and the SS have done us an appreciable service in removing a selection of those who would undoubtedly have posed as ‘good Germans after the war . . . It is to our advantage therefore that the purge should continue, since the killing of Germans by Germans will save us from future embarrassment of many kinds.
In one of his best-known books, Nemesis of Power (1953), Wheeler-Bennett omitted to mention that he had once been engaged in negotiations with anti-Nazi Germans (still conflated in the popular memory with the Nazis themselves), giving rise to claims that he was hypocritically covering his tracks for reasons of personal advantage. While these claims stung him deeply – he even attempted to keep embarrassing archival material concealed from other historians – they did not disbar him from becoming the Foreign Office’s German specialist-in-chief, editing important documents on German foreign policy under their imprint. Such attempts at censorship were uncharacteristic: Wheeler- Bennett was essentially a fair-minded man.
He was besought to teach international relations in Oxford, which pleased him greatly because he had always been acutely conscious that he hadn’t gone to university. He settled in Tudor splendor at Garsington near Oxford, where he reveled in rurality: a Central Casting squire in cords, tweeds, and monocle, doffing these accoutrements apparently only to don formal garb for increasingly frequent trips to palaces or institutions proffering platforms, palms, and plaudits. Small wonder that so safe a pair of hands should have been selected to write a biography of the late king – nor that he should have produced what one leftist reviewer described accurately as a “courtly and obsequious” treatment. (The book was a chief source for the mystifyingly successful film The King’s Speech.)
And so he sailed with a fair wind on a lifelong even keel until his equably accepted death in 1975 – loved by his wife, relatives, and friends, respected by many intellectuals. These, however, were fewer with every passing year, as the doctrinaire left strengthened its hold on historiography: his The Semblance of Peace, cowritten with Anthony Nicholls and published in 1972, attracted vitriol for its strongly anti-Soviet views. To these people, he was at best a figure of fun – a stuffy exemplar of careful establishmentarianism, the “perfect English gentleman,” always with a carnation in his buttonhole and ready with a polite demurral. His distinction-draped funeral cortège, every detail of which he had planned meticulously, bore tribute to a life kindly, cleverly, and – above all – uncontroversially expended.
It is sadly ironic that a brilliant and humane man who had had so many extraordinary experiences should have been so forgotten. It is again ironic that someone intrinsically colourful – who, as he said, had “associated with some of the most destructive and disreputable characters of modern times” – should have wasted so much of his life chasing the colourless chimera of “international relations” through sad and sighing forests of withered resolutions. But then these ironies are connected: John Wheeler-Bennett is forgotten because his philosophy is forgettable, and his books are mostly unread because they are mostly unreadable. Yet bearing in mind the cataclysms of his century, which have become our cataclysms, perhaps we should pay his dull discipline more attention. After all, Wheeler-Bennett had witnessed where colour could lead.
This review appeared in Chronicles in May 2013 under the title “Where Color Led”, and is reproduced with permission