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Witness to History

Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett

Victoria Schofield
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by:
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Witness to History
    Book Description:

    Historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett (1902-1975) was one of the twentieth century's most extraordinary political operators. Through an ability to make important connections, he became an authority on Germany in the inter-war years and knew all the German hierarchy, including Hitler and Hindenburg. He also was one of the last people to interview Trotsky, writing an important analysis of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1917. As King George VI's official biographer, he met and interviewed all the major leaders in the post-war period, including Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and members of the Royal Family; he also supervised young Jack Kennedy's master's thesis.

    With the first biography of Wheeler-Bennett Victoria Schofield has written a book tha will fascinate anyone interested in twentieth-century European history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18214-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  7. 1 The Undertow of History
    (pp. 1-13)

    John Wheeler Wheeler-Bennett was born just after the dawn of a new century and of a new reign. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her son, Edward VII – the Peacemaker – ascended the throne. Acute appendicitis meant that the new king’s coronation was postponed until June 1902 – the year of John’s birth. As a future royal biographer, he would have liked the rough coincidence of a coronation with his own arrival in the world, on 13 October. John’s father, John Wheeler-Bennett, was over sixty; the son of John Bennett of Portsmouth and Mary Wheeler, in 1889 he had...

  8. 2 Youthful Illusions
    (pp. 14-22)

    Unable to attend university, Jack Wheeler-Bennett shunned following in his father’s footsteps and going into business. Instead he secured a voluntary job working for the League of Nations Union, formed in 1918 to promote international justice and peace, whose ethos was based on the ideals of the League of Nations. Imbued with a strong belief in the value of the League and having attended one of their summer conferences in Bruges, he wrote a short account of their work that was published in his old school Discussion Society’s magazine,The Beacon. Assuring his readers confidently that ‘Ignorance is the predominant...

  9. 3 International Traveller
    (pp. 23-59)

    The journey that Wheeler-Bennett and his mother undertook to the ‘gorgeous East’ enabled them to see a relatively unknown part of the world which was then immersed in violent change. In 1911, the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen had toppled the Manchu dynasty and established the Republic of China. Although he had been unable to consolidate the new order, by the early 1920s revolutionary fervour had once more erupted in Canton. Among the revolutionaries were two young Communist leaders, Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. In the aftermath of Sun Yat-sen’s death, an unknown colonel, Chiang Kai-shek, succeeded in proclaiming a ‘Nationalist’...

  10. 4 The Tragedy of Weimar
    (pp. 60-88)

    By focusing on Germany, Wheeler-Bennett was beginning to shape his career as an expert on German affairs. He was to spend over four years staying intermittently in Germany, observing the inner workings of the German Reich. He continued to travel, making contacts and increasing his wide circle of friends. While in Berlin, he rented rooms at the Kaiserhof Hotel, venue of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, conveniently located close to the Chancellery in Wilhelmstrasse. Much to Wheeler-Bennett’s amusement, the coincidence of his physical resemblance to some members of the German Royal House of Hohenzollern, especially Kaiser Wilhelm’s youngest son, Prince...

  11. 5 Twilight
    (pp. 89-116)

    As far as Wheeler-Bennett was concerned, the timely telephone call from Neill Malcolm had saved his life. Had he remained in Berlin, he believed he too would have been killed.² From Switzerland, Wheeler-Bennett returned to London. The next few months were spent engaged in historical research and keeping up with his commitments at Chatham House. In September 1934, he left for a tour of the United States and Canada, where he undertook a number of speaking engagements including at the Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal branches of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. He also visited his favourite haunts in the...

  12. 6 The Perils of War
    (pp. 117-142)

    When, with the blessing of Sir Robert Vansittart, Lord Lothian requested Wheeler-Bennett to be his personal assistant in the United States, he did not intend that he should remain by his side in Washington. Instead he wanted Wheeler-Bennett to be his ‘eyes and ears’ throughout the continent, subtly promoting the war with the American people. Wheeler-Bennett began his new assignment by visiting friends in Chicago and Kansas City ‘to see if I could assay the general opinion of this vital heartland of America’. Talking with everybody from newspaper proprietors to university professors and businessmen, his initial finding was ‘the predominant...

  13. 7 Political Warfare in America
    (pp. 143-169)

    Once the United States entered the war, the system for disseminating information in New York was reorganised. Curiously, as Wheeler-Bennett noted, the new phase in Anglo-American relations did not open ‘on a note of complete amicability … all information on the war should now, it was thought, be imparted to the American public by American agencies and it was pretty clearly implied that the American public would from now on be interested only in American exploits’. To this effect a bill was passed designating all those who worked for non-American public relations agencies as ‘foreign agents’. As a result, Wheeler-Bennett...

  14. 8 The Horrors of Peace
    (pp. 170-196)

    The year 1945 did not begin auspiciously. On 20 January, Wheeler-Bennett sailed from Greenock on board theQueen Marywith a contingent of homeward-bound American war-wounded. His travelling companion was the Canadian diplomat Tommy Stone, a friend since the 1920s. Due to a misunderstanding, neither was aware that theQueen Mary’s sailing time had been brought forward by two hours. While they were happily enjoying lunch in a pub overlooking the Firth of Forth, they observed that the passenger liner had slipped her moorings. Undaunted, and pulling rank (‘Was I not a titular major-general and therefore equally a titular rear-admiral?),²...

  15. 9 High Honour
    (pp. 197-216)

    In August 1952, a few months after the untimely death of George VI, a conversation with Harold Nicolson opened another door to Wheeler-Bennett. Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, were staying at Garsington not long after publication of his biography of George V. ‘I am not, I think,’ Wheeler-Bennett later wrote, ‘a man of unusually precipitate reactions but as I read Harold’s splendid book for the first time I felt my imagination kindled by a desire for emulation.’ As a staunch royalist, ‘the prospect of writing the life of one’s sovereign and combining this with the narrative of one’s own...

  16. 10 The Sixties
    (pp. 217-251)

    John and Ruth Wheeler-Bennett embarked on ‘the Sixties’ as unaware as were their contemporaries that they were entering an unprecedented era of social upheaval. While the decade was memorably ‘swinging’, with people generally optimistic that the period of postwar austerity was over, a rebellious mood was taking hold throughout Europe and the United States, polarising relations between the old and the young. As a middleaged man who had had an essentially Edwardian upbringing, Wheeler-Bennett took this new challenge in his stride, adopting a benevolent attitude to youthful discontent. Throughout the decade, he continued with his rigorous schedule of work, combined...

  17. 11 Memories
    (pp. 252-284)

    Sir John Wheeler-Bennett began the 1970s in good spirits. He and Ruth still relished their transatlantic voyages.The Semblance of Peacealmost finished, Wheeler-Bennett was enjoying lecturing in the United States and entertaining his friends at Garsington. ‘Our plans are that we stay here until March,’ he wrote to Avon from Arizona in February, ‘and then fly back to New York, where we shall be until the 28th when we sail in theChristophoro Colombo. This doughty vessel takes us to Lisbon and then into the Mediterranean and eventually via several Italian ports … to Venice. There we disembark and...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 285-325)
  19. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 326-329)
  20. Index
    (pp. 330-346)