History, Observed: Victoria Schofield on John Wheeler-Bennett – historian, royal biographer and ‘witness to history’

Sir John Wheeler-Bennett - the portrait drawn by Juliet Pannett for his 70th birthday

Sir John Wheeler-Bennett – the portrait drawn by Juliet Pannett for his 70th birthday

John Wheeler-Bennett is not a household name but, in the mid-twentieth century, he knew virtually everyone who was. As a historian and observer of international affairs, he was uniquely placed to observe events as they unfolded in post-World War 1 Germany, witnessing the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism under Adolf Hitler.  He later became the official biographer of George VI. In Witness to History, using previously unpublished diaries, letters and memoirs, Victoria Schofield tells the story of Wheeler-Bennett’s unusual life.

Article by Victoria Schofield

‘Wheeler Who?’ was a question my friends  often asked me when I was enthusiastically describing the subject matter of my new research project -  and for which I had been awarded a prestigious Alistair Horne Visiting Fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford. ‘Wheeler-Bennett,’ I would confidently reply. ‘Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, KCMG, CB – he virtually pioneered the study of international relations in the early 1920s,’ adding for good measure if my listener looked skeptical: ‘The information service he founded forms the basis of the Information Department at Chatham House. He was a military historian and a royal biographer.’ ‘Oh,’ might then be the response. Since I could not yet direct my interlocutor to read the book, I would desist from further efforts to promote my subject, making up my mind to sit back and wait for publication day.

This interchange revealed a dilemma we all face in terms of choosing an individual to profile. How do we interest the reader in someone about whom he or she knows nothing? Whose life merits a biography and whose does not? Do we only write about famous people whose names are constantly in  the headlines? Since much of Wheeler-Bennet’s life had been spent writing history, the question I had to answer was: what made the life of a historian a suitable subject for a biography?

I soon discovered that, in pursuit of his ambition to be a historian, Wheeler-Bennett had led an extraordinary life and, especially in the inter-war years and during World War 2, significant events had shaped both what he wrote about and where he went. Whether it was meeting Woodrow Wilson in Washington in the 1920s, encountering Hitler in early Nazi Germany, travelling to meet Trotsky in Mexico in 1937 before he became the recipient of the fatal ice pick, meeting Kaiser Wilhelm on the eve of the outbreak of World War 2,  or finding himself in the unusual position of supervising the young Jack Kennedy’s thesis at Harvard, Wheeler-Bennett had the ability to make the most of every introduction and each primary source. As he himself wrote, ‘I am a historian who delights in the touch of original material, even as a devout medieval worshipper might derive inspiration from contact with pieces of the True Cross.’

As a determined traveller, his itinerary during those inter-war years – from far flung China and Japan to North America, the islands of the Pacific, and deep into the heart of Europe – opened a window onto a relatively unknown and changing world. His decision to live in Germany in the late 1920s gave him a ringside seat into events during the ill-fated Weimar Republic and the rise of  National Socialism. As a result,  his first major work was a biography of President Hindenburg, followed soon afterwards by a critical analysis of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1918, and of the Munich agreement in 1938.

The Queen Mother meeting a headmaster (Donald Lindsey) with her friend Wheeler-Bennett

The Queen Mother meeting a headmaster (Donald Lindsey) with her friend Wheeler-Bennett

During the war, setting aside the writing of books, he served as personal assistant to the British Ambassador in Washington at a time when propagating Britain’s viewpoint on the war was an uphill task.  Americans, he said, ‘regarded me as somebody on a sinking ship. They were sympathetic, but it was as if they were waving me goodbye.’  He later worked with Bruce Lockhart in the Propaganda Warfare Executive,  disseminating Britain’s position on the war and trying to garner support.

Post-World War 2, when asked to write the biography of King George VI, he interviewed numerous members of the Royal family and almost the entire British establishment, many of whom became personal friends, including former Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden (whose biography he would have written had he not pre-deceased him).  During the 1960s, he became a visiting lecturer at  three universities in the United States, witnessing first hand   ‘the young in revolt against the standards, conventions and traditions of their parents and the parents in bewildered resentment at this defiance of their authority.’ Most enduring was his friendship with the late Queen Mother, who, over twenty-five years after his death described him as ‘a great historian and a true and entertaining friend.’

It came as no surprise, during the concluding stages of finishing Witness to History, to learn  that Wheeler-Bennett’s biography of George VI was one of the primary sources for the award-winning book and film The King’s Speech.

Witness to History

Witness to History by Victoria Schofield

Victoria Schofield is a writer, journalist and commentator on international affairs, with specialist knowledge of South Asia. Her previous publications include Wavell: Soldier and StatesmanKashmir in Conflict, Afghan Frontier: at the Crossroads of Conflict. Her most recent book, The Highland Furies, The Black Watch 1739-1899, with a Foreword by the Prince of Wales,  has been long-listed for the 2013 Templer Medal for the work that has made the most significant contribution to the history of the British Army.

Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett is available now from Yale University Press.

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