Life and work
Elizabeth Meta Wiskemann was born in Sidcup, Kent, on 13 August 1899, the youngest child of Heinrich Odomar Hugo Wiskemann (who had emigrated to England in the 1860s) and his wife Emily Burton. She was educated at Notting Hill High School and at Newnham College, Cambridge. She obtained a first in History in 1921 and thereafter worked for a PhD, only to be disappointed when her thesis on Napoleon III and the Roman Question gained only an MLitt (a disappointment which she ascribed to the prejudice of one of her examiners).
She first visited Berlin in 1930 and was fascinated by what she saw of German life in the last years of the Weimar Republic, so different from the sedate and insular academic life of Cambridge. Thereafter she spent roughly six months of each year in Germany until 1936, dividing her time between teaching history at Cambridge and her journalistic career. In Berlin she made many friends with many Germans but also with the leading British journalists in the German capital, among them Frederick Voigt and Norman Ebbutt. She became involved in German politics and became an ardent opponent of National Socialism, and was soon writing articles on German affairs for a number of periodicals, including the New Statesman. Although her warnings about the nature of the Nazis went apparently unheeded by British officialdom, Wiskemann gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of Nazism, not least among the Nazis and she was arrested by the Gestapo and expelled from Germany in July 1936.
After her expulsion from the Third Reich Wiskemann continued to devote her energies to writing and journalism and was commissioned by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1937 to make a study of the ethnic Germans living within the borders of Czechoslovakia. The fruits of this study appeared as Czechs and Germans in 1938 and was followed a year later by her second book, Undeclared War (1939).
Wiskemann spent the Second World War in Switzerland, officially as the assistant press attaché to the British legation in Bern, but in reality responsible for gathering non-military intelligence from inside Germany and the occupied territories. During the war, she took a bold step that, through an unexpected series of events, led to a temporary halt to Jewish deportations from Hungary. Knowing it would be passed to Hungarian intelligence, she deliberately sent an unencrypted telegram to the Foreign Office in London that contained the addresses of the offices and homes of those in the Hungarian government who were best positioned to halt the deportations and suggesting that they should be targeted. Historian Martin Gilbert described what happened next that led the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, to halt to the deportations:
- The immediate cause of Horthy's intervention was an American daylight bombing raid on Budapest on 2 July. This raid had nothing to do with the appeal to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz; it was part of a long-established pattern of bombing German fuel depots and railway marshalling yards. But the raid had gone wrong, as many did, and several government buildings in Budapest, as well as the private homes of several senior Hungarian Government officials, had been hit. [Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 212.]
After the War, Wiskemann returned to journalism and spent some time as The Economist's correspondent in Rome but in the 1950s she increasingly attracted attention as an academic historian. In 1949 she published a pioneering study of relations between Hitler and Mussolini, The Rome-Berlin Axis, which was followed by Germany's Eastern Neighbours (1956) which analysed Germany's relations with the nations on her eastern frontier in the 1930s. In this work she rejected post-war German demands to its former territories now being part of Poland, and concluded that in the past territorial gains brought out the "worst elements" in Germany, she wrote that nobody wanted German minorities back in Eastern Europe, considering their record in the past.
She continued to publish throughout the 1950s and 1960s including a volume of memoirs, The Europe I Saw (1968). From 1958 to 1961 she was Montague Burton professor of international relations at Edinburgh University and was a tutor in Modern History at the University of Sussex from 1961 until 1964. In 1965 she received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford.
Wiskemann never married, but had a wide circle of friends which at one time another included Leonard Woolf and F. A. Voigt. Her later years were blighted by failing eyesight and she took her life rather than lose her independence and be unable to read. She committed suicide at her London home on 5 July 1971.
- Czechs and Germans (1938)
- Undeclared War (1939)
- Italy (1947)
- The Rome-Berlin Axis (1949)
- Germany's Eastern Neighbours (1956)
- A Great Swiss Newspaper: the Story of the 'Neue Züricher Zeitung' (1959)
- The Europe of the Dictators (1966)
- The Europe I Saw (1968)
- Fascism in Italy (1969)
- Italy Since 1945 (published posthumously, 1971)
- James Joll, "Wiskemann, Elizabeth Meta", The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 59 (2004) OUP
- Anne Seeba, Battling for News: the Rise of the Woman Reporter (1994) Hodder & Stoughton
- Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Europe I Saw (1968) Collins
- Mark Cornwall, 'Elizabeth Wiskemann and the Sudeten Question: A Woman at the "Essential Hinge" of Europe', Central Europe, 1/1 (May 2003)
- Peter Kamber, 'Geheime Agentin', Berlin 2010