Horace Wilson (civil servant)

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Sir Horace Wilson on 23 September 1938, along with the British Ambassador to Germany, Nevile Henderson
Sir Horace Wilson alongside Neville Chamberlain in a car, Munich, 23 September 1938

Sir Horace John Wilson, GCB, GCMG, CBE (1882 – 1972) was a British top government official who had a key role in the appeasement-oriented ministry of Neville Chamberlain just prior to World War II.

Career[edit]

Wilson was born and educated in Bournemouth. He joined the British Civil Service in 1898, as a boy clerk, and attended the London School of Economics as a night student.

He rose rapidly through the Civil Service, serving in the Patent Office, War Office, and the Board of Trade. At the Board of Trade he became particularly involved in industrial relations, and moved to the Ministry of Labour in 1916. He was made CBE in 1918, CB in 1920, KCB in 1924, GCMG in 1933, and finally GCB in 1937.[1]

His highest posts included:

In late September 1938, during the "Sudetenland crisis", Chamberlain sent Wilson as emissary to German leader Adolf Hitler. Wilson was charged with communicating to Hitler that the British Cabinet, France, and Czechoslovakia rejected Hitler's demands to annex the largely ethnic-German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. In the course of speaking with Hitler, it was Wilson who also delivered the most significant diplomatic communication between Germany and Britain since the close of World War I: that should Germany invade Czechoslovakia and France declare war against Germany, Britain would go to war against Germany alongside France. However, Britain did not stick to this resolute stance, and instead accepted the break-up of Czechoslovakia under the Munich Agreement, damaging the historical reputation of both Chamberlain and Wilson.

British journalist Leonard Mosley interviewed Wilson among numerous others for the 1969 book On Borrowed Time, about the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Wilson acknowledged having felt out of his depth in dealing with Nazi Germany, and Mosley was critical of Wilson's role.

It has also been reported that he showed little interest in the fate of Germany's Jews during the negotiations with Hitler. Speaking to another journalist, Colin Cross, in 1968 - that is, 23 years after the liberation of Auschwitz - Wilson, by then well into his eighties, is quoted as saying that he understood Hitler's feelings about the Jews. "Have you ever met a Jew you liked?" he asked Cross.

In fiction[edit]

Wilson is a key character in Michael Dobbs' novel Winston's War. In the book Wilson is portrayed as an arch-manipulator who has the telephones of all potential enemies to Neville Chamberlain tapped and will use any methods he can to get rid of Winston Churchill.

He was also portrayed in a similar vein in the 1981 ITV drama series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, by Clive Swift.

Wilson also appears in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel The Reprieve.

In his 2011 alternate history novel The Big Switch, Harry Turtledove has Wilson succeeding the ailing Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in the fall of 1940. In the sequel, Wilson's increasingly authoritarian actions prompt the British military to launch a coup d'etat and overthrow him.

Offices held[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Warren Fisher
Head of the Home Civil Service
1939 - 1942
Succeeded by
Sir Edward Bridges

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Wilson, Sir Horace John (1882–1972), civil servant. Rodney Lowe, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography