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Wheeler-Bennett was born in Keston, Kent, the son of a wealthy importer on 13 October 1902. He was educated at a school in Westgate on Sea and Malvern College. He did not regard his youth as a happy one. In the 1920s, Wheeler-Bennett worked as an aide to General Sir Neil Malcolm in the Middle East and Berlin.
After leaving Malcolm's employ, Wheeler-Bennett served in the publicity department of the League of Nations in 1923-1924 in Geneva. Afterwards, Wheeler-Bennett worked as the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs' information department. In particular, Wheeler-Bennett worked as the editor of the Bulletin of International News between 1924-1932.
Wheeler-Bennett and pre-war Nazi Germany
He lived in Germany between 1927–1934 and witnessed first-hand the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany. During his time living in Berlin, he enjoyed some success as a horse-breeder. During this period, he became an unofficial agent and advisor to London on international events.
In 1933, Wheeler-Bennett told the Royal Institute of International Affairs that:
- "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." (International Affairs, May 1933, pp 318-9)
Wheeler-Bennet's biography of Paul von Hindenburg created his reputation as a historian. Another great success was The Forgotten Peace, a study of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This is still regarded as the standard historical study of the subject.
In the pre-1939 period, Wheeler-Bennett befriended or was at least on speaking terms with a number of well-known people all over Europe. Some of the people he had some contact with included Heinrich Brüning, Basil Liddell Hart, Franz von Papen, John Buchan, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Leon Trotsky, Hans von Seeckt, Max Hoffmann, Lewis Bernstein Namier, Benito Mussolini, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Karl Radek, Sir Robert Gilbert Vansittart, Kurt von Schleicher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Tomáš Masaryk, Engelbert Dollfuss, the former Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adam von Trott zu Solz, Louis Barthou, Lord Lothian, Winston Churchill, and Dr. Edvard Beneš.
Wartime and post-war career as a government official
In 1939, he went to the United States to serve as a lecturer on international relations at the University of Virginia. Wheeler-Bennett was strongly pro-American and always considered the American South to be his favourite part of the American republic.
From 1940 onwards, he worked with the British Information Service in New York City, an agency charged with trying to persuade the United States to enter the war on the Allied side. Whilst here, he was a supporter of the German Resistance to Hitler and became friendly with Adam von Trott zu Solz.
Starting in 1942, Wheeler-Bennett worked in the Political Warfare department of the British Foreign Office in London. After he joined the Foreign Office, he switched to being an opponent of the German Resistance, his change being described by the biographer Anthony Howard, in the New Statesman, as "one of the most nimble political somersaults the corridors of power can ever have seen". Wheeler-Bennett gained his reward, being promoted to the Assistant Director General of Political Intelligence Department before going on to serve in the Political Adviser's Department in SHAEF in 1944-1945. In 1945-1946, Wheeler-Bennett assisted the British Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials.
Wheeler-Bennett's views on the German Resistance
As a member of the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department, he wrote on 25 July 1944 that:
- "It may now be said with some definiteness that we are better off with things as they are today than if the plot of July 20th had succeeded and Hitler had been assassinated... 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 [by the Gestapo] 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." (British National Archives file FO 371/39062)
Wheeler-Bennett's views on Germany and the German Resistance caused unease to some of his wartime colleagues, an internal February 1944 paper of his being condemned by Professor Thomas Marshall - of the Foreign Office Research Department - as a "vitriolic little paper" and "hardly worthy of its distinguished author." (British National Archives file FO 371/39137)
In 1945, Wheeler-Bennett married an American woman named Ruth Risher and settled after the war at Garsington Manor, near Garsington, United Kingdom. Despite his lack of university education and his status as a self-proclaimed amateur historian, Wheeler-Bennett was hired to teach International Relations at St. Antony's College and at New College at Oxford University after World War II from 1946-1950.
In 1946, the British Foreign Office appointed him the British editor-in-chief of the edition Documents on German Foreign Policy. This publication was based on the captured archive of the German Foreign Office that had fallen into British and American hands in April 1945. The project was terminated in 1959 as a tripartite project of British, American and French historians. The West Germans continued the document edition on a quadripartite basis under the title Akten zur deutschen Auswaertigen Politik. Beginning in 1947, Wheeler-Bennett convened a group that called itself the Joint Consultative Committee. Its self-defined task was to advise the British Foreign Office on all matters pertaining to captured German records. Wheeler-Bennett himself was adamantly opposed to returning any captured records to West Germany and used the committee accordingly.
He was appointed as official biographer of King George VI, after the King's death in 1952, producing a biography which appeared in 1958. Historian David Cannadine in History In Our Time criticised Wheeler-Bennett's book as "courtly and obsequious," the history "of an icon rather than of an individual," and a "sanitised sarcophagus."
The Nemesis of Power
Wheeler-Bennett was best known for The Nemesis of Power which documented the German Army's involvement in politics and reiterated Wheeler-Bennet's hostile views on the German Resistance. Foreign Office files, now in the British National Archives, reveal that Wheeler-Bennett attempted to prevent access, by other historians, to papers which did not support the views he expressed in The Nemesis of Power.
His thesis was that under von Seeckt's leadership during the Weimar period, the Reichswehr formed a "State within the State" that largely preserved its autonomy from the politicians in Berlin, but that it did not, however, play an active role in day-to-day politics.
After von Seeckt's downfall in 1926, which had been engineered by Schleicher, the Reichswehr became increasingly engaged in political intrigues. In Wheeler-Bennett's view, Schleicher was the "Gravedigger of the Weimar Republic" who succeeded in undermining democracy, but failed completely to build any sort of stable structure in its place. Thus by a mixture of cunning, intrigue and inept manoeuvres, Schleicher inadvertently paved the way for Adolf Hitler.
In the revised 1964 edition of The Nemesis of Power, Wheeler-Bennett continued his story right up to the July 20 Plot of 1944. He contended that under the leadership of Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch, the German Army chose to acquiesce in the Nazi regime as the kind of government best able to achieve what the Army wanted; namely a militarized society that would ensure in the next war that there would be no repeat of the “stab in the back”.
By agreeing to support the Nazi dictatorship, the Army tolerated a regime that quietly and gradually dismantled the “State within the state”. After Blomberg's and Fritsch's fall in 1938, the Army increasingly became just a tool of the Nazi regime rather than the independent actor that it had been before. Despite his hostility to the German generals, Wheeler-Bennett in the book acknowledged the courage of men such as Claus von Stauffenberg. Overall, he concluded that the conservative opposition within the Wehrmacht had done too little, too late to overthrow the Nazis.
Wheeler-Bennett's final decades
An Anglican, he enjoyed his life in the English countryside. From 1959 until his death, he worked as the Historical Adviser for the Royal Archives. He became founding chairman of the Ditchley Foundation, the Anglo-American conference group, in 1958. In 1972 he was elected to the British Academy.
He was a follower of the Great Man school of history and his writings usually explained historical events in terms of leading personalities of the given period. This view of history, together with his own conservative outlook, inclined him to make Winston Churchill a principal hero of his writings.
He was very well known in his lifetime and his interpretation of the role of the German Army influenced a number of British historians. However, he is somewhat neglected today.
- Information On The Reduction Of Armaments, with an introduction by Major-General Sir Neil L. Malcolm, 1925.
- Information On The Renunciation Of War, 1927-1928 with an introduction by Philip H. Kerr, 1928.
- The Wreck Of Reparations, Being The Political Background Of The Lausanne Agreement, 1932, 1932.
- Disarmament And Security Since Locarno 1925-1931; Being The Political And Technical Background Of The General Disarmament Conference, 1932, 1933.
- Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan, 1936.
- Brest-Litovsk : The Forgotten Peace, March 1918, 1938.
- Munich : Prologue To Tragedy, 1948.
- The Nemesis Of Power : The German Army In Politics, 1918-1945, 1953, revised edition 1964.
- King George VI, His Life And Reign, 1958.
- John Anderson, Viscount Waverley, 1962.
- A Wreath To Clio: Studies In British, American and German Affairs, 1967.
- Action This Day; Working With Churchill. Memoirs by Lord Norman Brook (And Others), edited with an introduction by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, 1968.
- The Pipe Dream Of Peace; The Story Of The Collapse Of Disarmament, 1971.
- The Semblance Of Peace : The Political Settlement After The Second World War, co-written by J. Wheeler-Bennett and Anthony Nicholls, 1972.
- The History Makers; Leaders And Statesmen Of The 20th century, edited by Lord Longford & Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, Chronologies and editorial assistance by Christine Nicholls, 1973.
- Knaves, Fools And Heroes In Europe Between The Wars, 1974.
- Special Relationships : America In Peace And War, 1975.
- Friends, Enemies, And Sovereigns, 1976
- Astrid M. Eckert, The Struggle for the Files. The Western Allies and the Return of German Archives after the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 85-94, 194-197, 205-210. ISBN 978-0521880183
- Bullock, Alan, "John Wheeler Wheeler-Bennett, 1902-1975 (Obituary)", Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 799-833.
- Cull, Nicholas. Selling War: The British Propaganda Against American "Neutrality" In World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Roberts, Frank (editor). Obituaries From The Times 1971-1975. Reading, UK: Newspaper Archive Developments, 1978.
- Schofield, Victoria. Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-300-17901-9.
- British National Archives: Foreign Office files.