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Response to Review of Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett

It never makes good reading when an author, pained at an unfavourable review, responds. But since you have asked me to comment on Dr Doug Munro’s review of Witness to History: the Life of John Wheeler-Bennett, I am making a few observations. What your reviewer has failed to appreciate is that my objective in writing Witness to History was to incorporate Wheeler-Bennett’s unpublished memoirs and papers donated to St Antony’s College (of which he was a Founder Fellow), with his published but selective three slim volumes of memoirs in order to give the reader a more complete one-volume description of Wheeler-Bennett’s life.

That I relied heavily on Wheeler-Bennett’s writings, both published and unpublished, was a natural outcome of this process, either by quoting directly or, as Dr Munro has indicated in tabular form, by accurate paraphrasing. Since alternative source material was sparse for certain periods of Wheeler-Bennett’s life, some sections were inevitably more dependent on his own account than others.         

Dr Munro mistakenly claims that I made no effort to consult Foreign Office archives. The relevant surviving Foreign Office documents are in The National Archives, Kew and these cited in the notes and bibliography. He also implies that I consulted virtually no other source material than Wheeler-Bennett’s own writings whereas, as again indicated by the sources listed in the bibliography, this is not the case. Where possible, such as with the controversy over Adam von Trott and the German Resistance to Hitler, I highlighted instances where Wheeler-Bennett’s own narrative of events required greater scrutiny. I also excluded descriptions of events which I could not authenticate. Where caution was required regarding factual accuracy, rather than constantly interrupting the narrative by corrective comments, I chose to detail these in the notes.

As Dr Munro himself suggests, in deciding the correct balance between analysing Wheeler-Bennett’s life and works ‘there will be opinions to every taste ’.  Since I was recreating a portrait of Wheeler-Bennett’s life, I chose a balance which I considered appropriate. The objective of citing the opinion of contemporary reviewers – both positive and negative – was to give an idea of how Wheeler-Bennett’s works were viewed at the time which, in turn, explained the foundation for his reputation. Listing those people whom Wheeler-Bennett thanked in his acknowledgements – which Dr Munro deemed ‘trivia’ – illustrates to the reader the source of the advice and support he received: for example, his early reliance on Lewis Namier or how he came to have his books published by Harold Macmillan.  Dr Munro also misquotes what I have written about Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan. If I chose not to elaborate further on the ‘Wooden Titan’ it was because, as Dr Munro points out, this is explained in Wheeler-Bennett’s biography of Hindenburg.          

The generally sympathetic tone in which the book is written is the result of the comments and recollections I found in other people’s works or from interviews I recorded with those who knew Wheeler-Bennett.  Finally, for a man such as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett about whom relatively little has been written, it seemed valid to give my own assessment in a concluding section, with which the reader is of course at liberty to differ. That Dr Munro disapproves so whole-heartedly of Witness to History: the Life of John Wheeler-Bennett when others have praised it, is an indication of how wide the spectrum of opinion on any published work can be.