Wiskemann, Elizabeth Meta (1899–1971)

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Wiskemann, Elizabeth Meta (1899–1971)

English historian, journalist, and educator . Born in Sidcup, Kent, England, on August 13, 1899; committed suicide on July 5, 1971, in London, England; daughter of Heinrich Odomar Hugo Wiskemann (a merchant) and Emily Myra (Burton) Wiskemann; educated at Notting Hill High School; awarded a first class degree in history from Newnham College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 1921; Newnham College, M.Litt. in history, 1927; never married; no children.

Journalist and historian of international renown; forecasted the impending Nazi threat in articles for the New Statesman in the years up to World War II; gathered intelligence against Germany during World War II; held Montague Burton chair as professor of history, Edinburgh University (1958–61); granted honorary doctorate from Cambridge University (1965).

Selected writings:

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 Zürcher Zeitung (1959); Europe of the Dictators (1966); The Europe I Saw (1968); Fascism in Italy (1969); Italy since 1945 (1971).

Elizabeth Meta Wiskemann was born in Kent, England, in 1899, the youngest child of Heinrich Wiskemann, a German immigrant and merchant, and Emily Burton Wiskemann . Elizabeth attended Notting Hill High School in London and pursued both undergraduate and graduate degrees at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she earned the honor of a first class degree in history in 1921 and later completed a master's degree in history in 1927. She had tried for a doctorate but felt that examiner bias caused her to receive only the master's degree; the experience left her distrustful of academia.

In 1930, Wiskemann left England for Berlin, occasionally returning to teach at Cambridge. While in Berlin, Wiskemann swiftly grasped the German political situation and discovered a strong fascination for European politics. As a correspondent for the New Statesman, she published magazine articles on German affairs and commentaries that warned of the growing menace of Hitler and Nazism. Her articles, informed by numerous German and British contacts, were so successful in their targeting of the Hitler regime that the Gestapo expelled her from the country in July 1936.

When she returned to Britain in 1937, Wiskemann earned a commission from the Royal Institute of International Affairs to explore the problem of Germans in Czechoslovakia. Her expertise in German affairs led to her first two books: Czechs and Germans (1938) and Undeclared War (1939). When the war began, her observations and predictions largely came to pass, and her standing as a journalist and scholar of the region was augmented as a result.

During World War II, Wiskemann lived in Berne, Switzerland, and worked as the assistant press attaché to the British legation from 1941 through 1945, responsible for collecting non-military intelligence from Germany and the countries it had conquered. Following the war, she moved to Rome, where she had previously developed strong ties, thanks to a network of friends from the Italian Resistance whom she met while in Berne. Serving as an occasional Rome correspondent to The Economist, she also published Italy (1947), The Rome-Berlin Axis (1949), and Germany's Eastern Neighbors (1956). The Rome-Berlin Axis, about the relationship between Hitler and Benito Mussolini, provided many scholars a point of departure for their own research. In homage to her time in Switzerland, she later wrote A Great Swiss Newspaper, the Story of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1959).

Wiskemann's growing reputation as an insightful and lucid scholar led to further opportunities for teaching. From 1958 to 1961, she held the Montague Burton chair as professor of international relations at Edinburgh University. She then tutored in modern European history at Sussex University from 1961 to 1964. Oxford University acknowledged her contributions to European historical study with an honorary doctorate in 1965. She continued to write books, including Europe of the Dictators (1966), Fascism in Italy (1969), and Italy Since 1945 (1971). Wiskemann wrote her memoirs in 1968's The Europe I Saw, but the book reportedly disappointed friends, who felt that her personal manner, which often included acrid opinions on the personages she knew, did not translate well in the final product. When her eyesight began to fail in her final years, she felt that she could not live with the reduced freedoms and prohibition from reading that blindness would inflict and committed suicide on July 5, 1971.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Contemporary Authors. Vol. 111. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1984.

The Dictionary of National Biography, 1971–1980. Ed. by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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