Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971)

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Elizabeth Meta Wiskemann (1899-1971) was Edinburgh University's first woman professor, holding the Montague Burton Chair of International Relations from 1958-1961.

Early Years

Wiskemann was born in Sidcup, Kent, to a German father and English mother. After schooling in London, she read history at Cambridge, graduating in 1921 and going on to study for a Ph.D. on Napoleon III and the Roman question. She was deeply disappointed to gain only a MLitt for her doctoral dissertation thwarting initial hopes of an academic career.

Wiskemann and the Rise of Nazism

In 1930, Wiskemann went to Berlin as a journalist, where she witnessed the rise of Hitler and developed a passionate interest in German politics. She was one of the first British journalists to realize the threat posed by Nazism, writing influential articles in the New Statesman and other journals warning of the imminent danger to international peace. Such was the impact of her writing that she was expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1936. She nonetheless continued reporting on political developments from other parts of central Europe. In 1938, she published her first book, Czechs and Germans, the result of a commission from the Royal Institute of International Affairs to study the crisis arising from the presence of a large ethnic German population in Czechoslovakia. Her second book, Undeclared War, which appeared the following year, was a further exposé of Nazi ambitions in central and eastern Europe. With the coming of war, the accuracy of Wiskemann’s forecast greatly enhanced her reputation as a journalist and political analyst.

Second World War

Wiskemann officially spent the Second World War as an assistant press attaché to the British Legation in Switzerland. This, in fact, was cover for her real task of collecting non-military intelligence from Germany and occupied Europe. In this capacity, she played a major role in halting the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. When, in May 1944, British Intelligence first discovered the true destination of the trains transporting Hungarian Jews, Allied Command turned down a request to bomb the railway lines (due to limited resources). At this point, Wiskemann hit on a cunning ploy. Knowing that it would be seen by Hungarian intelligence, she deliberately sent an unencrypted telegram to the Foreign Office in London. This contained the addresses of the offices and homes of the Hungarian government officials best positioned to halt the deportations and suggested that they be targeted in a bombing raid. When, quite coincidentally, several of these buildings were hit in a US raid on 2 July, the Hungarian government leapt to the conclusion that Wiskemann’s telegram had been acted upon and put an end to the deportations. Wiskemann's war-time exploits have recently been fictionalized by the Swiss author Peter Kamber in his novel Geheime Agentin (Secret Agent) (2010).

Wiskemann and Edinburgh

At war's end, Wiskemann returned to journalism, increasingly specializing in Italian politics, building on ties that she had established with the Italian Resistance while working in Switzerland. The Rome-Berlin Axis (1949), a study of the relations between Hitler and Mussolini, saw her establish a reputation as a historian in academic circles. This was reinforced by Germany's Eastern Neighbours (1956), an analysis of the problem of Germany's eastern borders. She was thus a strong candidate when the Montague Burton Chair of International Relations at Edinburgh University fell vacant in 1958. Wiskemann was appointed for an initial three-year period on the recommendation of William Norton Medlicott (1900-1987), Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. Lectures by previous holders of the Chair had been poorly attended as they formed part of no degree course. Wiskemann, however, did much to boost the profile of her post by inviting national and international experts to lead discussion groups on issues of the day. The focus of her own teaching increasingly moved away from European issues to developments in post-colonial Africa.

Wiskemann chose not to stand for re-election to the Chair, much to the University Court’s dismay, as it had proved difficult to fill. In a letter of 28 July 1960, Wickemann explained that deteriorating eyesight, exacerbated by a recent unsuccessful operation, had led to her decision. Tragically, this condition would eventually lead Wiskemann to take her own life in 1971. Wiskemann went on to work as a tutor in modern European history at Sussex University (1961-1964). She published three further major works in the last decade of her life, Europe of the Dictators (1966), The Europe I Saw (1968), Fascism in Italy (1969), followed, posthumously, by Italy Since 1945 (1971).


In 1965 Wiskemann received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. Her status as Edinburgh's first woman professor is honoured by a plaque in George Square on the university's Arts campus.