Where Color Led

Yale University Press promises that Witness to History “will fascinate anyone interested in the great political figures of world history during the twentieth century.”  On this book’s back cover, Alistair Horne hails John Wheeler-Bennett as “a gifted historian . . . one of the outstanding, though unsung, certainly unrepeatable Britons of his age.”

It is an academic publisher’s job to drum up interest in its latest addition to a world up to its oxters in academic books, and Sir Alistair is entitled to his views.  Yet the reader immediately wonders why Wheeler-Bennett is “unsung.”  Is this a fluke of fate or fad, or is there some profounder reason?  Perhaps even dullness?  The word witness also conveys coolness, passivity—the opposite of engagement, let alone the fascination guaranteed by Yale.  So even before we have opened the volume, we have a faint sense of deflation, dénouement before the fact—as if we are about to meet a Mr. Dryasdust, someone about whom a biographer has felt duty-bound rather than determined to write.

But there is no reason why it should be this way.  Wheeler-Bennett was a formidably intelligent chronicler of his too-exciting century, the ultimate insider who saw many of its pivotal moments at first hand (and even helped to facilitate some).  No mere witness,...

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