A university figure that deserves far greater recognition is our first woman professor Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971), who held the Montague Burton Chair of International Relations from 1958 to 1961. Although her name is absent from subsequent published histories, the University Journal for May 1958 certainly grasped the significance of her arrival. Announcing ‘the first woman to be appointed to an Edinburgh Chair’, it presented her as ‘a writer of authority on international affairs’, who had held appointments as a ‘press attaché to the British Legation at Berne, as a correspondent of The Economist at Rome, and as Director of the Carnegie Peace Endowment for Trieste’.
While these are major achievements, her personal contribution to 20th-century history ran much deeper. From 1930, Wiskemann (whose grandfather was German) worked as a political journalist in Berlin for the New Statesman and other publications, and was among the first to warn of the dangers of Nazism. So effective were her articles in alerting international readers to the true nature of Hitler’s regime that she was expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1937. She continued to expose Nazi plans for German expansion in her influential books Czechs and Germans (1938) and Undeclared War (1939).
Wiskemann did indeed spend the war as a press attaché in Switzerland, but this was cover for her true job of secretly gathering non-military intelligence from Germany and occupied Europe via the contacts she had made as a journalist. In May 1944, British Intelligence learned that the hitherto unknown destination to which Hungarian Jews were being deported was Auschwitz. When the allies turned down a request to bomb the railway lines (due to limited resources), 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 continued to publish on German and Italian politics after the War. She was appointed to the Edinburgh Chair on the recommendation of William Norton Medlicott (1900-1987), Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, who described her as ‘a pleasant, active, middle-aged woman’ who would ‘be a very suitable choice’. 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. Click on the image, right, to see a handwritten list of lectures and discussion groups for 1961.
The Montague Burton Chair (endowed by Sir Maurice Montague Burton, founder of the men’s clothing chain) was a three-year appointment, at the end of which holders were eligible to apply for re-election. Wiskemann chose not to stand for re-election, much to the University Court’s dismay, as the Chair had proved difficult to fill. In a letter of 28 July 1960 (click right) 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.
Paul Barnaby, Centre for Research Collections