Elizabeth Wiskemann

Journalist, war-hero, first female professor.


Born in Sidcup, Kent on 13 August 1899, Wiskemann studied history at Newnham College, Cambridge before beginning a successful career as a journalist.

From 1930, she worked 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).


Although Wiskemann spent most of the war as a press attaché in Switzerland, 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 had a plan.

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.

University career

As the first female professor at the University of Edinburgh, Wiskemann held the Montague Burton Chair of International Relations from 1958 to 1961.

She 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.

The plaque

In honour of Elizabeth Wiskemann


Historian and first woman to hold a chair at the University.

Montague Burton Professor of International Relations (1958-1961)