10 September 2018

Andre Liebich on Wickham Steed, “Greatest Journalist of His Times”

Professor Andre Liebich has written the first biography of Wickham Steed (Peter Lang, July 2018), who was a seminal figure within the media and political worlds of both Britain and Europe during the earlier half of the twentieth century. His book provides the reader with fresh insights into both British domestic politics and high society and the international diplomacy of a particularly turbulent era, as the author explains below.

Why did you choose to write the biography of a journalist, and especially that of Wickham Steed?

I came across Steed when doing research on the Czechoslovak case for independence during World War I. The literature was replete with references to Steed’s important role and his relations with Masaryk, later the first president of Czechoslovakia. It turned out that Steed’s papers were one floor up in the British Library where I was working at the time and, after having taken a look at them, I found him a fascinating character. I made a mental note to do further work on Steed sometime in the future. I spent a sabbatical in Oxford in 2010, which turned out to be an ideal place to do further research on Steed and his English environment, a subject that was unfamiliar to me as a specialist in Central and Eastern Europe.

What made him so fascinating?

Steed was a Germanophobe and a Francophile, although he knew both German and French perfectly. This was an unpopular position in the England of his time which prided itself (then and now) on staying aloof from the continent and deigning only to see an affinity between itself and “Germanic” peoples rather than the hopelessly decadent Latins. Contemporary comments upon Steed’s impressive appearance, prodigious command of foreign languages, extraordinary network of connections in high places, are mixed with references to his self-righteousness, self-importance and other unsavoury traits. Steed was, indeed, a paradoxical personality of a liberal outlook and conservative disposition, deeply sympathetic to some European realities, vehemently hostile to others. He was also torn by complex personal relationships that aroused diplomatic comment. Such ambiguities may explain why Wickham Steed was lionised abroad but denounced as “Wicked Steed” at home. British contemporaries acknowledged his brilliance but poked fun at the polyglot and raconteur, voicing suspicion of his continental stature and sympathies. Steed, the veteran insider abroad, remained an outsider at home. He received honorary doctorates from foreign universities but never accepted any state distinctions.

You say that he exerted significant influence on his times through journalism, diplomacy and academia. Can you specify?

Steed was the editor-in-chief of The Times, in those years seen as the voice of Britain. He was also the first editor-in-chief of The Times not to have attended an English public school or Oxford. Previously, he had been instrumental through his writings in overcoming the favourable view of the Austro-Hungarian Empire held by many of his contemporaries and in bringing about the creation of new states in Central Europe after the First World War. After having left The Times, he was an early opponent of appeasement and, during the Second World War, he directed the predecessor of BBC's World Service.

Is this link between academy, media and diplomacy still a reality today?

More than ever! One only needs to look at the “revolving door”, most noticeable in the United States today, whereby former diplomats find themselves in influential think tanks or professorial positions and one cannot but take note of the importance of the media, in its various guises, in shaping public opinion, for better or for worse.

Full citation of the biography:
Liebich, Andre. Wickham Steed: Greatest Journalist of His Times. Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien: Peter Lang, 2018. doi:10.3726/b13426.

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Front picture: Henry Wickham Steed, by Charles Haslewood Shannon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.