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In celebration of Sir Heinz Koeppler’s 100th birthday

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By dxw

The 100th anniversary of Wilton Park founder Heinz Koeppler’s birth was recently commemorated by the planting of a tree in his honour at Wiston House, providing an opportunity to reflect on Wilton Park’s history and origins.

Heinz Koeppler was born on June 30th 1912 in the Polish territory of Posen, but grew up in Berlin, studying law and then history. As a German Jew, Koeppler was unable to follow an academic career further in Germany and in 1933 emigrated to England, where he undertook his doctorate at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1937, Koeppler became a naturalised British citizen and would remain for the entirety of his life a committed anglophile. This commitment to his adopted country’s war effort led to a commission at the Army Education Corps, teaching German to British troops, before joining the Political Intelligence Department (PID) as an Intelligence Officer in 1940.

In 1943, Koeppler was transferred to the Political Warfare Executive which dealt with propaganda and disinformation, broadcast to Germany from London. As a liaison officer between the BBC and the Political Intelligence Department, Koeppler was chiefly concerned with the nearly 40,000 words that were broadcast every 24 hours from London to Germany. Significantly Koeppler was also the secretary for a joint committee between the Foreign Office, the BBC and the Ministry of Information, tasked with preparing educational and information services to be set up after the war. It was in this context, between 1943 and 1944, that Koeppler came to construct the purpose and mission of what would become Wilton Park; as Koeppler put it, to allow men and women to “look at German problems from outside Germany.” Although the last of the PoWs left by the summer of 1948 Wilton Park continued in the same spirit of open dialogue and rapprochement.

Reflecting on his time at Wilton Park in 1966, Koeppler commented, in a statement which remains pertinent today, that ‘after 20 years, I am still not absolutely certain why busy, distinguished grown-up men and women should feel such a long-lasting attachment to an institution in which they have lived and worked for only a short time. Perhaps it is because there is more to Wilton Park than academic analysis. Perhaps political conversation and an understanding of other countries, are not just a science but an art.’

Sir Heinz Koeppler continued to run Wilton Park until his retirement in 1977.

 

Mary Jo Jacobi, Chair of the Sir Heinz Koeppler Trust, Richard Burge and Judith Kirby (niece of Heinz Koeppler)
Mary Jo Jacobi, Chair of the Sir Heinz Koeppler Trust, Richard Burge and Judith Kirby (niece of Heinz Koeppler)

 

Comments

David Gee says

My Aunt, Myrtle Gee, recently died and amongst her papers is a file labelled "W.E.A. Correspondence" which charts the creation, by Myrtle, of a branch of "The Workers Educational Association" in Beaconsfield and the contribution by its members to the work at Wilton Park encouraging discussion about the nature of democracy and other topics between members of the association (residents of Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) and German students at Wilton Park..

Responding to Myrtle's request to visit Wilton Park Dr Heinz writes in his reply of 18th March 1947 " ...we have with us now both German civilians brought over by Control Commission from Germany amongst them are editors, trade unionists, representatives of co-ops., local government officials and educationalists, and also prisoners of war"

Myrtle arranged a unique meeting between local civilians and the students of Wilton Park which was reported in the Bucks Free Press on April 11th 1947 :-

"Students of the Beaconsfield branch of the Workers Educational Association were joined by a number from High Wycombe on their visit to Wilton Park training camp, Beaconsfield on Tuesday when many interesting viewpoints, both economic and social, were exchanged. This is the first time that a party of civilians has visited the camp and Dr H. Koeppler, the principal, supervised the visit."

After the first of several meetings Dr Koeppler wrote a thank you letter to Myrtle at Hogback Cottage ......" Obviously it was a highly experimental undertaking but I feel as such it was very successful and a good contribution to our work...."

Myrtle went on to arrange other meetings, again involving correspondence with Dr Koeppler and others from Wilton Park. Myrtle contributes to an article in the “Wilton Park Magazine:-

Miss G. Gee. Hon Secretary, Beaconsfield Branch
Workers' Educational Association

As ordinary working members of the British public, very few of us know anything of Wilton Park beyond the fact that it was some sort of centre for the re-education of German PoW. When, therefore, our proposal that a group of members and students of The Beaconsfield and High Wycombe Branches of the W.E.A. might be allowed to visit the school to see something of the educational work being conducted there was accepted by Dr. Koeppler, and all the arrangements for our first meeting agreed, we could not help feeling vaguely apprehensive as to how the suggested exchange of views between the German students and ourselves work out in practice. Would the language difficulty prove insuperable? Would the Germans give their views freely or would they say what they considered we wanted to hear? How could we discern whether they were speaking the truth or not? Would the inevitable differences in outlook lead to deadlock, or would there be some agreement in principle? Could a meeting of two hours' duration prove useful and instructive to both sides, or would it just serve to stimulate cursory interest and leave a confused and a distorted impression in the minds of all concerned?

I think the main impression forced by the W.E.A. visitors at this first meeting was that the Germans were pathetically eager to learn - to make up for their previous lack of individual political and social thought. When the meeting came to a close with messages of goodwill on both sides, we found ourselves bombarded with questions on a variety of topics. We came to realise with great force how very remote from everyday social life these men were - they were absorbing a great deal of abstract theoretical knowledge but this was not linked with practical experiences. The prisoners had, at that time (April 1947) a certain amount of freedom of movement. They could, within limits, observe the British way of life, but they were puzzled and bewildered by much of what they saw. A great deal did not fit in with what they had read or heard, and this was confusing. We came to the conclusion that the exchange of views was of mutual benefit and decided that we should endeavour to visit Wilton Park at least once during each Course.

In the course of these meetings we found our first impression reinforced. The students were eager and anxious to hear what ordinary British men and women thought about the many social and political problems of the post-war world. Many of them seemed to find difficulty in comprehending, that we willingly understood study in our leisure hours for no apparent reason other than a desire to live fuller and more useful lives. We, in our turn, were agreeably surprised at the knowledge of British institutions and customs possessed by the Germans prisoners of war. In theoretical knowledge they often put us to shame, but it soon became evident that we had within us something which they lacked. We could illustrate our arguments with reality and give living examples of what were, to the younger Germans, theoretical principles only. As ordinary British citizens we had never really bothered to think very deeply about our rights and customs - we just took them for granted. Now, when brought face to face with individuals who had never known life except under a dictatorial regime, we were obliged to take stock of our position. We came to realise, as never before, the advantages we, as members of a democracy, had inherited, and came to feel that these very privileges put upon us a responsibility towards those less fortunate than ourselves.

It is often found that, in social activities of all kind, it is not only the direct and intended results which prove of value. The indirect, perhaps wholly unexpected results may have far-reaching and lasting effects, and this has, I think, been true of our visits to Wilton Park. We not only gained factual knowledge and exchanged views with our former enemies, but came to know at least a few of them as individuals. I believe quite a number of POWs received offers of hospitality as a result of contacts made at our meetings, and it is probably that these personal overtures led to deeper mutual understanding. Principles which are difficult to conceive as abstract theories can often be grasped very quickly when seen in practice and these factual impressions frequently have the most lasting effect.

To all former students of Wilton Park we would say "Keep alive the spirit of free discussion, so that never again may our two peoples be prevented by war from honest and free exchange of ideas."

I am writing in the hope that this file and its contents may be of interest to your archive. It occurs to me that as Myrtle’s meetings were the first to be conducted between British and German civilians and Prisoners of War that my Aunt’s initiative may have had some modest influence in the development of the work of Wilton Park?

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