On Noel Annan (1916–2000)

Noel Annan, who contributed more than one hundred articles to these pages, was a wonderfully gifted and energetic writer, scholar, and administrator who claimed that any able person should be able to manage two full-time jobs simultaneously. He often did more. Noel was one of the few figures in English public life known simply by his first name. There was no mistaking him for anyone else.

In what to me is his most instructive, and funniest, book, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany (1996), an account of his life during his twenties when he was very near the top of Allied intelligence during World War II, he recalled—as applicable to himself—Tyndall’s translation of the Bible: “The Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie feloe.”

Choosing Tyndall’s translation says something about Noel’s sensitivity to language. His modesty, however, while charming, was unwarranted. At twenty-six he was a lieutenant-colonel in the British army handling some of the darkest secrets of the war. He was asked to help decide such questions as whether Hitler would invade Russia and whether Allied bombing was slowing the German war machine. Still very young, his German fluent, he had much to do with choosing Adenauer rather than the Socialist leader Kurt Schumacher as the man to lead Germany out of fascism and toward democracy. He admired Schumacher: “He was the sort of man whom intellectuals understand: very pure, very fierce, unwilling to compromise with the truth as he saw it…. I felt affection for him because I saw that he was doomed to defeat…. In my mind’s eye I see myself smiling and grasping Schumacher’s hand…while to Adenauer I bowed in respect and admiration.”

All his life Noel understood that justice and right existed uneasily together. He wrote that justice stands “in the jar of the door which separates right and wrong.” It was useless to subject the Germans to “continual acts of self-humiliation…. The Western powers had to trust the German people to display some political sense.” He saw Adenauer not only as the right man for the ultimate German job, but also as “cunning, sometimes ruthless, always an authoritarian…conscious of his goals and above all a man of limitless patience…an old man not in a hurry.”

As for Churchill, he wrote, he was “a fascinator: but few have been more inconsiderate to those who served him or more ungrateful to friends who stood by him when he was in exile.” And yet, for those who were young and worked under him, Noel concluded, Churchill was one of those men who “remain heroic figures, and their defects pale because they were then, and still appear, larger than life, men who enjoyed, as well as responded to, their call to destiny.”

The last part of that description could be applied to Noel himself. Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, when he was thirty-nine, he went on to head University College, London, become the first full-time vice-chancellor of the University of London, chairman of…

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