SSEES alumna Katya Kocourek recounts the story of Doreen Warriner.
Although only in her 30's at the time of the Munich Agreement (29 September 1938), Doreen Warriner, an academic at the School between 1938 and 1966, interrupted her academic activities for what she felt was a worthwhile cause. Her voluntary work, helping refugees escape from Czechoslovakia, earned her an OBE.
Warriner was born into a farming family at the beginning of a tumultuous twentieth century. By the time war clouds had started to gather on Europe’s horizon in the late 1930s, she was running a farm. This became a fillip for her overarching research interest in land reform and peasant farming during an illustrious career, which began at the School in 1938, when she was appointed an Honorary Lecturer in economics.
Something of a character, who believed in open-mindedness and intellectual precision, she was held in high regard by her colleagues as a first-rate teacher. She helped run several notable courses – one of these, relating to peasant problems, with the School’s leading Quaker historian of late medieval Central Europe, Reginald R. Betts.
Warriner was certainly no stranger to Eastern European climes. Her first main visit to the region was to Russia, Moscow, in 1935. However, creeping totalitarianism on the other side of Europe ushered in winds of change in her own academic outlook. In the autumn of 1938 she was one of a handful of women historians to show a keen interest in the political fall-out from the Munich Agreement, at which Czechoslovakia was betrayed by the Western Powers in collusion with Herr Hitler.
Alongside Elizabeth Wiskemann —a fellow British citizen also attached to Chatham House in London —Warriner expressed interest in the nationality question within the multi-ethnic Czechoslovak state. Unlike Wiskemann, however, Warriner did not necessarily sympathise openly with Czech grievances, and turned instead to a humanitarian cause focused on the swelling ranks of refugees.
Upon arriving in Prague on 13 October 1938, as she herself recalled with “no definite object”, Warriner came into contact with the first of five most main endangered groups at that time, whose positions had become untenable as a result of the Reich’s pending annexation of the Sudetenland – German Social Democrats (SPD), the Nazis’ worst political enemies. Via the Society of Friends, Warriner was introduced to the SPD’s leading figure, Wenzl Jaksch, who inspired her interest in political refugees.
Warriner not only arranged for several large groups of SPDs to escape the ill-fated country, she personally accompanied them on trains headed out of Czechoslovakia via Slovakia and Poland, before heading back again, more often than not alone in the early hours of the morning, to her lodgings in Prague. In this, whether unwittingly or not, she laid the ground-work for a more significant chapter of wartime history – the evacuation of Jewish children.
In her new-found role as the lead figure in the Prague office of BCRC (the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia), it was Warriner who alerted the attention of the now famed British humanitarian, Nicholas Winton, to the plight of refugee children. As she recalled, in January 1939, there were “queues to see her”, desperate parents trying to ensure the safe passage of their children abroad. Although in her own words she was “relying on him [Winton] to organise the chaos”, Warriner had already by this point made a significant contribution to the major humanitarian effort underway — a far cry from the “soup kitchens” she had vaguely imagined herself working in shortly after arriving in Prague.
In spite of her modesty, Warriner was not an unsung hero, and was awarded an OBE in January 1941. After another stint of voluntary work, albeit this time in Yugoslavia and Cairo, she was appointed to a full-time lecturership at SSEES in 1947.
Warriner’s legacy only partly lies in her academic work, in which she took great pride, similarly to her voluntary work. Her book The Economics of Peasant Farming still retains its value. She published and edited numerous volumes in the post-war years, which in 1965 earned her a professorship at the School, shortly before her retirement one year later.
Educated at the universities of Oxford (St Hugh’s College and Somerville) and the London School of Economics, Warriner’s academic temperament was shaped by a conservative spirit typical of the inter-war and immediate post-war years. However, her outlook was far from stuffy or introspective. As her own personal experiences in war-torn Europe demonstrate, she was a very modern woman, ahead of her time. She died in 1972.
By Katya Kocourek (BA, History, SSEES, 1999; MPhil, St Antony’s College, Oxon, 2001; PhD, UCL SSEES, 2009)