Mark Wheeler obituary

Other lives: Historian of Yugoslavia and adviser to Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia-Herzegovina

My friend and mentor Mark Wheeler, who has died aged 74, was a great scholar of Yugoslavia. After a distinguished academic career, he became political adviser to Paddy Ashdown in his role as high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina and was official historian of the Special Operations Executive in Yugoslavia, a secret British espionage group during the second world war, appointed by Margaret Thatcher.

Mark was born in Chicago, son of Earl Wheeler, a pilot in the US navy, and Barbara (nee Schmager), a window dresser. He attended Ramapo regional high school in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and studied history at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1970. He arrived with fellowships and scholarships to do a PhD at Cambridge.

In 1975 he became a lecturer in the European and Central and South European studies departments at the University of Lancaster, where he was an inspirational figure.

Thanks in part to his authoritative book, Britain and the War for Yugoslavia (1980), Thatcher appointed him official historian of the Special Operations Executive in Yugoslavia, a division of Britain’s secret second world war activity. His Cambridge tutor, FH “Harry” Hinsley, had been involved in another part of the secret war effort, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.

When finances and university politics closed departments at Lancaster, in 1983 Mark moved to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London, now part of UCL. He was there during the collapse of Yugoslavia and the years of war, engaged and commentating in news media and policy circles. He became disillusioned with academic life, though, leaving SSEES in 1994, and sought to make a practical difference, working with NGOs and international organisations, including HelpAge in Croatia and Bosnia from 1994 to 1996, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, and as Bosnia director for the International Crisis Group for two years.

In 2003 he became political adviser to Lord Ashdown, then international high representative. This was a halcyon period of progress in post-conflict Bosnia, which Mark found hugely rewarding. Disillusioned, though, after four years with the set-up after Ashdown, Mark retired in 2010 and left Bosnia, donating around 5,000 books to a university library.

He had no intention of returning to the US; he was a committed anglophile who nonetheless never sought British citizenship, and settled in Wiveliscombe, Somerset. He continued to edit articles, theses and books. He was a reviewer for the EEPS journal. He volunteered with a charity that connects young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with mentors.

He is survived by his daughter, Lily, and son, Harry, from his marriage to Sheila (nee O’Mahony), which ended in divorce, and by his sisters, Carol and Mary Jane, and brother, Todd.

• This article was amended on 24 July 2022 to make it clear that Harry Hinsley was involved with Bletchley Park rather than the Special Operations Executive.

James Gow

The GuardianTramp

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