Born in Vienna in 1922, the elder son of one of Austria’s leading Social Democrats between the wars, Julius Braunthal, Freddy traced his intellectual roots to that great pre-Holocaust generation whose language was German but whose outlook was profoundly European and cosmopolitan in the best sense of the term.
The first-born in the family was named Friedrich in honour of Friedrich Adler, a revered Austrian Socialist. He was thus registered as Friedrich Braunthal and grew up as a Viennese child and schoolboy together with his younger brother.
He had a happy childhood but the political events around him brutally changed that situation. Forced to flee with his father in 1935, he moved first to Brussels and then to London. At fourteen, Frederick had already learned some English in Vienna and had an idealised picture of English life from his childhood. He went to school in Wimbledon while his father sought work.
In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria which became part of Germany. The persecution of Jews began at once. Frederick’s mother managed to smuggle her own mother out of the country and into Belgium in the nick of time. Other members of the family and friends were not so lucky and later became victims of the Holocaust. So did political opponents of the Nazi regime, always the first to suffer arrest as soon as a country was occupied by the German army and the Gestapo (secret state police) moved in.
At the outbreak of War, Frederick was studying economics at LSE, evacuated to Cambridge, but in 1940 he was labelled as an “enemy alien” and interned to a camp in Canada for 10 months. He was eventually allowed to return to Britain to join the fight against Nazism. On joining the army in 1943, he changed his name to Frederick Bonnart.
He landed in Normandy on D+2, June 8, 1944, and part of his wartime duties involved crawling out ahead of the front line armed with microphone and loudspeaker to encourage German soldiers to surrender.
Bonnart’s unit eventually took part in the liberation of Brussels. He rarely recounted wartime tales, unless prompted, but friends recall him saying while retrieving his accreditation from some grandly appointed EU office that he had slept on the floor of that very building, exhausted in the aftermath of the advance. After the war he decided to remain in the Army, working in a variety of jobs at both the staff and operational level. Colleagues from those days noted his pleasure in riding; some of the German barracks taken over by the British retained well-stocked stables.
He became a British citizen in 1947.
Bonnart finally retired from the Army as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Signals in November 1972.
Settling in Brussels, he determined to embark upon a new career in journalism, specialising in defence and strategic matters — a path that brought together the benefits of a lifetime of military service and a sharp intelligence and an acute, inquiring mind. He earned his bread and butter from specialist publications but his analysis was brought to a wider audience by his frequent contributions in the broadsheet press, not least in the pages of The Times and The International Herald Tribune. He was also frequently heard as an analyst on the BBC World Service.
Not a Nato conference, not one of the great events through which the Alliance passed in recent years, was missed by Bonnart’s opinion pieces. Fair to all sides, reasoned and politically far from predictable, he chronicled Nato’s changing fortunes in the post-Cold War world. When asked by a journalist at one press conference for an explanation of some particular aspect of the strategic debate, the then Nato Secretary-General then, Javier Solana, responded: “I suggest you read the piece by Freddy Bonnart in this morning’s Herald Tribune.”
What marked Bonnart out was his interest in principled debate. His analysis was often sharp but his writing was never cruel, and he remained courteous and courtly.
With no family of his own Bonnart determined his own legacy; a series of grants for students — the Bonnart-Braunthal Scholarship — aimed at tackling the causes and consequences of intolerance.
Frederick Bonnart, soldier and defence journalist, was born on August 27, 1922. He died on April 23, 2008, aged 85.
The Trustees are very grateful to Freddy’s brother, Tom Barry Braunthal, who provided information on Freddy’s early life, and Jonathan Marcus, Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC World Service, on whose obituary in the Times of 10th May 2008 the second part of this biography is based.