MEANING AND ORIGIN
The phrase a riddle wrapped in (a) mystery inside an enigma and its variants (such as its shortened forms) denote a person, a fact, a situation, etc., that is difficult to comprehend.
This phrase was coined by the British statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then First Lord of the Admiralty, in a speech broadcast on the radio on Sunday 1st October 1939, in which he analysed the events of the first month of the Second World War.
On Wednesday 23rd August 1939, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR – led by Joseph Stalin1) and Germany (led by Adolph Hitler2) signed a non-aggression pact. They bound themselves in an agreement not to attack each other, and to divide Eastern Europe between them. As a result, German forces invaded Poland on Friday 1st September 1939, precipitating the Second World War.
1 Joseph Stalin (born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – 1879-1953) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1922 to 1953.
2 The Austrian-born Nazi leader Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) was the Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945.
This photograph was published in the Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) of Monday 2nd October 1939:
Nazi-Soviet “Peace or Else” Pact Signed at Moscow Parley
German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop3 is shown signing the Nazi-Soviet pact in Moscow which stated special spheres of influence for each in eastern Europe and placed the threat of Russia’s armed forces alongside the armies of the Reich. Standing left to right are: Soviet ambassador to Germany Alexander Shkhartzeff, Dictator Stalin (white coat), and Foreign Commissar Molotoff4. This picture was flown to Berlin, flashed to New York by radio then transmitted by phonephoto.
3 The German Nazi politician Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946) was the Foreign Minister of Germany from 1938 to 1945.
4 As Commissar, later Minister, for Foreign Affairs (1939-49), Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (born Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skryabin – 1890-1986) negotiated the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
THE PHRASE IN WINSTON CHURCHILL’S SPEECH
This is the passage from Churchill’s speech in which he used the phrase—as published in The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Monday 2nd October 1939:
What is the second event of this first month? It is, of course, the assertion of the power of Russia.
Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest. We could have wished that the Russian armies should be standing on their present line as the friends and allies of Poland instead of its invaders.
But that the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against a Nazi menace. At any rate, the line is there, and an Eastern Front has been created which Nazi Germany does not dare assail.
When Herr von Ribbentrop was summoned to Moscow last week it was to learn the fact and to accept the fact that the Nazi designs on the Baltic States and upon the Ukraine must come to a dead stop.
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.
It cannot be in accordance with the interests or safety of Russia that Nazi Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of South-Eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life interests of Russia.
CHURCHILL’S PHRASE WAS VARIOUSLY QUOTED
Winston Churchill was quoted as using:
– either a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma—by The Scotsman, for example;
– or a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—for example by the Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Monday 2nd October 1939:
The First Lord of the Admiralty made no attempt to don the mantle of prophet. In Russia’s intervention in Poland, and the course it has taken, he sees “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—a truly Churchillian phrase—and the key which he suggests is merely a certainty upon which many uncertainties hang.
Both a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma and a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma even appeared in the Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) of Monday 2nd October 1939.
Various misquotations appeared very soon. The following, for example, is from The Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA) of Monday 2nd October 1939:
What Russia is up to nobody knows. Winston Churchill called it “a riddle inside of a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”
This other misquotation is from Russia Still Is Mystery Land, by Clarence Ousley, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) of Sunday 22nd October 1939:
Russia, which Winston Churchill has aptly called “a puzzle within a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”
EARLIEST TRANSFERRED USES
A transferred use of the phrase (applied to “future developments in Europe”) appeared as early as Tuesday 3rd October 1939, in ‘Riddle Wrapped in Mystery’, an editorial published in the State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA):
That master of words, Mr. Winston Churchill, citing the uncertainty of Russia’s next move called it a “riddle wrapped in mystery inside of an enigma.”
As for Russia’s being “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside of an enigma,” we of the western hemisphere might remind ourselves that all Europe is much of an enigma at present. At this writing, Turkey is the particular riddle. Ankara might be favorably inclined toward Great Britain and France. But expediency might cause the capital to turn a listening ear toward Moscow, especially now that Soviet Russia has come into prestige. And in any general European conflict Turkey’s attitude is of great strategic importance, in view of that country’s virtual control over the Dardanelles.
There are other riddles which are keeping Europe and the world guessing just now. There is no certainty that the new friendship between Herr Hitler and Dictator Stalin is going to last. A clash of temperaments might upset the applecart. There is no sure prediction as to Italy. Despite diplomatic visits, Italy is perhaps doing some tall thinking these days. There is the Balkan problem, and that of all the smaller nations, doing their utmost to keep neutral.
Despite all the talk going on across the seas, future developments in Europe are pretty much of a “riddle wrapped in mystery inside of an enigma.” It is especially difficult for our western minds to comprehend this enigma. Certainly, it is so deep we would do well to keep out of it.
I have found a very early occurrence of the phrase used without reference to the historic context in which it was coined; it is from Star-Spangled Jean Guessed Right!, by Helen Harrison, published in The Scrantonian (Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA) of Sunday 5th November 1939—Helen Harrison gave an account of the life of Jean Van Voorhes Banks, “beauteous blonde daughter of the David Banks’ of Park Avenue and New London, Conn.”, who had just divorced her second husband, the British peer Henry Pelham-Clinton-Hope, Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme:
When Jean was married to her first husband, Jules R. Gimbernat, Jr., wealthy New York clubman, on August 27th, 1937, her future was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma!”
The earliest occurrence of a shortened form of the phrase that I have found is from The Winona Republican-Herald (Winona, Minnesota, USA) of Wednesday 26th June 1940:
Contests in Philadelphia.
As the Republican convention continues, its ultimate action remains a “riddle wrapped inside an enigma.”