Nicholas Rankin, |
Telegram from Guernica
(Faber & Faber, 2003)
As a war correspondent in the 1930s, George Steer took sides. He was one of the first to see the 20th century's most fearsome war machines used against civilian populations. He took a stand against colonialism and fascism.
Steer later became a propagandist for the British army in Africa and Asia before his untimely death. The fearless writer, who was in more dangerous situations in 10 years than most people in a lifetime, died in a freak vehicle accident in India just before the war ended.
Nicholas Rankin investigates the South African-born journalist's short life in Telegram from Guernica. Rankin uses the prolific Steer's writings between about 1935 and 1944, including six books, hundreds of news stories and letters to family and friends, to show the extraordinary life of this war correspondent in the volatile period before World War II.
Steer's career as a journalist spanned three fronts, where underdogs fought valiantly against the great powers. His sympathy with the Ethiopians, the Basques and the Finns, all facing incredible odds in their struggles, is passionate. Steer then threw his energies into helping Britain win the war through a brilliant propaganda campaign. Rankin deftly evokes these struggles and Steer's role in them.
George Steer has two claims to fame: Besides being the father of modern military propaganda, he was involved in breaking the largest news story of the Spanish Civil War, that of the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica (Gernika), which was later made famous by Pablo Picasso's painting. On the day of the attack, Steer happened to be driving in the vicinity and had to dive into a huge crater to escape air attacks by planes on the way to Guernica. The next day, he returned to the area and did a full investigation of the atrocities.
He also witnessed the fall of the Basque city of Bilbao to dictator Francisco Franco. He was close to the Basque government, for whom he has a high level of esteem and sympathy. While the rest of Spain was under the control of either the left or the right, the Basque country, Steer says, was a model of democracy and restraint. Yet this model democracy was all but abandoned by the Western powers. When Steer died, he was found wearing a watch that was a gift "to Steer from the Basque Republic," from the President of Euskadi, Jose Antonio Aguirre.
Steer also a close friend of Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie, who he helped return to power. He had been there when the Italians invaded Ethiopia (Abyssinia) with the intent to colonize the last African-run country. He saw the victims of gas. Later, in one of the first Allied victories, Steer's propaganda machine helped drive the Italians out of Ethiopia, and then Steer helped ensure it would remain independent rather than become an English colony.
Steer also wrote about the heroic struggle of the newly independent Finns against the Soviet Union -- skis against tanks. "The Finnish troops had white uniforms and cloaks and flitted like ghosts on hissing skis," Rankin writes. The Finns were forced to give up territory but had 58,000 dead and wounded as opposed to hundreds of thousands of Russians. He notes that British planes and equipment were sent to help in the relief of Finland, and speculates that even a quarter of that aid would have helped the Basques or Ethiopians to fight off the fascists.
For those interested in discovering the unknown corners of modern history, this is a great read. Rankin, an able writer, has evident sympathy for Steer. To learn more about World War Two and its prologues, you couldn't have a better guide than George Steer, as illuminated by Nicholas Rankin. If it was happening, Steer was there.