Re­assert­ing the truth of Guer­nica

De­spite new film writ­ing SA news­man out of his­tory the town still hon­ours him, writes AN­DREW DON­ALD­SON

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

IT WAS a South African jour­nal­ist who first brought to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion the full hor­ror of the fire­bomb­ing of Guer­nica dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War – and that Adolf Hitler’s Luft­waffe had at­tacked the de­fence­less Basque town to “field test” their grow­ing war ma­chine ahead of the Nazis’ blitzkrieg plans for Europe.

Ge­orge Steer’s report, which ap­peared in The Times of Lon­don and the New York Times on April 28. 1937, out­raged the world by re­veal­ing the dirty se­cret that the Nazis were deeply in­volved in the con­flict, fight­ing along­side the Fas­cists against the Repub­li­cans.

More than 1 500 towns­folk, mainly women and chil­dren, had been killed in the at­tack, which came in waves last­ing more than three hours. Many, Steer re­ported, were gunned down by fighter planes as they fled from the town.

A French ver­sion of Steer’s ac­count, car­ried in l’Hu­man­ité, also had a gal­vanis­ing ef­fect on Pablo Pi­casso who, in a burst of cre­ativ­ity, re­sponded with his mas­ter­piece Guer­nica, as a tes­ta­ment to the suf­fer­ing of his coun­try­men.

A ma­jor English-lan­guage film has now been made about the in­fa­mous raid and its af­ter­math. A joint Amer­i­can-Span­ish pro­duc­tion, Gernika (the Basque spell­ing), is set for re­lease next year.

Although his story is cen­tral to Basque di­rec­tor Koldo Serra’s film, Steer is cu­ri­ously ab­sent. In his place is a some­what jaded Amer­i­can re­porter called Henry.

In the film, Henry – played by Bri­tish ac­tor James D’Arcy, last seen in the BBC se­ries, Broad­church – be­comes in­volved with Teresa, a dis­il­lu­sioned fe­male govern­ment press of­fice edi­tor played by the Span­ish ac­tress, Maria Valverde. She, in turn, is be­ing courted by Va­syl, a Stal­in­ist ap­pa­ratchik played by Jack Daven­port.

“Henry will have char­ac­ter traits of Ge­orge Steer, Ernest Hem­ing­way and (le­gendary war pho­tog­ra­pher) Robert Capa,” Serra told the trade pub­li­ca­tion Va­ri­ety. “And while there will be con­sid­er­ably large, dra­matic war se­quences, the story is, at heart, an in­ti­mate one. Hope­fully, it feels like Casablanca.”

The film’s poster fea­tures a fall­ing bomb cov­ered in newsprint against a back­drop of war­planes in a red sky. Its tagline, with no ev­i­dent trace of irony, reads: “In love and war the first ca­su­alty is truth”.

While it may have been a mar­ket­ing de­ci­sion by the pro­duc­ers to cast Gernika’s pro­tag­o­nist as an Amer­i­can, it does the in­trepid Steer some dis­ser­vice, for he was fiercely proud of his African roots.

Ge­orge Lowther Steer was born in 1909 in East Lon­don, where his fa­ther was man­ag­ing edi­tor and later chair­man of the Daily Dis­patch. He was 11 when he was sent to con­tinue his ed­u­ca­tion in Eng­land, where he won schol­ar­ships to both pub­lic school and Ox­ford.

In Tele­gram from Guer­nica (2003), Steer’s bi­og­ra­pher Ni­cholas Rankin writes that he was non­plussed about his new up­per-class sur­round­ings; his school, Winch­ester Col­lege, re­ported the young Steer “showed a colo­nial dis­re­gard for the con­ven­tions of this coun­try”. In early 1931, Steer helped to found Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Africa So­ci­ety.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he re­turned to South Africa and served his ba­sic ap­pren­tice­ship in jour­nal­ism at the Cape Ar­gus from 1932 to 1933. Then back to Bri­tain where he worked in the Fleet Street of­fices of the York­shire Post. In May 1935, The Times hired Steer as a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent to cover Ben­ito Mus­solini’s in­va­sion of Ethiopia.

Steer’s sym­pa­thies lay firmly with the Ethiopi­ans and he re­ported the real rea­son the in­vaders had pur­sued a cam­paign of at­tack­ing in­ter­na­tional Red Cross tar­gets: “It was meant to clear for­eign wit­nesses out of the way while il­le­gal meth­ods of war were be­ing used by the Ital­ians.”

This in­cluded the use of chem­i­cal weapons against civil­ians.

In­ter­est­ingly, while Steer was well re­garded by col­leagues, his front­line dis­patches greatly irked one par­tic­u­lar cor­re­spon­dent in Ad­dis Ababa – the nov­el­ist Eve­lyn Waugh, who was cov­er­ing the con­flict for the pro-fas­cist Daily Mail and who dis­missed Steer as “a zeal­ous young colo­nial re­porter” op­posed to the Ital­ians’ “civil­is­ing” African mis­sion.

Rankin be­lieves Waugh may have been jeal­ous of Steer, whose ed­u­ca­tion was grander than his own. Steer had grad­u­ated with a “dou­ble first” in clas­sics, while Waugh had scraped through with a third class hon­ours in his­tory.

Waugh would later waspishly com­ment on Steer’s “affin­ity” for the Ethiopi­ans, “like him­self African born, who had mem­o­rised so many of the facts of Euro­pean ed­u­ca­tion with­out ever par­tic­i­pat­ing in Euro­pean cul­ture”.

Waugh’s own feel­ings on the Ethiopi­ans were rather tellingly re­vealed in a let­ter to the so­cialite and ac­tress Diana Cooper, in which he ex­pressed a hope that the “or­gan­men”, or Ital­ians, “gas them to bug­gery”. He went on to por­tray the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36 as farce in his satir­i­cal novel, Scoop.

Steer, on the other hand, re­garded the Ital­ians’ colo­nial am­bi­tions as a ter­ri­ble tragedy – one that he saw re­peated two years later at Guer­nica.

He was one of five cor­re­spon­dents who en­tered the town hours af­ter the air raid. Un­like the oth­ers, how­ever, Steer did not rush off to file a report on the at­tack – but hung back for a day to de­ter­mine who was re­spon­si­ble. Sift­ing through the rub­ble, he found un­ex­ploded in­cen­di­ary bombs – com­plete with mark­ings iden­ti­fy­ing the Ger­man fac­to­ries where they were made. He in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of sur­vivors to iden­tify the types of air­craft in­volved in the raid as Junkers and Heinkel bombers. The town, he re­ported, had been at­tacked by the Con­dor Le­gion, Nazi vol­un­teers sup­port­ing the rebel Na­tion­al­ists against the demo­crat­i­cally elected Span­ish Repub­li­cans.

The Ger­mans were fu­ri­ous. They de­nied ev­ery­thing. Hitler can­celled an in­ter­view with The Times’s Ber­lin cor­re­spon­dent, who later wrote to his edi­tor: “The Ger­man pa­pers have been very sav­age about The Times, in fact worse than at any pe­riod I re­mem­ber. The lat­est dis­cov­ery is that if you spell it back­wards, it spells SEMIT, which leads them to de­duce we are a Jewish-Marxist or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

Guer­nica be­came the fo­cus of an in­tense pro­pa­ganda war. At first, it was ten­ta­tively sug­gested Guer­nica had been a le­git­i­mate mil­i­tary tar­get, but this was prob­lem­atic as the ac­knowl­edg­ment of any bomb­ing led to awk­ward ques­tions about Ger­man in­volve­ment in the Span­ish con­flict. A more stan­dard tac­tic was then rig­or­ously adopted: blame the vic­tims. The Na­tion­al­ists were now claim­ing that, be­fore evac­u­at­ing Guer­nica, “the en­emy . . . sprayed petrol on the build­ings” and torched the town them­selves in a bid to win in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy.

Pi­casso, mean­while, was hav­ing none of this. Steer’s ac­count of the raid had bro­ken a cre­ative block that had paral­ysed the artist ever since he’d ac­cepted a com­mis­sion some four months ear­lier to pro­duce a work for the Span­ish pav­il­ion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Fu­elled by rage, he be­gan work­ing on the 3.5m by 7.75m can­vas on May 1.

A month later, it was fin­ished, a col­lage of night­mar­ish fig­ures caught in a sin­gle mo­ment of chaos and ter­ror. Within a year, it was world fa­mous. (Dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of France, an awe-struck Ger­man of­fi­cer was said to have asked of Pi­casso, “Did you do Guer­nica?” He al­legedly replied, “No, you did”.)

Ac­cord­ing to Rankin, “Pi­casso’s Guer­nica is such a well-known im­age of the 20th cen­tury that nowa­days we for­get its orig­i­nal im­pact as the shock of the new, the shock of the news. The graphic can­vas is black and white, stark as a crime photo lit by a glar­ing bulb. The crea­tures are scream­ing like head­lines. The horse’s body is made of mashed-up news­pa­per”.

Steer en­listed with the Bri­tish army in 1940. He was work­ing as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer when he was killed in a jeep ac­ci­dent in what is now Myan­mar on Christ­mas Day in 1944. He was 35 years old. Af­ter the war, his name was found among the 2 820 en­tries on a Gestapo “wanted list” of those to be ar­rested should the Nazis have in­vaded Eng­land.

He is still re­mem­bered and hon­oured in Guer­nica. The town un­veiled a bronze bust of Steer in 2006 and named a street af­ter him. The Basque cap­i­tal of Bilbao also named a street af­ter him in 2010. Ger­many for­mally apol­o­gised for its role in the Span­ish Civil War in 1998.

IN­TEGRITY: Ge­orge Steer.

FLAM­ING FURY: A mem­ber of the film­crew and and ac­tor crouch out of the way of an ex­plo­sion on the set of Gernika.

RUB­BLE OF LIES: Jack Daven­port in Gernika.

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