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