Authors: Preston Paul
It has been claimed increasingly of late that, but for Picasso, Guernica would have soon been forgotten as a regrettable but unavoidable act of war. That this is to miss much of the real drama of Guernica was one of the central points made by the most important book to be published on the atrocity, and indeed one of the most important books published on any aspect of the Spanish Civil War:
La destrucción de Guernica,
by the late Herbert Rutledge Southworth. Dr Southworth’s painstaking and gripping study of the myth of Guernica and the web of lies that was constructed around it shows that the survival of the controversy owes as much to the work of George Steer as to Picasso.
Who was George Lowther Steer? As his biographer, Nick Rankin, discovered when trying to answer the question: ‘Almost nothing remains of his personal letters and papers. His widow destroyed much in the 1940s before remaking her life; his parents’ executors destroyed the rest in the 1950s.’
His life has to be reconstructed from his articles and books, from some scattered memories of people who saw him in Abyssinia,
Spain or the fronts that he covered in the Second World War until his death at the end of 1944, and from his correspondence with his friend Philip Noel-Baker. What is clear from the surviving material is that Steer saw his journalism as a vehicle both to expose and thus to combat the horrors of fascism.
His father-in-law, Sir Sidney Barton, commented in the preface to one of Steer’s books,
Sealed and Delivered,
that he had been ‘at the front in the Second World War ever since this began in fact with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia on 1 October 1935’.
This diminutive but brave, flame-haired reporter was born in East London, South Africa, in 1909, the son of Bernard Steer, managing editor of the important local newspaper, the
He was educated in England, as a scholar of Winchester College and then at Oxford University. At Christ Church, he secured a double first in Classical Greats (Mods in 1930 and Greats in 1932). He returned briefly to South Africa, working as the crime and baseball reporter for the Cape Town
until 1933. He then came back to England to a job on the
working in the paper’s London office in Fleet Street. From 1933 to 1935, he edited the ‘London Letter’ from the Fleet Street office, which was a mixture of stories, gossip, curiosities and theatre and other reviews sent to Yorkshire. He spent some time freelancing for the
in the Saarland during the electoral campaign for the January 1935 referendum which saw its incorporation into Nazi Germany. Convinced that Italy was planning to invade Ethiopia, and tired of the snow in the Saarland – ‘sun on yellow grass seemed better’ – he returned to London and laid siege to
which eventually hired him as a special correspondent to cover the coming Italo–Ethiopian war.
After having his tonsils out and his teeth filled, he left London in June 1935, equipped with a gift from his colleagues at the
a topee bedecked with the colours of Winchester College. After a hazardous two-week journey, via Djibouti in French Somaliland, he arrived in Addis Ababa. He stayed at the Hotel Imperial, ‘a wooden, balconied structure that looked as though it had been transplanted whole from the Yukon’, where guests were expected to bring their own house-boy to clean their rooms. With typical commitment, Steer immediately began to learn the local language, Amharic. At the Imperial, he was eventually
joined by a band of correspondents, among whom were several who were also to be in Spain, in particular the Australian Noel Monks, the Irishman O’Dowd Gallagher, the American Hubert R. Knickerbocker and the American-born Englishman Sir Percival Phillips. As Monks and Gallagher checked in, they were greeted by Steer, remembered by Monks as ‘a short, slight man with an impish face’. The Abyssinian capital was both dusty and backward and the telegraph system particularly primitive. The censorship was crude, the cable clerks incompetent and, to save money, the correspondents invented bizarre abbreviations. Given the scarcity of news and the brevity of official communiqués, it was not surprising that others just invented their stories. Steer recalled: ‘We dashed frantically about in cars between the Legations, the Foreign Ministry, the Palace and the radio, scratching together from the barren rockeries of Ethiopia a few frail seeds from which we hoped would flower exotically a story.’ In early October 1935, when the Italians were about to invade, and Haile Selassie signed, but did not issue, an order for general mobilization, Hubert R. Knickerbocker produced an especially colourful account, with signals being sent by flaming beacons on the hills and beating drums in every village. In recognition of his inspiration, his fellow correspondents presented him with a small toy drum.
Knickerbocker would later write an equally invented account of the entry into Madrid of the military rebels some two and a half years before it actually happened.
Regarding cables from Europe and America, a messenger boy would bring a sheaf of messages to the first correspondent he met in the lobby of the Imperial. The result was that, on occasion, they were all able to read their rivals’ messages and indeed to indulge in practical jokes. O’Dowd Gallagher claimed to have played a particularly effective one on Steer. He fabricated a cable purporting to be from John Jacob Astor, Lord Astor of Hever, the proprietor of
STEER TIMES ADDIS ABABA WE NATION PROUD YOUR WORK STOP CARRY ON IN NAME YOUR KING AND COUNTRY – ASTOR.
He claimed that such was the stir created by the cable that Steer was invited to interview the Emperor Haile Selassie, who gave him an unprecedentedly long interview. The story is surely apocryphal, since Steer had spoken to the Emperor for ninety minutes shortly after his own arrival and long before Gallagher
appeared. By then, Haile Selassie insisted on questions being submitted in writing and seeing journalists for only a few minutes.
It is certainly the case that, with or without Gallagher’s mischief, Steer’s sympathy with the Ethiopians led to him establishing a close personal relationship with the Emperor and being given access to his general staff throughout the war. Before the Italians invaded, he warned Monks and Gallagher: ‘There’s going to be a massacre unless the League of Nations get off their bottoms and stop Mussolini. These people are still living in the spear age. That’s all they’ve got – spears.’ Steer’s support for such underdogs was reflected in
Caesar in Abyssinia,
which set out
to show what was the strength and spirit of the Ethiopian armies sent against a European Great Power. My conclusions are that they had no artillery, no aviation, a pathetic proportion of automatic weapons and modern rifles, and ammunition sufficient for two days’ modern battle. I have seen a child nation, ruled by a man who was both noble and intelligent, done brutally to death almost before it had begun to breathe.
Moreover, as the jacket of his book proclaimed: ‘The first to arrive and the last to leave, Steer was the only correspondent who saw the campaign from beginning to end.’ His descriptions of Italian atrocities made his reputation as an intrepid war correspondent. They also ensured that, after the victorious forces of the Duce occupied the Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936, he would be expelled from Abyssinia merely eight days later, when Steer was accused of ‘anti-Italian propaganda and espionage’ on behalf of British Intelligence, and a warrant was prepared for his arrest on charges of transporting gas masks to Ethiopian troops and assisting in blowing up a road. ‘It is not surprising’, he told his newspaper, ‘that the Italians did not succeed in finding evidence to support these charges.’ The accusation derived from the fact that there had been a cargo of gas masks carried by a lorry on which he had made the perilous journey from Addis Ababa to the Emperor’s northern headquarters at Dessye, just before it was occupied by the Italians.
On the other hand, hints of Steer’s connections with the intelligence services would emerge from time to time.
Steer’s nomination as special correspondent in Ethiopia had earned him the jealousy of Evelyn Waugh, who had reported for
five years earlier for the coronation of Haile Selassie, but came in August 1935 as representative of the pro-fascist
The relationship was not helped when, at their first brief encounter at a railway station, Steer failed to recognize the great novelist, taking him for just another journalist. Waugh was not exactly suited to the daily discomforts of being a war correspondent. Once, to steal a march on his colleagues, he had sent one of his despatches in Latin, a gesture which had not been well received back in London. Unlike many of his fellows, Waugh was fiercely pro-Italian, or as he described it, ‘slappers with the wops’, that is to say, on bottom-slapping terms with the Italians. He wrote to Diana Cooper: ‘I have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organmen gas them to buggery’. Waugh was as deficient in typing skills as in the milk of human kindness.
By his own account, Waugh was drunk much of the time in Addis Ababa and, on one occasion, he and his friend Patrick Balfour locked Steer in his room so that he would be unable to catch an important train. Bored, Waugh bought ‘a very lowspirited baboon’ which masturbated all day, and then, in the evenings, took it to the local nightclub, where it molested the whores. Steer would occasionally indulge in adolescent levity to make the time pass during interminable press conferences, and in the sterile meetings of the Foreign Press Association of which he was permanent secretary and Evelyn Waugh the minute-taker. However, he never reached the heights attained by Waugh. Indeed, Steer spent most of his time travelling all over Abyssinia and getting to know the country and its people. In October 1935, perhaps to escape Waugh, Steer moved out of the Hotel Imperial where he had been incarcerated in his room. It did him little good. Waugh and Balfour locked him in his new house and gave the key to the madame of a local bordello. Waugh’s practical joke was not the only misfortune suffered by Steer in Ras Mulugeta Bet, as his home was named. At the beginning of May 1936, it was gutted during the looting that preceded the arrival of the Italians and he had been taken in by the family of the British Minister, Sir Sidney Barton. Waugh himself never actually made it to the front, which did not distress him overmuch since he
did not take his reporting seriously. He claimed that the heaviest fighting he saw was among the journalists. Steer, he wrote, ‘a very gay South African dwarf – is never without a black eye. Some say it is the altitude more than the bottle.’
A mixture of grudging admiration and snobbish resentment was palpable in Waugh’s review in the
of Steer’s book
Caesar in Abyssinia:
Mr George Steer was one of the first special correspondents to arrive in Addis Ababa in 1935, and one of the last to leave in 1936. He represented the most important newspaper in the world. He exhibited in a high degree the peculiar gifts required for that kind of journalism – keen curiosity of mind, a retentive memory, enterprise, a devotion to duty even at the expense of personal dignity and competitive zeal that was notable even in the international cut-throat rough and tumble of his colleagues.
Although the review went on to talk of liking, admiring and respecting him, the rest of Waugh’s text was sharply critical. In the book, Steer had written: ‘I came young, I went away older, I promised myself that I could never forgive and forget.’ Not sharing Steer’s anti-fascist sentiments nor his sympathy for the Ethiopians, Waugh sneered: ‘Too credulous readers should remind themselves that a period of rapid adolescence is not the best time for accurate observation, nor a mood of personal resentment the best for a sober consideration of evidence.’ Unable to forgive Steer either his anti-Italian stance or having pipped him to the
job, Waugh complained: ‘It is not enough that he thinks the war unjust. He will not allow the Italians the credit of working their destructive machinery with any skill.’
In his novel
Waugh took small revenge for Steer’s hostility to the Italians and for the seriousness with which he approached his job, rendering him as ‘Mr Pappenhacker of the
The South African-sounding old boy of Winchester College, Pappenhacker had a profound knowledge of Greek and Latin, travelling with an Arabic grammar held close to his nose, the latter being an inaccurate reference to Steer’s efforts to learn Amharic.
On 4 May 1936, just nine days before the Italian expulsion order was delivered, George Steer had married Margarita Trinidad de Herrero y Hassett, who was the daughter of an English mother, a Spanish father and had been brought up in France. They had met in Abyssinia, where she had been correspondent for a Paris newspaper,
She was his senior by ten years but irresistibly attractive. Small and sensuous, she was also independent and intrepid, one of the very few female correspondents in Ethiopia to cover the Italian invasion. Indeed, at one point, on visiting the victims of an Italian mustard-gas attack, she and a Spanish friend immediately volunteered to work as nurses. They had married at the British Legation in Addis Ababa while the town was being looted by marauding bandits. It was a high-spirited affair. Steer had worn a khaki shirt and trousers, a pair of old boots and a Deutsche Luft Verband cap that he purloined off an Ethiopian bystander. Margarita, in ‘utilitarian woolies’, carried a bouquet of lilies and daisies snatched from the legation garden. Accordingly, when the chaplain called on the couple to endow each other with all their worldly goods, there was audible merriment among the congregation. They then spent their honeymoon within the barbed-wire perimeter of the legation encampment.