Magazine article History Today

No Simple Purveyor of News: George Steer and Guernica: Paul Preston Remembers the Journalist and Basque Sympathizer Who Broke the News of the Bombing of Guernica, and Whose Impassioned Reports from the Front in the Spanish Civil War Did Much to Draw the Attention of the World to the Conflict

Magazine article History Today

No Simple Purveyor of News: George Steer and Guernica: Paul Preston Remembers the Journalist and Basque Sympathizer Who Broke the News of the Bombing of Guernica, and Whose Impassioned Reports from the Front in the Spanish Civil War Did Much to Draw the Attention of the World to the Conflict

Article excerpt

IN EARLY 1938, MARTHA GELLHORN wrote to her friend and mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt:

   You must read a book by a man
   named Steer: it is called the Tree of
   Gernika. It is about the fight of the
   Basques--he's the London Times man
   --and no better book has come out of
   the war and he says well all the things
   I have tried to say to you the times I
   saw you, after Spain. It is beautifully
   written and true, and few books are
   like that, and fewer still that deal with
   war. Please get it.

Martha Gellhorn's judgement has more than stood the test of time. Steer was the correspondent of The Times whose account of the bombing of Guernica perhaps had more political impact than any single article written by any correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.

To a world that experienced the slaughter unleashed by Hitler and Stalin, the Spanish Civil War might well seem small beer. Yet, the bombing of the sleepy Basque market town on April 26th, 1937 has probably provoked more savage polemic than any single act of war since and much of that has revolved around Steer's article. This is partly because what happened at Guernica was perceived as the first time that aerial bombardment wiped out an undefended civilian target in Europe. In fact, the bombing of innocent civilians was a well-established practice in the colonies of the Western powers and had most recently and most thoroughly been carried out by the Italians in Abyssinia. Even in Spain, the bombing of Guernica had been preceded by the destruction of nearby Durango by German bombers at the end of March 1937. As the special envoy of The Times with the Republican forces in Bilbao, George Steer, who had witnessed the horrors of bombing in Abyssinia, described what was done at Durango as 'the most terrible bombardment of a civil population in the history of the world up to March 31st, 1937'. However, with the aid of Picasso's searing painting, it is Guernica that is now remembered as the place where the new and horrific modern warfare came of age. It has been claimed that, but for Picasso, Guernica would have soon been forgotten as a regrettable but unavoidable act of war. The survival of the controversy owes as much to George Steer as to Picasso.

George Lowther Steer was born in East London, South Africa, in 1909. He was educated in England, at Winchester College and then at Oxford University. At Christ Church, he secured a double first in Classical Greats. After freelancing for the Yorkshire Post, he laid siege to The Times which eventually hired him as a special correspondent to cover the coming Italo-Ethiopian war. He left London in June 1935 for Addis Ababa where he was joined by a band of correspondents among whom were several who would also go to Spain.

Steer's sympathy with the Ethiopians led to him establishing a close relationship with the Emperor and being given access to his general staff throughout the war. His descriptions of Italian atrocities made his reputation as an intrepid war correspondent. They also ensured that he would be expelled from Abyssinia a week after the victorious forces of the Duce occupied Addis Ababa on May 5th, 1936. The day before, Steer married Margarita Trinidad de Herrero y Hassett, the correspondent for a Paris newspaper, Le Journal. Barely had George and Margarita settled into a flat in Chelsea when he was sent to Spain as a 'special correspondent' for The Times. From August 8th to mid-September, he was at the Franco-Spanish border and witnessed the fall of the Basque town of Irun. He produced dispatches about panic-stricken refugees heading for France and on the destruction wreaked on the town by retreating anarchists enraged by their lack of ammunition. Steer stayed in Spain to complete his book Caesar in Abyssinia which was finished in Burgos. His discomfort at the scale of the repression being carried out by the rebel forces led to problems with the Francoist press censors who were already highly suspicious of Steer because of his anti-fascist reports from Abyssinia. …

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