Book review, first published in THE GOOD BOOK GUIDE, 2003
On the 26th April 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the civilian population of Guernica (or Gernika, as it is known in Basque) was bombed by Franco’s nationalist forces. It wasn’t the first time civilians had been attacked from the air, but the sheer carnage of Guernica shocked the world. The man who did most to bring this atrocity to light, and who galvanised the expatriate Picasso into painting his greatest work, was George Steer.
Almost alone among the press corps in Spain, Steer bothered to dig beneath the rubble of Guernica, and his investigation pointed the finger of suspicion at the Nazis, whose infamous Condor Legion were secretly assisting Franco. Steer’s subsequent despatch was one of the most controversial of the war, and earned him a place on the Gestapo’s Special Wanted List. But his career as a war correspondent didn’t begin or end in Spain. A diminuitive South African educated at Winchester and Oxford, he narrowly beat Evelyn Waugh to the post of Ethiopian correspondent for The Times. He befriended Haile Selassie, and became a fervent supporter of the Ethiopian’s struggle against the invading Italians (unlike the condescending, conservative Waugh). To the right of Orwell, but well to the left of Waugh, Steer alerted the world to the Fascist game plan. When the conflict turned global, Steer enlisted (as Orwell had done in Spain). He fought in Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt, Finland and the Far East, where he pioneered field propaganda techniques to disaffect the Japanese army. He was to die, in 1944, like T.E. Lawrence (with whom he was often compared) in a senseless motorcar accident in India. By then his work was done, and the Fascism he abhorred was defeated. Nicholas Rankin tells Steer’s story simply and succinctly, with little need for embellishment. The drama is already there, in the life, which was truly extraordinary.