“Steer’s Guernica” is a 90-minute feature film based on the biography of South African war correspondent, George Lowther Steer titled: “Telegram from Guernica”, written by Nicholas Rankin & drawn from the little-known journals & writings of South African journalist & war-correspondent George Steer.
In April 1937, after burying his young wife and love of his life Margarita – who tragically died in childbirth – George Steer made his way back into the besieged Capital of Bilbao where he had been covering the Spanish Civil War.
On the night of Monday 26th – having heard the drone of aircraft in the distance – Steer drove out from the city in the direction of the Basque hills where the night sky glowed fleshy pink.
As he drew closer, the clouds seemed obscenely alive, wobbly red bellies of billowing smoke.
Then Guernica came into view reduced to a meccano framework with flames at every hole. The town had been fire-bombed.
Dusty survivors told him about the three-and-a-half-hour air raid: how aeroplanes with a black cross on the tail had dropped blast bombs on market-day afternoon, slaughtering people and animals; how fighter planes had dived to machine-gun others fleeing into the fields or along the roads; then how more planes had tumbled out thousands of shiny incendiary bombs, as long as forearms, that fizzled and spurted fire, making a conflagration of the historic town.
George Steer’s story appeared on Wednesday, 28 April 1937 on the foreign news page of The Times of London and the front page of the New York Times, the most important newspapers on either side of the Atlantic.
Steer identified the aeroplanes as German.
He revealed to the world the dirty secret that Nazi Germany was deeply embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, secretly supporting General Franco’s ‘insurgents’ and using the conflict to test their newly-developed “incendiary bombs”.
“In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought… the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history”, he wrote.
“Guernica was not a military objective. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race”.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the celebrated Spanish artist Pablo Picasso – in exile – was already appalled by the Civil War in his homeland.
The fifty-five-year-old artist supported the Spanish Republic and loathed Franco and his fascist followers, who had murdered so many when they took over his birthplace, Malaga, two months before.
This new massacre from the air was a horror that rivaled anything in Goya’s “Disasters of War”.
The fascist planes had attacked the town on market day, when it was full of campesinos with their animals, and local women and housewives come to sell and buy food.
When Picasso picked up his copy of The New York Times & read Steer’s account of the massacre on the front page he was galvanised into action.
‘Painting is not just done to decorate apartments,’ Picasso later said.
‘It is an instrument of war… against brutality and darkness.’
Since January Picasso had had a commission to fulfil for the Spanish Republic, and now – inspired by George Steer’s first hand account – the subject found him.
Picasso imagined the town’s agony, its weeping women and wounded animals.
As the left-wing May Day parades through Paris chanted ‘Guernica! Guernica!’, the Spaniard began charcoal-sketching in his high-windowed studio on the top floor of 7 rue des Grands Agustins.
On 4 June the enormous painting – 12 feet high, 25 feet long – Pablo Picasso’s iconic masterpiece “Guernica” – went to the Spanish Pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques Appliques á la Vie Moderne, the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, which was visited by over 30 million people that summer.
Guernica was not Steer’s first revelation to the world of the horror and destruction of this new apocalypse of “death from the air”.
Reporting for The Times of London in 1935 George Steer was the first journalist to bring to the attention of the world the use of “poison gas” by the Italians against the Ethiopian civilian population.
When the Italians invaded Ethiopia they utilized their air-force to devastating effect.
In 1935, “war from the air” by use of a highly developed airforce was a relatively new concept & had a profound terrifying & disturbing psychological effect on the civilian population on whom it was inflicted.
The Italians then intensified this terror by systematically spraying “chemical death” as a strategy against the Ethiopian civilian population.
Despite eye-witness reports by Steer and other journalists
& direct appeals by Emperor Haile Selassie & the International Red Cross, the International League of Nations deflected, responded with denialism and did nothing.
By 1936, Steer had formed a close personal relationship with the Emperor and on the 30th June was on hand to report how Haile Selassie [now forced into exile] – addressing the League of Nations in Geneva – threw down the gauntlet to these – the most powerful nations of the “civilized” world.
He warned the fifty-two nations assembled that if they ignored the brutality inflicted with impunity on distant small states by the powerful with their new warfare of “death from the air”, they would eventually be forced to face the consequences in their own back-yard.
As he walked from the podium, the Emperor uttered a chilling prophecy:
‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.’
This lack of action by the most powerful nations against the looming evil of fascism – both in Ethiopia & Spain in the 1930s – speaks directly to the Premise of the film:
“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
Resonating with Emperor Selassie’s chilling prophecy the Western powers did nothing to stop the rise of fascism which resulted in the bombing of Ethiopia, Guernica and ultimately the initiation of World War II.
Steer’s early witnessing of the use of bombing and chemical weapons against civilian populations both in Ethiopia and Guernica gave him a unique perspective on twentieth-century history, and made him one of the first to understand the psychological effects of air power.
Since World War I, the tactic of bombing civilians from the air had mostly been used in faraway places to punish ‘primitive’ tribal dissidents.
But now – as graphically demonstrated with the bombing of Guernica – this type of warfare abolished geography & marked a terrible new order of things.
The horror now lurked in your ‘back-yard’.
Death could drop from the air, at any time, to destroy a town without warning and to burn women and children at home in their beds.
In this kind of war, civilians were the front line.
In July 1939, Steer married Esme Barton.
On Saturday, 8 June 1940, a small group of family and friends gathered by the giant marble font under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London for George Steer junior’s christening.
The baby boy was christened George Augustine Barton Steer, and close friend, Emperor Haile Selassie placed around his neck a gold cross.
A year later, the Emperor Selassie’s prophetic warning materialised.
On 17th June 1940 after Germany’s military forces had conquered most of Western Europe in less than two months, France surrendered to Nazi Germany.
The next day, 18th June 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the British House of Commons:
“The battle of France is over. I expect the battle of Britain to begin.”
By October 1940, the city of London was ablaze as the nightly London blitz by German bombers became a reality.
St Paul’s Cathedral – where George Steer Junior was christened the year before – became a charred ring of fire.
US war reporter Ernie Pyle described the fire bombs dropped by the German warplanes: a foot long, with four fins, weighing two pounds, magnesium alloy, thermite core – they were the same as those used on Guernica.
In his second book, The Tree of Guernica, Steer explored what he called ‘the mystique of the air’ – the way in which aerial bombing became magnified in the imagination to become the presiding terror of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Reflecting further, Steer wrote:
“A journalist is not a simple purveyor of news, whether sensational or controversial, or well-written.
He is a historian of every day’s events – and as an historian must be filled with the most passionate and most critical attachment to the truth – so must the journalist, with the great power that he wields, see that the truth prevails.”
On the 5th May 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie was returned triumphant to a liberated Ethiopia.
As the procession entered Addis Ababa, George Steer was at the head of the column, with his Ethiopian friend Yilma Diressa at his side, calling from a loudhailer:
‘Today, five years ago, the Italians entered our city to murder and pillage;
today, five years after, our king returns, with the aid of a just God and of the English!’
It was one of the greatest moments of Steer’s life – what he called
‘the restoration in prototype of the liberties of the globe’.