Telegram from Guernica by Nicholas Rankin

A distant, urgent voice echoing through terror
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The Independent Culture

On this day, 66 years ago, The Times and The New York Times published a report from the Spanish Civil War that helped to define the 20th century. George Steer, a young correspondent in the Basque Country, had returned to Guernica the day after the German Condor legion bombed, burned and strafed the town into bloodstained rubble. He confirmed beyond doubt that, on 26 April 1937, Nazi aircraft had blitzed the citadel of Basque liberty, fighting as the rebel Franco's secret proxies. From then on, all civilians knew that total war could destroy them: "A vital line was crossed."

Steer's momentous dispatch – delivered when the firebrand reporter was just 27 – still resonates. It propelled Picasso into the creative rage that led to his Guernica. A copy of that minatory painting hangs at the United Nations in New York. Before US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a belligerent press conference there in February, it was discreetly covered over.

Nicholas Rankin has written a fiercely exciting and superbly researched life of George Steer. The brilliant, hyperactive South African brought bad news from Spain, Ethiopia and Finland before pioneering "psy-ops" in the British army and dying in a jeep smash in India at Christmas 1944. As in a classic front-line bulletin, Rankin condenses the back-story, and foregrounds the action. Steer's free-ranging African boyhood, his glittering academic career, his journalist's apprenticeship, all pass in a flashback or two. Otherwise, a breakneck narrative rivals Steer's high-octane prose with matching colour and swagger.

Rankin whisks readers from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia through the Basque tragedy and the Soviet-led slaughter of Finland's "Winter War". We rush into Steer's gleeful development of propaganda ruses, first in Ethiopia and then on the Bengal-Burma border. Even now, the Army's "Information Support Group" is "proud to claim descent" from his quixotic experiments.

Steer told the necessary truth, in commanding prose, about Fascist and Stalinist aggression. Rankin writes stylishly himself, but not even he can match the forensic fury of a 1937 essay – reprinted here – about Italian atrocities in Addis Ababa. Steer reported as a frank partisan of the deposed Emperor, Haile Selassie (his son's godfather). Yet his scrupulous account of Italy's genocide shamed me into wondering why I ever bothered with the bigoted tomfoolery of Steer's antagonist in Addis, Evelyn Waugh. Ethiopian officers proved superior to Mussolini's strutting thugs not only in courage (naturally...) but in strategy and intellect. Only blanket-bombing with mustard gas ensured Fascist victory.

Steer's obsessions – terror bombing, the massacre of civilians, the racist dimension of Western warfare, the uses of propaganda – remain as timely as tomorrow's headlines. Yet Telegram from Guernica triumphs as proper history, throwing fresh light on a decade of disasters from the viewpoint of one gifted observer-participant. Rankin's biography honours this whirlwind career with its own, irresistible blend of pace, passion and precision.

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