This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Today, on the 80th anniversary of the Bombing of Guernica, we’re paying tribute to the journalist who most helped spread the truth about what happened at Guernica around the world. In addition to our annual article about the event, we’d like to share this tale of who he was and what he did that makes us consider him a “Friend of the Basques”, but above all, a great journalist and a “Friend of Truth”.
Nor shall we forget Noel Monks, a correspondent for the Daily Express, who was also a witness to the Bombing of Guernica and about whom we’ve written an article that we encourage you to read.
When George Lowther Steer arrived in Bilbao to cover the Basque front of the Spanish Civil War, he was barely 28 years old, but despite his youth, he was already an advanced war correspondent who had covered the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
There, Steer met another young man, José Antonio de Aguirre, just five years his senior, who had just been sworn in as the first Lehendakari of the Basques under the Tree of Guernica, while the sounds of the raging battle between the gudariak of the recently-created Basque Army and the troops of the insurgent Francoists could be heard in the distance.
Those who’ve read the book The Tree of Guernica: A Field Study of Modern War will know that this Brit from South Africa developed a close friendship, steeped in admiration, with Aguirre, and he felt very close to that handful of Basques who’d left behind their occupations to be the first line of defense against the fascism that was threatening to engulf the world.
What neither Aguirre, nor the other Basques, nor even Steer, could imagine was the fundamental role that this young journalist would play in the defense of the Truth and of the cause of the Basque people.
His chronicles from Bilbao for The Times of London started narrating the arrival of British merchant ships that, with the protection of that nation’s navy, broke the insurgents’ naval blockade. And they finished with the fall of Bilbao and the beginning, on the way to Santander, of a long exile from which many would never return.
But it was April 26, 1937 that Steer’s story and that of the Basques would be definitively joined. On that day, the insurgents and their German and Italian allies decided to level Guernica.
The news reached Bilbao: “Guernica is in flames”. Steer was having dinner at the Hotel Torrontegui with a group of foreign correspondents: Brit Christopher Holme, from Reuters; Keith Scott Watson, who wrote for The Star; Mathieu Corman, for the French daily Ce Soir; and Noel Monks, for the Daily Express (expelled from the territory controlled by the insurgents, just like Steer, and who also worked hard to spread the word about what had happened at Guernica).
They all immediately left for Guernica to check out what had happened. Monks was unaware, at the time, that the machine gun fire that he had survived that very morning on a road in Biscay, along with other colleagues, and which had had him hiding in the crater left behind by an exploding bomb for more than 15 minutes while a group of Heinkels 51 planes tried to finish them off, were the work of the planes that had participated in the bombing.
Neither Steer, nor Monks, nor the other correspondents were prepared for what they found that night: the entire Sacred Town of the Basques was aflame, with hundreds of victims, many of them destroyed by bombs, littering the streets.
While the other journalists rushed back to Bilbao to urgently send out their stories, Steer stayed behind, talking with witnesses, and gathering the remains of the incendiary bombs. He came back with those pieces of evidence, and, without sending an urgent story, waited until the next morning to talk to the refugees who’d arrived in Bilbao from Guernica, and to go back to the bomb site to see the tragedy in the light of day.
When he again returned to Bilbao, he sent out, with a “neutral and non-sensationalist” tone, a story which is without a doubt the most extraordinary story written by a correspondent in the whole Spanish Civil War.
Published by The Times and The New York Times, and a role model for all journalists on how to tell a story.
That telegram changed the history of the Basques: the world’s perception of what had happened seriously hurt the image of the insurgents, it inspired Great Britain and many other places to start taking in refugee Basque children, it inspired Picasso, it made history.
James Holburn, the correspondent on the insurgent side for The Times in the north of Spain also sent his version of events, denying the bombing and saying that the “Reds” had dynamited and burned the town.
The Times had already cabled George Steer at the Torrontegui: VIEW OTHERSIDES DISMISSAL YOUR GUERNICA STORY FURTHER JUDICIOUS STATEMENT DESIRABLE.
Steer replied on 28 April (Telegram from Guernica: The Extraordinary Life of George Steer, War Correspondent . by Nicholas Rankin):
The denial by Salamanca of all knowledge of the destruction of Guernica (in Basque, Gernika) has created no astonishmenthere, since the similar butless terrible bombing of Durango was denied by them in spite of the presence of British eye-witnesses.
I have spoken with hundreds of homeless and distressed people, who all give precisely the same description of the events. I have seen and measured the enor
mous bomb-holes at Guernica, which, since I passed through the town the day before, I can testify were not there then.
Unexploded German aluminium incendiary bombs were found in Guernica marked «Rheindorf factory, 1936. The types of German aeroplane used were Junkers 52 (heavy bombers), Heinkel 111 (medium fast bomber), and Heinkel 51 (chasers). I was myself machine-gunned by six chasers in a large bomb-hole at Arbacegui-Gerrikaiz, when they were returning from Guernica. According to a statement made by the Ger
man pilots captured near Ochandiano early in April at the beginning of the insurgent offensive, they are manned entirely by German pilots, while nearly all the crew are German, and the machines left Germany in February.
It is maintained here that the entire insurgent air force used in this offensive against the Basques is German, except for seven Italian Fiat fighters and three Savoia 81 machines.
The original telegram (which Steer copied to Philip Noel Baker, asking him to use it in the House of Commons and get the information to Lloyd George and Anthony Eden) ends:
THAT THEY BOMBED AND DESTROYED GERNIKA IS CONSIDERED JUDGEMENT YOUR CORRESPONDENT AND MORE CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE IF THAT POSSIBLE OF EVERY WRETCHED BASQUE CIVILIAN WHO FORCED TO SUFFER IT MESSAGEND = PLEASE PUBLISH WHOLE THIS MESSAGE WHICHUNDERSTATEMENT OF TRUTH STEER +
That chronicle from Guernica, that defense of Truth, was not comfortable for Steer.
It served to get him on the list of delinquents who were pursued by the Gestapo, on the list of 2,820 people to be arrested when Great Britain was invaded. It also helped get him fired by The Times for “supporting the Republicans”.
But it also served him to write an extraordinary book that every Basque should read. It tells the story of a people determined to defend their freedom and their democracy in a world that seemed on an inevitable course to complete totalitarian rule.
Steer defended his version, which is the one that coincides with what really happened, against the propaganda of the Francoists and many other European journalists who really preferred the “order” Franco promised to the Truth. It’s a position that, as we said, united the sympathy of the Basque Republicans and the defenders of Freedom, and cost him his job at The Times.
That young journalist stayed on in the Basque Country, living out the tragedy with the Basques. He told the story of the fall of Bilbao, and accompanied the Basques as they ran from Francoism westward to Santander.
From there, when that city was also taken by the insurgents, just a few days after the fall of Bilbao, he went to Paris, where he wrote the book that best tells the story of those heroes who fought totalitarianism.
The Tree of Guernica: A Field Study of Modern War was the book’s title, published in London in 1938, less than a year after the fall of Bilbao, by Hodder and Stoughton.
Very few examples remain of that first edition, because during the Second World War, during the German blitz on London, the warehouse where the copies of that first edition were stored was hit by a bomb and destroyed.
TRUTH AND LIES ABOUT THE BOMBING OF GUERNICA
José Antonio Aguirre, President of the Basque Government:
“Before God and History, which judge us all, I swear that for three and a half hours, German planes bombed, with heretofore unseen rage, the defenseless civil population of the historical town of Guernica, reducing it to ashes, chasing, with machine gun fire, women and children, who have died in great numbers, with the rest fleeing in terror”
Francisco France, Head of the Insurgents:
“Aguirre lies. We have respected Guernica, as we respect everything Spanish”
Francoist propaganda video (starting at 0:45):
“Guernica. There’s nothing left but the name
The home of the legitimate Basque fuero rules has disappeared
The Jewish and masonic press of the world, and the whiny hypocrites from Valencia tore apart their clothes, defaming the caudillo, whose heavenly-clean name they tried to stain with the drool of calumnious information.
The photographic camera, which doesn’t know how to lie, tells clearly that such great destruction was not but the work of arsonists and dynamiters.
There you have the jai alai court. The arsonists’ fire consumed its wood and left behind the its ironworks.
George Steer, The Times, May 6, 1937:
Against the lies, more truth