‘Smart work for civilisation’

10 May 2010

Controlled anger is one of the hardest registers for a journalist. It is the thinnest of tightropes between ranting, on the one hand, and bathos or special pleading on the other.

So I was impressed to find an outstanding example in the excellent biography of the war correspondent George Steer, written by Nicholas Rankin. Steer is best known (largely, it should be said, as a result of Rankin’s work) for his coverage of the bombing of Guernica, where he broke the story of German involvement, and collected enough evidence to refute the black propaganda that followed both from Germany and Franco’s Nationalists.

But before he arrived in Spain, he had covered the Italian assault on Ethiopia; he was one of the last foreigners to leave Addis Ababa as it fell, he married his first wife there, and later Hailie Selassie became the godson to his eldest child. After he had left the country, the Italians massacred thousands – including many members of the intellectual modernising group, the ‘Young Ethiopians’, which included many Ethiopian friends of Steer’s – after a failed assassination attempt on the Italian Viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. This provoked a long article by Steer in the Spectator – of which this is just an extract:

Marshal Graziani, who executed so many men in Tripoli and who allowed his native troops to massacre Harrar in May, 1936, is distributing bonbons to the Ethiopians whom he has spared. Somebody throws a hand grenade. Graziani survives. The Italians are quickly pulled out the crowd of Ethiopians, and the Ethiopians are machine-gunned to a man. Three hundred dead. I call that smart work for civilisation.

Graziani is carried off to a hospital. The lovely planes take off from Akaki, over the sighing blue gum into the brilliant air. The little tanks rattle through the still-ruined streets. In the afternoon, ammunition is handed out to the Blackshirts, and the biggest massacre since Smyrna begins.

They kill all the Young Ethiopians, all my friends: not one they tell me survives. They are dead because they spoke French, wore sometimes European clothes, behaved decently, loved their country and wanted to make it more efficient and more civilised. But unfortunately the Italians beat them to that game.

Of course, the most famous British journalist to cover the Italian campaign in Ethiopia was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail (which inevitably supported the Italian fascists). Waugh later got four books out of his experience of Ethiopia: Black Mischief and Scoop, of course, and two non-fiction books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia (I’m guessing that the pun was deliberate).

The two men knew each other, but didn’t like each other; Steer was sympathetic to Ethiopia’s history and culture, while Waugh, like many Europeans, thought it medieval. When Waugh reviewed Steer’s book on the Ethiopian campaign, Caesar in Abysinnia, he was sharp (Rankin uses the word ‘waspish’), suggesting that Steer had an affinity with the Ethiopians because he had been born in South Africa, and implying that he wasn’t, perhaps, a ‘proper’ European. Waugh’s view of Ethiopians was summarised in a letter in 1935 (this is the original punctuation) to Diana Cooper:

‘i have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organ-men gas them to buggery’.

Which, of course, the Italians went on to do, ruthlessly and illegally. As Gandhi remarked when asked his opinion of Western civilisation: I think it would be a good idea.

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