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Several blog posts last year reported on our John Rylands Research Institute-funded project to catalogue the European foreign correspondence in the Guardian Archive. Sandra Cruise has been continuing this work, and reports on the foreign correspondence dating from 1936-1939:

The Guardian foreign correspondence is a rich source of material for historians, providing a fascinating and detailed narrative of the events and political machinations in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The correspondence comprises letters, telegrams, dispatches, confidential notes and scribbled messages, exchanged mainly between the editor, William Percival Crozier (or occasionally other members of staff), and five of his foreign correspondents: Alexander Werth in Paris, Marcel Fodor in Vienna, Charles Lambert in Berlin, and the septuagenarian Robert Dell in Geneva; Frederick Voigt, by this time, acts as diplomatic correspondent from the London office, having been removed successively from Berlin and Paris for his personal safety, assisted by Swiss refugee, Max Wolf, and exploiting a network of underground German contacts. From their vantage points in major European cities are viewed the events of the years 1936 to 1939, a period characterised by the growing threat of war, and chronicling the shifting alliances, Hitler’s expansionism, and including the continuing Nazi terror, the Stalinist purge of the mid 1930s, and, from mid 1936, the Spanish Civil War and its repercussions.

It is not so much what the papers say, as what they don’t say; the archive contains a great deal of information which did not make it into, or was never intended for the paper’s columns for whatever reason, be it confidentiality, diplomacy, or simply lack of space: the details of articles and letters omitted or heavily edited; names withheld for the writer’s or subject’s own safety; the views of the correspondents, their interviewees and the editor himself. Most of all, the archive reveals the confidential sources and reports of private conversations previously known only to the correspondents and the editor, sent for the purpose of verifying a story, or keeping the editor informed. A scribbled pencil message from Frederick Voigt to the editor gives confirmation of German and Italian assistance to the rebels in Spain via his receipt of a decoded message from Franco to General Mola: ‘the offensive on Madrid can begin…as soon as the Italian planes are ready…our identity is known to Berlin’.

Scribbled message from Voigt reporting on the content of a decoded message from Franco.

Scribbled message from Voigt reporting on the content of a decoded message from Franco.

Besides being a narrative of the inter-war years, the correspondence also gives an insight into the status of the paper, how the correspondents worked, their relationships with the editor and each other, and also with other papers and journalists. The paper, under Crozier’s editorship, built up a reputation for foreign news, particularly letters to the editor from significant foreign figures. On 2 September 1936 Crozier told his men that the Manchester Guardian led the way in foreign correspondence and letters on topics from abroad, and he frequently urged them to actively encourage people they encountered to write to the paper. The archive contains many letters or accounts from, or about victims of the Nazi persecution, and the Stalinist purge in Russia, whose identities had to be concealed for fear of reprisals, even if the writers were no longer resident in the country in question. The paper led the way in reporting the atrocities of the Nazi regime; Voigt’s pioneering reporting of the German concentration camps had already made him a Gestapo target as, in Crozier’s words, ‘the most serious opponent of Nazi Germany in the English press’, and necessitating his removal from mainland Europe. The paper was banned indefinitely in Germany in September 1936. Of all the English papers, only the Manchester Guardian and the Yorkshire Post were independent; the Telegraph was viewed as the voice of the establishment, while Voigt commented that the Nazis ought to be grateful to The Times for its editing of the articles of its Berlin correspondent.

The dangers faced by many of the correspondents and the immediacy of the situation make compelling reading. Voigt reports picking up fragments from his balcony and hotel corridor when his side of the hotel in the Gran Via in Madrid was shelled.

Extract from letter of 30 April 1937 in which Voigt describes picking up hot fragments of shell on his hotel balcony.

Extract from letter of 30 April 1937 in which Voigt describes picking up hot fragments of shell on his hotel balcony.

Both Voigt and Werth visited Spain during the Spanish Civil War in an attempt to discover the truth about the terror and the reaction of the ordinary Spaniard in the street. Voigt’s desire to venture into unchartered territory was quashed by Crozier, who forbade him to enter rebel territory, as the Germans, who were assisting Franco, would get to know that he was there, and might see it as an opportunity to ‘get rid of him’. Charles Lambert in Berlin, tired of the stress of living in Nazi Germany, expresses relief at being able to live in a ‘normal country’ without being ‘spied on’, whilst covering Paris during Werth’s holiday in August 1938. Fodor was forced to flee Vienna in the American Military Attaché’s car at the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, and spent the next year or so one step ahead of the advancing Germans in Europe, as he moved from place to place. Dangers did not always come in the guise of foreign attackers, however; Voigt faced problems closer to home, as he was more than once libelled by other journalists and writers.

In this telegram of 13 May 1937, Voigt announces that he is leaving Barcelona for Toulouse. Crozier responded to this with a note expressing his relief that his correspondent was well.

In this telegram of 13 May 1937, Voigt announces that he is leaving Barcelona for Toulouse. Crozier responded to this with a note expressing his relief that his correspondent was well.

Managing the team of correspondents was not always an easy task, as the editor strove to manage the different and strong personalities, to avoid any clashes with the paper’s policy and prevent any differences of opinion from spilling over into the columns. Being at the sharp end of events, many a correspondent gives vent to their frustration, particularly at the lack of understanding of the European situation. On a holiday to England in August 1936, the veteran Robert Dell cannot conceal his exasperation:

‘I find opinion here worse than I thought. It terrifies me. The ignorance of people that ought to be well-informed about the real situation on the Continent is alarming and the apparent indifference to what may happen even more so. I saw Blum and Delbos in Paris and I fear that they are both humbugged by Eden and the F[oreign] O[ffice]. They appear to have acquiesced in allowing the Nazis to do as they like in Danzig.’

He concludes that Hitler ‘is likely to be master of Europe in about six months without firing a shot’ and states that if he were in England, he would support Churchill, who ‘recognises the danger of Fascism in England.’ Yet, at the same time, there is an acknowledgement amongst the correspondents that England needs time to re-arm and gain strength, Voigt predicting in August 1937 that England would not be ready until 1939.

One of the archive’s strengths lies in its chronicling of the developing situation in the smaller and lesser known countries of central and south-eastern Europe by the Vienna and Balkans correspondent, Marcel Fodor – areas which were becoming the victims of Hitler’s expansionism and influence. Fodor will be the subject of a future blog post.

The archive continues until December 1939, and gives a snapshot of the conditions for both paper and correspondents in the first weeks of the war – the censorship, difficulties in communication, plus the overriding uncertainty. Crozier wonders how many men he will lose from his staff; the paper, already suffering from a paper restriction in the period before the war, is now restricted to twelve pages. Looking for safe, yet significant news gathering centres in which to base their correspondents had already been a problem; they had struggled to find a suitable haven for Fodor, a Hungarian Jew, after the Anschluss, in a Europe becoming increasingly German dominated; the other correspondents’ futures were now also in question. Lambert was still expecting to return to Berlin after covering for Werth in Paris some ten days before war was declared; after various suggested destinations, he eventually was dispatched to Stockholm. Werth, recuperating in Glasgow after a bicycle accident, returned to Paris to take over from Lambert, while Dell, by now 74, had retired and was contemplating more American lecture tours. Fodor himself, who was also working for the Chicago Daily News, for whom he was in Morocco, Tunis and Algiers around the time of the declaration of war, eventually found himself in the Hague. Evelyn Montague, working in London as Bone’s deputy, was dispatched abroad as war correspondent.

Extract from a letter written by Voigt on 4 September 1939, the day after Britain declared war on Germany. He speculates on potential bombing targets, commenting that there is nothing worth bombing in Manchester apart from the Manchester Guardian.

Extract from a letter written by Voigt on 4 September 1939, the day after Britain declared war on Germany. He speculates on potential bombing targets, commenting that there is nothing worth bombing in Manchester apart from the Manchester Guardian.

Amongst all this, it is sometimes possible to catch a glimpse of the people behind the messages, their characters and their background, such as Dell’s outspoken, heartfelt views, and his penchant for listening to dance music while he worked. Occasionally, the correspondence affords a brief glimpse of domestic affairs; there is a passing reference to the abdication crisis and the activities of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson. Closer to home, Lambert sends Crozier a newscutting from a German paper concerning the discovery of the St John fragment in the John Rylands Library. Interestingly, Alexander Werth also had a connection to the University of Manchester – he acted as senior Simon Research Fellow from 1953 to 1955.

Images in this blog post are reproduced courtesy of Guardian News and Media Ltd.