When news of the Holocaust first hit papers, it didn’t make the front page – now, writers report impending wars that never materialise. Both approaches are dangerous, says Robert Fisk
Illustrations by Dilruba Tayfun ( )
There’s an old saw that journalists write the first draft of history. I used to think this was true. If the journalists of the First World War wrote fiction from the generals’ chateaux, the reporters of 1939-45 were different. They were at Dunkirk and watched the Battle of Britain. They landed on D-Day. Even the Russians had journalists on their front lines. Read Vasily Grossman’s accounts of the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin. As a schoolboy, I used to listen to my BBC recording of Richard Dimbleby in a Lancaster bomber in 1943, approaching the Hamburg firestorm. “A great white basin of light in the sky,” he called it. Or read Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy.
Here he is, his face terribly burnt in his crashing Spitfire during the Battle of Britain, going to the rescue of a dying woman and her child in the London Blitz: “It was her feet that we saw first, and … now we worked with a sort of frenzy, like prospectors, at the first glint of gold … We got the child out first. It was passed back carefully and with an odd sort of reverence by the warden, but it was dead … The woman who lay there looked middle-aged. She lay on her back and her eyes were closed … I was at the head of the bed, and looking down into that tired, blood-streaked, work-worn face I had a sense of complete unreality.” Hillary offered the woman brandy and she “reached out her arms instinctively for the child … Then she started to weep. Quite soundlessly, and with no sobbing, the tears were running down her cheeks when she lifted her eyes to mine. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking at me again, she said after a pause, ‘I see they got you too.’”
Dimbleby, of course, was a reporter. Grossman was both a writer and journalist and – from the Soviet point of view – a propagandist. Hillary wasn’t a journalist at all. He was a fighter pilot who knew how to write. But Dimbleby’s “basin of white light”, an emblematic bowl of fire, and Hillary’s startling imagery – the rescuers for whom the woman becomes a “glint of gold”, the air raid warden who shows an “odd sort of reverence” before we hear that the child is dead, and the “work-worn” woman’s deathly observation that “they got you too” – shows how the reporter and the warrior can write in the same language.
How war reporting has changed
It was not always so. In the First World War, poets – Blunden, Sassoon, Kettle, Owen of course – wrote in a language far more comprehensible and contemporary than the great and now forgotten correspondents in France. Was the Second World War, I often ask myself, the first and last time that soldiers and reporters complemented each other as witnesses to war – although we must remember that British correspondents wore uniform – and could reflect each other’s imaginative power? Ed Murrow’s “London Calling” broadcasts from the Blitz and his colleague William Shirer’s reporting from Berlin had much in common with Hillary’s prose.