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Today’s laptop activists seek attention, not truth

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with General Yu Hanmou, Chongqing, China, 1941

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with General Yu Hanmou, Chongqing, China, 1941

October 1, 2018   4 mins

In the babble of Twitter, with its glib lies and its journalist-activists who would blow up a mountain to stand on the summit, only to discover, later and with surprise, that there was no summit anymore, I long for a constant voice that has known a place well. I read journalism from what feels like a long-ago time – the mid-20th century. I read Martha Gellhorn.

Who was she? It doesn’t really matter. When she wrote – from the 1930s to the 1980s – there were few celebrity journalists and Gellhorn knew that she was not, and should not be, important. She was, in fact, a clever, curious, unwillingly beautiful woman who left a bourgeois upbringing in Missouri and threw herself into the only story in town: the rise of fascism in Europe.

I suppose the equivalent today would be if the child hack of Novara Media or Squawk Box were to travel to Venezuela to describe the monster they instead summon through the magical power of Tweet. But they won’t go to Venezuela. Reality doesn’t interest them that much, and they lack the funds. Gellhorn wrote for Collier’s magazine, a now defunct American weekly which had the sense to pay her well and leave her alone. Some things about the past are better.

Journalism is often considered a minor art, a tawdry, opportunistic stop-gap between violence and history. Today, with the rise of the celebrity activist journalist with his obvious, insulting lies and his cowardice, it is even less than that. Of course, the narcissists would come for journalism; the bylines are pleasing. But they are, despite their protestations to equality, engaged in a war for attention, not truth. They are tyrannical in tone, and they shed no light – how can they from their lap-tops?

Gellhorn’s journalism, though, is a time machine. It takes you to her side, instantly; you can hear the guns and brush the dust of old Europe from your eyes.

“In war,” she wrote, “I never knew anything beyond what I could see and hear, a full-time occupation.” She watched the Allied invasion of France from a hospital ship in the English Channel, because sexism kept her, initially, from the front lines. “The ship itself was painfully white,” she wrote, “all fixed up like a sitting pigeon.” A better stylist than her sometime husband, Ernest Hemingway – and he knew it too, tried to thwart her and never forgave her – they competed to write the best prose, and Martha won. You cannot write great op-ed without reportage, and you cannot get great reportage without humility.

You need rage too, and rage is very fashionable these days. I am all for rage, but I like it well-hewn, and with footnotes. Martha’s rage was precise, and it came to her young. Here is her rage against how people lived in the Great Depression, written for the US government and her short apprenticeship in journalism: “It is hard to believe that these conditions exist in a civilised country,” 1 she wrote tidily, and promptly tried to incite a small riot, for which she was fired.

Here is her rage at Neville Chamberlain – “a stick figure with a fossil mind”[ 2. Martha Gellhorn: The View from the Ground, Penguin,1988]  – who spoke “to and for the meanest stupidity of his people” after signing away “the life of Czechoslovakia”. She pitied the English – “they haven’t any imagination at all” she said, correctly, which is why we import our greatest novelists from Ireland and Cornwall – but she changed her mind in wartime and saw our character defects turn into something wonderful.

Here is her rage at Dachau: “No one looked out the windows as we flew over Germany.  No one ever wanted to see Germany again.” “We got to talk about it,” says a man sitting near her on the plane, “We got to talk about it, if anyone believes us or not”. I will spare you her observations about Dachau. If you want to read them, they are in her collected works The Face of War.

She could be funny, which was quite a feat in Germany in 1945. She paused in a village near the Ruhr pocket and was told by its inhabitants: “No one is a Nazi. No one ever was. There may have been some Nazis in the next village, and as a matter of fact, that town about twenty kilometres away was a veritable hotbed of Nazism.” Then someone told her: “I hid a Jew for six weeks. I hid a Jew for eight weeks. (I hid a Jew, he hid a Jew, all God’s children hid Jews).”2

Her masterpiece was her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 – Eichmann and the Private Conscience for the Atlantic magazine – and the best piece of journalism I have ever read. “This man is exempt from our pity, as he was pitiless beyond the reaches of imagination,” she wrote, “We cannot understand him because of this; and we fear him. We have cause for fear, and what we fear is deeper and stronger than the tangible terrors we live with: menacing struggles between rival states, weapons which pre-empt nature’s own rights. We fear him because we know that he is sane.” And that it is, exactly.

She was flawed. Her friend H.G.Wells, vexed by her occasional sloth, insisted she write something, anything, on a lazy morning, so she wrote an account of witnessing a lynching called Justice at Night which she – or someone else, it isn’t clear – then sold as journalism to The Spectator. It was brilliant but entirely fictional.

“I got a measure for my own life,” she wrote, of her reportage, “whatever its trials and tribulations they would always be petty, insignificant stuff by comparison.”3 When the Second World War came, she rebuked herself for having “an invaluable green American passport. I was perfectly safe…. I felt like a profiteer, ashamed and useless…. I could walk away.” But she didn’t. Instead she compiled a masterclass for future journalists. If only they would read it.

  1. Caroline Moorehead, Martha Gellhorn: A Life, Vintage, 2011. Page 94.
  2. Ray Moseley, Reporting War: How foreign correspondents risk capture, torture and death to cover World War II, Yale, 2017.
  3. Martha Gellhorn The View from the Ground, Penguin, 1998.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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