The outbreak of the Second World War is likely one of the most written-about topics in history. It is difficult to imagine what more new and original could be added to the already profuse literature on the tumultuous events of the 1930s.
But going back to one of the earliest accounts of the rise of Hitler’s Germany provides a different experience. Reading Martha Gellhorn’s reporting from Czechoslovakia in 1938 is like watching the war rise from the ashes of Depression-era Europe with new eyes.
Gellhorn in 1938 was a plucky, 30-year-old American war correspondent with a knack for seeking out the hotspots of war. Having crossed the Atlantic to cover her first conflict, the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn found herself in Czechoslovakia, just before the Nazi occupation of the region known to the Germans as the Sudetenland.
Gellhorn’s literary style is atmospheric, emotive, and pregnant with foreboding. She captures the day-to-day life and minutiae of events in vivid detail, foregrounding the military aggression that the Nazi regime was about to inflict on Europe with a realism that only an eyewitness could have constructed.
Gellhorn’s method was to describe facts and events, with the intended meaning and interpretation hidden behind the surface. Thus she poignantly begins her report on Czechoslavakia, published in Collier’s magazine on 6 August 1938, with a description of a pro-democracy parade headed by the Social Democrats of Czechoslovakia:
The Bakers’ Union marches with giant breakfast rolls on their heads, the Slovak peasants in embroidered blouses and red skirts and high boots dance past … They sing and cheer and salute the crowd and the president. All the banners and signs repeat the word: democracy. They talk a great deal about democracy in Czechoslovakia because they think they may have to fight for it.
Thus setting the scene, Gellhorn, without being explicitly moralistic, has captured the zeitgeist of the 1930s and the great conflict that awaited. Reading her writing, it is clear that the Second World War and epoch-defining clash between democracy and totalitarianism, epitomised in most brutal form by the Nazi regime, was not an event that suddenly occurred to the surprise of the sleeping masses: instead, alarm bells were ringing across the continent and commentators such as Gellhorn, having just witnessed the rise of fascism in Spain, were well aware of the dangers ahead.
Her writing beautifully dips in and out of descriptions of the peacetime land, sharply interrupted with cold references to the harbingers of conflict:
On the frontier between Silesia and Czechoslovakia, the land is open, and behind the town of Troppau little hills like the Ozarks curve around the fields. There are women bending in the beet fields, and men forking the grain.
Beside the haystacks are other things that look like haystacks until you get closer and see that they are camouflaged pillboxes, with machine guns and anti-tank guns in them, and the soldiers stand as quiet as scarecrows among the working peasants.
Driving through the pinewoods behind Troppau, near Haj, you see a new fort being built, fl at and wide on the top of the hill, and on the road dozens of steel spikes sunk into concrete blocks, from which later the barbed wire will be strung. Then the road dips down from the forest and crosses the river into a plain.
On the other side of that plain is Germany, and across the nearest field is a triple row of barbed wire, on huge spools, and beside the river is a black cement-and-steel gun fortress where, beside machine guns, and anti-tank guns, there are also the highly perfected antiaircraft guns that all Czechoslovakia believes in. Three soldiers talk to some girls who are drying their hair after swimming in the river.
The World Depression
Gellhorn’s report shows that she has thoroughly investigated military build-up as well as the political and social turmoil of the scene. She speaks to members of the Social Democratic Party, whose numbers have plummeted since the onset of economic depression.
She documents conversations she had with the ‘Henlein Nazis’, a German minority among the Slavic population of Czechoslovakia who, she writes, had expressed limited support for the Nazi party until devastating levels of employment pushed them into the hands of the fascists, who used nationalism to scapegoat Slavs and Jews for having caused the onset of economic depression.
The excuse for all this tension is the German minority. Of the 3.5 million Germans in Czechoslovakia, about two million are Henlein Nazis. Up until 1935, eighty percent of the Germans were Social Democrats who believed in democracy and got on all right in Czechoslovakia.
Then 500 factories failed, the glass factories and the bead and porcelain and jute and sugar and textile factories, which employed these people and exported their wares all over the world. The Henleinists blamed the Czechs for the world depression, and felt they were being willfully starved.
She meets a man who runs the local Nazi party. ‘He is a nice man, and gets his politics out of the newspapers. He says that they do not want war, they want work. It is the fault of the Czechs, who maintain such bad relations with Germany, that no tourists want to come to Gottesgab any more,’ she writes.
Gellhorn treats all her subjects with empathy. While acknowledging the Nazi party man’s nefarious political affiliations, she documents the ‘miserable’ state of living of the party supporters, where children starved in huts with only hot bread and water to eat, with overcrowded and nightmarish poorhouses full of elderly residents.
She speaks to a Jewish lawyer and a wine merchant’s wife: they are fearful. Before the depression, they had lived happily as friendly members of the local community. They had lived there for generations. But now, they had no clients. In a matter of months, friendly relations had turned hostile. Gellhorn bluntly records the conversation:
Since the first of May, she says, no one buys from them and no one speaks to them on the street. They seem to have lost their friends, but they were always happy here before. ‘We are not afraid of war,’ she says. ‘We are afraid of the mob.’
Gellhorn documents that many Czechs were optimistic about resisting the German invasion. But Gellhorn had experienced the brutality of modern warfare in Spain, and it is evident from her commentary that she saw these preparations as hopelessly inadequate. Watching a young boy pedal up a street on a bicycle, using a horn as an air-raid siren, Gellhorn writes:
It makes me nervous because I remember that it took 95 seconds in Barcelona to wipe out a central chunk of the city and to bury alive several hundred people. Ninety-five seconds is less time than it takes the boy to pedal up the village street.
With acute strategic and geopolitical analysis, her prospects for peace in Czechoslovakia are gloomy:
Czechoslovakia slants across central Europe, and beyond lie the oil fields of Rumania, the wheat of the Ukraine, and the Black Sea. If a great power controlled Czechoslovakia, it would have a strong strategical position for striking westward into Europe, toward the Mediterranean. Czechoslovakia’s tragedy is that it is in the way.
Present at the outbreak of the war, Gellhorn’s adventures were not to end. Twentieth-century society was still hugely patriarchal, and despite demonstrating her competence and courage many times previously, Gellhorn was denied permission to report on the D-Day landings.
This didn’t stop her, though. She smuggled herself onto a hospital boat bound for Normandy, locked herself into a toilet, and waded onto the shore with the crew from the water ambulances.
She was the first female correspondent to report on the landings, publishing her account in Collier’s, ironically beating her then husband, Ernest Hemingway – who was officially commissioned to report for Collier’s – to the scoop.
Gellhorn went on to witness the liberation of Europe and was one of the first journalists to enter Dachau concentration camp. The horrors of the Second World War did not stop her impetuous desire to report on war.
She continued to publish on the events of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the US invasion of Panama, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and many others. Elderly and sick, she died in an apparent suicide in 1998, at her home in London. This year, she will be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at her 28-year residence in Cadogan Square, London.
IN CONTEXT: Martha Gellhorn
Gellhorn was born in St Louis, Missouri, to Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist, and George Gellhorn, a German-born gynaecologist. In 1927 she started her career as a journalist, moving to Paris aged 21 to report on the pacifist movement.
On her return to America, she met novelist Ernest Hemingway; together they left for Europe to report on the Spanish Civil War. They eventually married in 1940, but the marriage broke down as Hemingway became resentful of Gellhorn’s long work-related absences, and Gellhorn felt shackled by a relationship where her husband’s literary fame dwarfed her own independent work as a war correspondent. She resented being known as ‘Hemingway’s wife’.
They divorced in 1945 and Gellhorn settled in London. She continued reporting into the 1990s, when her eyesight failed her and she went into retirement.
This article appeared in issue 109 of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.