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Basil Davidson: a fine writer and fighter

Richard Gott looks at the life of a very British sort of dissenter

May 7, 2011
15 min read

Basil Davidson is best known as the historian of Africa, and as a reporter/participant in its liberation wars. Yet for the first 15 years of his adult life, he was almost wholly involved with military and political battles in Europe, an experience that coloured almost all his subsequent activities. When writing about his African adventures, he always recalled the earlier events of his life with the partisans of Europe, fighting against the Nazi occupation. He lived for so long that few people now alive can recall the heroic struggles in which he was then engaged, but luckily for us he wrote extensively about his experiences in those years from 1940 to 1956.

Basil was an unusual figure in the middle of the 20th century – a guerrilla fighter, a radical journalist, a writer and a novelist, and a political activist on the left, yet by no means a typical leftist. He stood aside from the sectarian quarrels of the left; he was not a joiner of political organisations; he had little interest in British politics, apart from their impact on foreign affairs.

Basil also wore – and relished – an establishment hat. He was rightly proud of having been a lieutenant-colonel in the second world war, and of being awarded the Military Cross; and he made no secret of the fact that he had once been in the secret intelligence service – and, maybe, he remained there; he liked to keep his friends guessing.

Yet he was an uneasy establishment figure. He was what the historian A J P Taylor called ‘a troublemaker’, a natural dissenter, an opponent of all received opinions; he disliked the accepted view, especially with regard to foreign policy. Taylor might almost have had Basil in mind when, more than half a century ago, he gave a series of lectures on the long tradition of radical disagreement with British foreign policy that had existed since the French Revolution, and on the ‘troublemakers’ that created this tradition. Starting with Charles James Fox and his opposition to the counter-revolutionary war of the 1790s, he continued with Richard Cobden and John Bright and their dislike of the 19th-century wars of intervention, and he concluded with the coterie of radicals that clustered around C P Scott of the Manchester Guardian, who opposed both the Boer war and the first world war.

Proud lineage

This was a lineage of which Basil would certainly have been proud. Taylor’s particular hero – and Basil’s too – was Edmund Morel, who made his name as an opponent of slave labour in the Congo in 1902, and went on to found the Union of Democratic Control, with which Basil was later to be involved. The UDC was a pacifistic anti-war organisation supported by Bertrand Russell and Ramsey MacDonald among others, and Morel was attacked at the time for being pro-German. The UDC was a notable opponent of the Foreign Office, and hostile to the secret diplomacy in which it specialised. Morel died unexpectedly in 1924, after failing to become the foreign secretary in Ramsey MacDonald’s first government, but he believed that a secret and mistaken foreign policy had been largely responsible for the outbreak of the war.

Basil fitted very comfortably into the historical tradition of the ‘troublemakers’, and 25 years after the death of Morel, he took up the leadership of the UDC. He became its general secretary in 1948 and the chief author of its campaigning pamphlets. How good it would have been if he had become Britain’s foreign secretary!

Another of Basil’s heroes was Henry Nevinson, also a ‘troublemaker’ and a great foreign correspondent in the early 20th century. Morel had made his name in the Congo; Nevinson did so when he uncovered the slave conditions in Angola in 1907. ‘Did you ever know Nevinson?’ Basil once asked me over lunch, forgetting for a moment that we were not exactly contemporaries. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m afraid that he died when I was three.’ Basil was clearly disappointed, and went on to tell me what a wonderful man he had been.

Basil was not anti-war, still less a pacifist – he was, after all, a guerrilla fighter – but he was an early opponent of the cold war, not a comfortable or non-controversial position to hold in the late 1940s, when the spirit of Joe McCarthy was alive on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as Morel had been accused of being pro-German, so Basil was accused of being pro-Russian, or in the language of those days, ‘a fellow-traveller’.

Basil, of course, was nothing of the kind. He never indicated much interest in the Russian revolution, he was notably ill-informed about Marxism, and he cared nothing for Lenin or Stalin. But he was a British officer who had fought alongside people who had been inspired by such figures, and he tolerated their ideological foibles because they were keen on defeating the Nazis.

Basil had started out in the late 1930s as a foreign correspondent, and he had several characteristics that fitted him for the role: he was an exceptionally fine writer, he had an unusual capacity for languages, and he had a huge talent for friendship and for listening to what people had to say – something that lasted throughout his life. To which one might add that he was not one to suffer fools gladly.

Resisting the Nazis

The two bookends of this particular part of Basil’s story are in the central European republic of Hungary. Basil was sent to Budapest in January 1940 ‘to promote resistance’ against the pro-Nazi government, as he later recalled, and he was there again in October 1956 as Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Hungarian uprising.

On that later occasion, he had flown in with Anthony Cavendish, an acquaintance from MI6, in the days just before the Soviet invasion. He described his experiences in a pamphlet for the UDC in 1957, recalling how he had witnessed the Nazi invasion in 1941, when a Nazi motorized division had motored down the quays of the Danube on its way to invade Yugoslavia. ‘The great city of Budapest,’ he wrote, had ‘meant … a great deal in my own life.’ He had lived there for a year in 1940, he had learnt to speak some elementary Hungarian, and he had made many friends.

One of his tasks in Hungary was to oversee the storage of explosives in the basement of the British embassy, to be made ready for the local resistance forces to use on just such an occasion as the Nazi invasion. Yet on discovering what his basement contained, the British ambassador of the time, the feeble and defeatist Owen O’Malley (who was married to the novelist Ann Bridge), gave orders for the explosives to be thrown into the Danube.

Basil’s contempt for the diplomatic service and for the stuffier members of the British establishment may be said to date from that time. His view was that conservatives within the British government and its bureaucracy, as well as the BBC, were hindering the war effort. This belief became ever more pronounced when he moved to Cairo in 1942. There he ran the Yugoslav desk of SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which had been set up to promote resistance in occupied Europe.

He soon discovered that opposition to Nazi rule in central Europe, as well as to the dictatorships that had preceded it, was largely in the hands of the local communists. But the conservative elements in SOE argued that their efforts should be directed towards the anti-communist resistance – the ‘chetniks’ of Mihailovitch in the case of Yugoslavia. Basil knew, from the intelligence material that crossed his desk from Bletchley Park, that only Tito’s communists were actively engaged in military resistance to the Nazis.

The story has been told many times, not least by Basil himself. Eventually, with the aid of Winston Churchill and his literary researcher Bill Deakin, SOE was persuaded to direct its efforts towards helping Tito and the communists, not least by dropping Basil by parachute into central Bosnia in August 1943.

The story he wrote of his year in Yugoslavia with the partisans, called Partisan Picture, is one of his best books, an honest and riveting account of irregular warfare. Someone should keep it permanently in print. The war was brutal; on one occasion, when the partisans retreated before a Nazi onslaught, Basil records how they had to shoot their prisoners.

‘Of course we used child soldiers,’ Basil once told me, ‘but don’t tell Victoria!’ Victoria Brittain and I were lunching with Basil, and Victoria had been complaining about the use of child soldiers in recent African wars. In Yugoslavia in 1944 their participation was essential.

Just as interesting as the military detail in the book is Basil’s appreciation of the politics. He saw the liberation of Europe by its own peoples as one of the great moments in European history. The Nazi invasion, he wrote, ‘gave rise to an occasion … for the hearts of most Europeans to beat as one: and the pulsing of that complex organism was the movement for resistance and liberation. The glorious year of 1848 was a small affair compared with that other annus mirabilis of 1944.’ Very few historians have used that parallel to point up the huge revolutionary significance of 1944.

Out of sympathy and at odds

Basil’s enthusiasm was tinged with sadness at Britain’s failure to welcome these new developments. ‘At no time had the peoples of the continent looked more admiringly towards England,’ he wrote, ‘and yet the British government remained out of sympathy and at odds with the predominant mood of continental Europe.’

In Yugoslavia, the British had been obliged to back a Communist winner, because it was demonstrably winning. In neighbouring Greece, the leftist liberation forces were not so fortunate; they were destroyed by British intervention. ‘Once again,’ wrote Basil, at the end of Partisan Picture, ‘the British government had come down on the side of reaction. Once again, it turned out that the liberation the British were fighting for in Europe meant a return to 1939, to dictatorship, to concentration camps, to rigid censorship of press and platform, to the whole apparatus of clique-rule.’

The same pattern was repeated in northern Italy, where Basil was parachuted in to the partisans in January 1945, just a month after British forces were sent to crush the leftists in Athens. Basil described how ‘the partisans of Florence and … other northern cities were disarmed by the advancing [British and American] forces at breakneck speed.’ This could only be explained, he wrote, by their great apprehension ‘of what the partisans might do, once they were liberated. The whole emphasis of policy went against the resistance movement and in favour of the forces of “law and order” – in favour, that is, of all those individuals of “conservative” and quasi-fascist views who had managed to creep back into positions of influence in Rome and elsewhere.’

To Basil’s dismay, the pattern continued into the post-war period, and he reserved some of his most stinging barbs for the Labour government of the time. He described how ‘the highly conservative foreign policy of the Foreign Office was to come out even more clearly in the attitude which the Labour government took up towards the revolutionary governments in eastern and south-eastern Europe.’

Basil returned from the war to work at the Times, first as its Paris correspondent, then as its foreign leader-writer. He moved on after a year or two to the New Statesman, which should have been a more congenial home. Given his radical views on foreign policy, it was not surprising that he was also appointed to run the Union of Democratic Control. In Morel’s day, the UDC had campaigned for the democratic control of foreign affairs; in Basil’s time it sought ‘to provide the facts upon which [an] enlightened foreign policy might be formed.’ A great raft of pamphlets came from his pen: on Greece, on Spain, on Japan, on the Arab world, and, increasingly, on Germany. He was one of the most vociferous opponents of German rearmament, one of the great radical causes of the time.


Yet soon he was undermined by his erstwhile allies on the New Statesman. The editor, Kingsley Martin, and his companion, Dorothy Woodman, were both pillars of the UDC, but Woodman in particular was sharply critical of Basil’s political line. So too was the Foreign Office, and its continuing hostility was communicated to the New Statesman staff. ‘The idea began to grow,’ according to Martin’s biographer, ‘that Davidson was a fellow-traveller, if not worse.’ Leonard Woolf, an influential figure in the office, regarded him as ‘a Red’.

So Basil’s reputation was blackened, and he was sacked from the paper: but not before he had gone on an extended journey through southern Africa in 1951, producing a wonderful series of articles and a highly influential book.

Basil had had great hopes after 1945 for a revolutionary change in the countries of Europe, on the basis of what he had witnessed in Yugoslavia and Italy, yet it was clear by the end of the 1940s that those hopes had been drowned in the rising waters of the cold war. He turned now, almost fortuitously, to Africa, encouraged by fresh patrons, first by the Daily Herald (until his appointment there was blocked by the anti-communist Hugh Gaitskell) and then by the Daily Mirror. Cecil King, chairman of the Mirror Group, had been asked by MI6 in the late 1940s to consider publishing newspapers in west Africa, where the British authorities were worried by the nationalistic tone of the local papers. Soon the Mirror Group was running the Daily Times in Lagos, the Daily Graphic in the Gold Coast, and the Daily Mail in Sierra Leone.

King needed someone to make regular trips to Africa to keep an eye on his different papers, and Basil was just the man. King was no leftist, yet the two men had much in common. ‘I am anti-Tory,’ King told Anthony Sampson, ‘because I think the establishment is corrupt and incompetent … I have a strong feeling of sympathy for underdogs – anyone being trod on by the machine; that is why I am interested in Africans.’

Before becoming engaged full-time in Africa, Basil had one final appointment in Hungary, during the Soviet invasion of 1956. After interviewing most of the leading figures in Budapest during the political upheaval, he also witnessed the arrival of Soviet tanks. In yet another pamphlet for the UDC he explained and denounced the Soviet intervention. ‘In the eyes of all but a handful of blinded bigots, the Russians stand guilty of an aggression that sinks them to the level of the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt.’ Basil kept up his reputation as a dissenter by firing off with two barrels – one against the Russians, the other directed against the Foreign Office.

Before he abandoned Europe, Basil had a brief fling with a fresh revolution far away, being one of the first British correspondents to visit China after Mao Tse-tung’s victory in 1949. He wrote one book, Daybreak in China, about his first trip in 1951, and another about a later visit to Chinese Central Asia.

‘My bias,’ Basil wrote then, ‘is for China’s freedom: I believe that I share this bias with most of the people in the world.’ He concluded his preface with some words about freedom from his hero Henry Nevinson, his immediate predecessor as one of Britain’s journalist ‘trouble-makers’. Nevinson, like Basil, had travelled extensively in the Balkans and in Africa, and he explained that he had learnt the reality of freedom ‘only from the misery of its opposite.’

‘When I hear the word Freedom,’ Nevinson wrote, ‘I see shaggy farmers, rough with mud and storm, clad in leather cut from outstarved horses, waiting at the bottom of a water-course, rifle in hand. Or I see a woman in rags cowering under a ruined wall while sleet hisses upon the charred and open patch of ground which was her house. Or I see a pale man and girl hurried over the snow between brown-coated soldiers with fixed bayonets to be hacked to pieces in a barrack yard. Or I see a herd of black Africans, men and women, huddled together upon a steamer’s deck, gazing like driven cattle towards the misty islands where they will toil until they die …’

That was Henry Nevinson’s vision of why freedom was so necessary; it was also the vision of Basil Davidson.

Some of Basil Davidson’s books that deal with this early period are: Partisan Picture, an immediate memoir about his participation in the guerrilla war in Yugoslavia in 1943 and 1944; Highway Forty, a novel about the final months of the guerrilla war in northern Italy in 1945; Golden Horn, another novel, set in wartime Istanbul, where Basil worked in 1941–42; and Special Operations Europe: Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War, the first volume of an uncompleted autobiography

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