Frederick Augustus Voigt, the Berlin correspondent for The Manchester Guardian between 1920 and 1932, he did not seem like a fearless reporter.
In a 1935 portrait Taken by Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy, Voigt seems to want to get away from the camera, suspicious eyes behind thick, round glasses. His 1957 obituary described his appearance thus: “Frail-looking, nervous in his manner, short-sighted, shyly smiling.”
Voigt could get very nervous. He once confided to his editor that, on a bad day, he might not feel brave enough to cross the street in heavy traffic. “Like so many hatreds, my hatred for cars stems from fear.”
And yet “brave” is the only appropriate adjective to describe Voigt’s journalism. Known as “Freddy” among his colleagues in England, “Fritz” among his friends in Berlin, but only as “our correspondent” to readers of The Manchester Guardian, Voigt always went straight to where the story was, even if the story could put his life at risk.
A few months after his arrival at GermanyWhile covering the uprising of the Ruhr miners in Essen, he was kidnapped by officers of the Reichswehr (the Armed Forces) who accused him of being a spy. They stood him up against a wall and gunned down the space around his head. His report of the incident, in which he named the officer who had mistreated him and described the miserable conditions in which the other prisoners were found, earned him an official apology from the German Chancellor.
Dared to publish
His exclusive from 1926 About the collaboration between the Reichswehr and the Soviet Red Army caused the fall of the German Government. Other journalists in Germany knew of the secret pact, which was known to European intelligence agencies. They also knew that going public meant risking being sent to prison for the crime of high treason. They decided not to publish it. Voigt did.
Most important of all, while living and writing during this tumultuous and bewildering decade of European history, Voigt was a constant witness to the most important history in his territory: the rise of Nazism. He soon realized that he could not opt for “fairness.”
One hundred years later, I have inherited the Voigt assignment in Berlin. While we share modern language training and German ancestry – I moved to London as a teenager, he was the son of German wine merchants who had emigrated to Hampstead – the list of common ground ends there.
Technology has changed the possibilities – and the requirements – of our work, making them unrecognizable. Freddy Voigt had to telegraph his daily article before six in the afternoon. Anything sent after that time would be left out of the first edition, leaving the correspondent for The Manchester Guardian at a disadvantage to their peers in the London newspapers, who had until nine at night to compose their thoughts. The challenge of gathering the information was often easier than getting it to the typographers in Manchester.
Today, foreign correspondents write and submit their articles anywhere: in the middle of a press conference, in a coffee shop, or on the train home. But we are also expected to do it at various times of the day, sometimes after midnight or on weekends, or while recording a podcast.
The range of topics we cover and journalistic records we use has also expanded: my colleague Katy connolly and I write about the social and cultural life in our assigned area, as well as what happens within the Bundestag. In doing so, we often alternate between more personal news, articles, interviews, and columns. Voigt had an unmistakable style, combining attention to detail with fiery conviction and a deep understanding of philosophy and theology, but he was essentially a political correspondent. Despite living next to the Nürnbernger Diele bar, a key meeting point for gay and artistic life in the Berlin of the Weimar republic, the nightlife of the German capital was never the subject of his reports.
Many of his contemporaries claim that Voigt was a close friend of the artist George Grosz, the great satirical chronicler of the interwar period. In that case, the journalist never turned his personal connection to Grosz into an article about him or his work. Voigt’s 1928 report on Grosz’s imprisonment – due to a drawing of a person balancing a cross on his nose – does not contain any direct quotes from the convict.
“The only German liberal”
The most radical change is that of the country we are referring to: in the 1920s, Germany was recovering from a humiliating defeat in war. Its borders were in dispute, the economy was unstable, the democratic tradition was fragile, and violence in the streets was on the rise. In a letter to Voigt, his first editor, CP Scott, refers to the Social Democratic politician Rudolf Breitscheid – a contributor to The Guardian whom Voigt and Scott were trying to help emigrate to London – as “the only German liberal”.
Modern Germany has liberal politicians at the head of power. It is a society very aware of the dangers of far-right demagoguery and has strong institutions for the defense of the democratic tradition. In the last five years as chief correspondent for The Guardian In Berlin, the only brushes I have had with street violence were when I was near the Breitscheidplatz on the night of attack on the Christmas market in 2016 and cycling through the interior of Hamburg during the G20 protests in 2017.
There are who still yearn for the conservative Germany of yesteryear, groups of people who dream of bringing that time back Y flashes of street violence by those who act on these fantasies. But to give journalistic resources exclusively to these extremist minorities would be to offer a skewed image and betray the forces of civility, which Voigt defended even in Germany’s darkest period.
One of the most interesting pieces in Voigt’s correspondence is a kind of confession. Writing about Hitler’s Germany was challenging, he tells his editor in London, as the political situation was so abnormal that he feared that “the most rigorous account would seem sensationalist.” That is why he said in 1932, referring to a recent article, that “I have described [a Hitler] in the most moderate way possible, simply because I want to avoid causing disbelief. ”
One hundred years later, the task of balancing the facts with the preconceptions of the readers remains. With readers not just in the UK but around the world, the job has certainly become more complex. However, the challenge of cultural translation is different: German politics has a dislike for the hysterical style prevailing in the 1920s, and as a result it can sometimes seem so mundane that it is uninteresting. Often you have to go beyond the seemingly insipid surface to detect the dramas, the absurd, the injustices and the eccentricities of modern Germany.
Voigt was the best at revealing realities that other correspondents refused to see. In 1921, the envoy of The Manchester Guardian in Berlin he first reported “harassment of the Jews” and, in the fall of 1930, he warned of the threat of a National Socialist dictatorship. He continued to report relentlessly on what he called Hitler’s “brown terror” while other British newspapers published articles seeking to please the government. Voigt warned his editor WP Crozier in March 1933 that the rise of the Nazis was “the most important historical event since the Great War.”
By then, Voigt was reporting on German advances from Paris through correspondence with his extensive network of contacts, having been the first international correspondent to have been expelled from the Third Reich.
Just before Christmas 1933, French officials informed his office of an imminent plan of attack to take away his notes. Or at least, that’s what he believed at first. Later he learned that the Gestapo’s intention was to assassinate him. Three agents of the French intelligence services were assigned for their protection. One of them slept in his room next to him, with an automatic pistol. “Of such a size that I am sure it belongs to the category of heavy weaponry,” he wrote.
How could such a scary man be so brave in his writing? During his coverage on the Western Front, Voigt learned that fear was as natural a physical reaction as feeling cold in winter. However, one could put one’s fear on hold by intense exercise of the intellect. That was what he discovered during an air raid and so he tells it in his memoirs of the First World War, Combed Out.
“I was so focused on self-analysis that I lost consciousness of everything except my mental concentration,” he wrote in the short but heartbreaking book composed from his war diaries. “Even those sensations that I was trying to analyze were destroyed by the mere act of analyzing them.”
Translation of Julián Cnochaert