Frederick Augustus Voigt, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Berlin between 1920 and 1932, did not seem like a fearless reporter.
TO 1935 portrait by Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy makes it look like she wants to get away from the camera, suspicious eyes entrenched behind thick, round glasses. His physical appearance was described in his 1957 obituary as “frail-looking and nervous-mannered, myopic, with a mouth-down smile trick.”
So nervous could Voigt be, he once confided to his editor that on a bad day he didn’t feel brave enough to cross a busy street. “Like so many hatreds, my hatred of cars stems from fear.”
And yet, brave is the only suitable adjective to describe Voigt’s journalism. Known as “Freddy” by colleagues in England, as “Fritz” by friends in Berlin, but only as “our own correspondent” to Manchester Guardian readers, Voigt always went straight to where the story was, even if the story could endanger your life.
Within a few months of arriving in Germany, while covering the uprising of the Ruhr miners in Essen, he was abducted by rogue Reichswehr officers who accused him of being a spy, put him against a wall and riddled the space around his head. with bullets. His wording of the incident, which named the officer who mistreated him and described the miserable conditions of other prisoners, earned him an official apology from the German chancellor.
His 1926 exclusive on a covert collaboration between the Reichswehr and the Soviet Red Army led to the collapse of the German government. Other journalists would have known of the secret agreement, which was common knowledge among European intelligence agencies, just as they would have known that making it public ran the risk of being sent to prison for treason in Germany. They decided not to publish. Voigt did.
Most important of all, while living and reporting on this tumultuous and disorienting decade of European history, Voigt managed to keep track of the most important story of his patch, the rise of Nazism, and soon realized that it was not one for whom he could afford to give the “both sides” treatment.
A hundred years later, I inherited the Voigt patch in Berlin, but even though we share experience in modern languages and German ancestry (I moved to London as a teenager, he was born to a German émigré wine merchant in Hampstead), the list of commonalities . ends shortly after.
Technology has changed the possibilities and requirements of our jobs beyond recognition. Freddy Voigt had to send his copy every day at 6 in the afternoon. Anything sent after that would lose the first edition, putting the Manchester Guardian correspondent at a disadvantage to those in the London newspapers, who had until 9:00 pm to compose their thoughts. Often times, the challenge of gathering information was easier than bringing it to the typographers in Manchester.
Today, foreign correspondents write and file their articles anywhere: in the middle of a press conference, in a cafe, or on the train home. But we are also expected to do it at various times of the day, sometimes after midnight and on the weekend, or in between recording a podcast.
The range of topics we cover, and the journalistic records in which we cover them, has also expanded: my colleague Kate Connolly and I write about the cultural and social life in our field as well as what is happening within the Bundestag, and In doing so, we frequently switch between more personal news, reports, interviews, and columns. Voigt had an unmistakable voice, combining attention to detail with fiery conviction and deep learning in philosophy and theology, but he was essentially a political correspondent. Despite living right next door to the Nürnberger Diele bar, an arts and gay hot spot in Weimar-era Berlin, the German capital’s nightlife was never the subject of his reports.
Several contemporaries claim that Voigt was a close friend of the artist George Grosz, the great satirical chronicler of the interwar years. If that was the case, the journalist never turned his personal connection into an article about himself or his work. Voigt’s 1928 report on Grosz being sent to prison, on a drawing depicting a parson with a cross balanced on his nose, contains no direct quotes from the convict.
The most crucial change occurs in the country we write about: Germany in the 1920s was recovering from a humiliating defeat in war. Its borders were contested, its economy unstable, its democratic traditions fragile, violence in the streets was high. In a letter to Voigt, its first editor, CP Scott, once referred to the Social Democratic delegate Rudolf Breitscheid, a Guardian contributor whom the two were trying to help emigrate to London, as “the only German liberal.”
Modern Germany has liberal politicians in the highest positions of power. It is a society with a heightened awareness of the dangers of right-wing demagoguery and with strong institutions created to defend its democratic traditions. The only shaves I’ve gotten from street violence in five years as head of The Guardian’s Berlin bureau was when I found myself near Breitscheidplatz on the night of the 2016 Christmas market terrorist attack, or cycling through downtown the city of Hamburg during the G20 riots in 2017.
There are still those who yearn for the illiberal German days of yore, groups of people dreaming of ways to bring them back, and flashes of street violence from those who act on these fantasies. But to throw journalistic resources exclusively at these extreme minorities would be to paint a skewed picture and betray the forces of civility, which Voigt struggled to highlight even in Germany’s darkest period.
One of the most interesting pieces of Voigt’s correspondence is a kind of confession. The challenge in writing about Hitler’s Germany, he once told his editor in London, was that the political situation was so abnormal “that I fear the driest account must seem like a piece of sensationalism.” As a result, he said of a report recently submitted in 1932, “I have described it [Hitler] as gently as possible in my article, simply because I want to avoid generating disbelief. “
One hundred years later, the act of balancing the facts on the ground with the preconceptions in readers’ heads remains the same. With readers now not just in Britain but around the world, it has arguably become even more complex. However, the challenge of cultural translation is different: German politics dislikes the hysterical style that prevailed in the 1920s, and as a result, it can sometimes seem so mundane that it is uninteresting. It is often necessary to scratch an apparently insipid surface to detect the dramas, absurdities, injustices or eccentricities of modern Germany.
Voigt stood out for explaining the realities that other correspondents refused to see. The man from The Manchester Guardian in Berlin first reported “Jewish harassment” in 1921 and warned of the threat of a National Socialist dictatorship in the fall of 1930. He continued to report resolutely on what he called Hitler’s “Brown Terror” as the other British newspapers smoothed their articles in accordance with their government’s appeasement policy. The rise of the Nazis, his editor WP Crozier warned in March 1933, was “the greatest historical event since the Great War.”
By this time, Voigt was reporting on German events from Paris through correspondence with his wide network of contacts, and had become the first international correspondent to be expelled from the Third Reich.
Around Christmas 1933, French officials informed him of an imminent planned attack on his offices, to confiscate his papers and notes, or so he initially thought. He later learned that the Gestapo’s intention was to assassinate him. Three French intelligence officers were assigned for protection, one sleeping in his room, with an automatic pistol “of such a size that I am sure it must fall into the category of heavy weapons.”
How could a man be so easily frightened to be so brave in his writing? During his time on the Western Front, Voigt had learned that fear was as natural a physical reaction as being cold in winter. However, he could briefly suspend his own terror through intense intellectual exercise, as he realized during an airstrike that he described in his memoir of the first world war, Combed Out.
“I was so focused on self-analysis that I lost consciousness of everything except my mental focus,” he wrote in the short but heartbreaking book drawn from his war diaries. “Even those sensations that I was trying to analyze, because the very act of analysis was destroying them.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism