Writing about Basil Davidson’s work for the LRB blog a few days after his death last month, I’d a sense that there was more to say. The record is magnificent: his sterling work in occupied Yugoslavia for the Special Operations Executive during the war, his books about this period, and then, famously, the histories of precolonial Africa and the writings on the anti-colonial liberation movements. It’s as if he’d had the energy to live two lives in the space of one, and then, in his eighties, to stretch his legs with well-turned pieces for this paper.
In fact his time with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia anticipated his interest in armed struggles in Portuguese Africa and if his writings are too wide-ranging to be thought of as seamless, they’re cut from the same cloth. In my copy of Partisan Picture (1946), his account of his time with the Yugoslav resistance, there’s a postcard from the author referring to a massacre in his area of operations in 1944. ‘Nobody has questioned my veracity, and indeed nobody could. Truly a horrible affair!’ That card was sent some time in the mid-1990s, when he was tired of explaining why Britain had backed Tito’s Communists, and pulled the plug on the rival Chetnik (royalist) resistance, or how the latter had fought a war within a war against Tito’s followers.
Partisan Picture falls open where I left the card. Either side of the story of the massacre are references to Chetnik informers and the dangers they pose for partisans, although the massacre itself was carried out by the 13th (mostly Bosnian) division of the SS. When Davidson and his comrades reached the village of Rača, there were 280 dead. The aftermath into which he’d stumbled, after ‘30 miles of plough and marsh and farm track’, is described with scrupulous anger, and leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling that it might have happened far more recently. And because it’s Davidson telling the story, you think of comparable events in Portuguese Africa, as the nationalist movements took up arms.
This is Davidson, in a letter to the Times in 1973, protesting against a visit to Britain by Portugal’s head of state, Marcelo Caetano, after revelations of a massacre by the Portuguese army in Wiriyamu, Mozambique, the year before: ‘The known list of Portuguese massacres, large or small, is already a long one. The full list must be longer still.’ He goes on to cite an unreported atrocity in Guinea-Bissau, which took place ‘some 15 miles from the place where I was staying, in nationalist-held territory, last November’. In the same letter: ‘I would mention, if I may, that since 1967 I have made four visits to nationalist-controlled areas in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique … and have walked a total of some 600 miles there.’
In Davidson’s career, ground covered on foot signifies the slow assertion of the will, as real agency in the world: movement under pressure, off the beaten track, with comrades or like-minded people. But the will to what? The best answer, the defeat of Fascism, sounds a bit grand, but Davidson was a heartfelt anti-Fascist whose aptitude for this life-and-death struggle in Occupied Europe was then transposed to Africa, where white supremacist doctrines that struck a familiar chord had to be known and described. So he was off again, on foot, only now instead of bearing arms, he took notebooks: journeying with nationalist guerrillas and keeping the record were modest expressions of solidarity, in the struggle for decolonisation.
Courage doesn’t date, but the trappings and rituals change, and Davidson’s death confirms the passing of earlier codes of bravery. They’re more remote from us now, by a man. Even the low-key comedy that went with them has mutated. In Special Operations Europe, a memoir, Davidson describes a vivid episode in the spring of 1945. He is a British liaison officer, pitched into Genoa, where the Italian partisans have taken the city and the German commander has surrendered. But in the Wehrmacht book of etiquette, officers cannot surrender to partisans, only to their Allied counterparts. A handful of ranking Germans are holding out, with their troops at the ready. There is a frightening walk with a white flag towards a building bristling with gun-barrels, but the focus of the story is the embarrassment of the German naval officer with whom Davidson goes on to negotiate, a figure who seems to be ‘caught out in some dreadful social blunder’. A delicate matter of protocol intrudes on the mood of danger and you can see the gleam of irony in the author’s eye.
There’s a period quality, too, about Davidson’s unruffled air, not so much in the memoirs – where he owns up to exhaustion and difficulty – but in stories about him. Covering the Hungarian uprising in 1956 for the Daily Herald, he and several other correspondents were briefly based at the Duna Hotel in Budapest. When news came through that the Russians were threatening air strikes, several reporters argued for taking shelter at the British Legation. According to the Daily Worker correspondent Peter Fryer, who left the Communist Party after his dispatches from Hungary were spiked or slashed to ribbons, Davidson was dismissive of the planned move to safety. He ‘lay in bed reading Tacitus’ and refused to go along with the fluster. ‘A bad peace’, one imagines him noting as he browsed the Dent edition of the Annals and reflected on the grim new arrangements in Europe, could be ‘even worse than war’. Eventually he went with a ‘majority decision’ and moved to the Legation.
Davidson had already travelled to Hungary for the Daily Herald before the uprising, and by then had several projects on the go. The African Awakening, a precursor to his later histories of the continent, had recently been published. The Communist R. Palme Dutt had reviewed it in the Labour Monthly, and scorned his argument that constitutional changes in Nigeria and the Gold Coast (Ghana) were useful building blocks for colonised Africans aiming at independence. Davidson fought back in a persuasive correspondence with Dutt, arguing that the changes laid the groundwork for ‘a national bourgeoisie’ in postcolonial Africa: a ‘significant’ advance ‘when compared, for example, with the position of Africans in the Congo or Angola’.
By his early forties, then, Davidson had grasped the miseries of Belgian and Portuguese colonialism and seen an opening for a workable postcolonial Africa in British constitutional concessions. He’d written cautiously but favourably about the revolution in China, published an outsider’s optimistic forecast of an African renaissance and sat defiantly in the Duna Hotel when Khrushchev threatened Budapest from the air. He’d also been cited in the Stalinist show trial of László Rajk in Hungary, in 1949, as one of the intelligence officers who’d recruited Rajk for alleged pro-Tito, pro-imperialist subversion. Like so many radicals of his generation, he found the lines he walked growing narrower as the Cold War intensified, and he incurred suspicion on the right as well as the left. Looking back with ‘enormous admiration’ for ‘this big handsome fellow’, Eric Hobsbawm remembers being ‘struck by one thing about him: though always helpful, always friendly … he remained surprisingly discreet. If he gave anything away, it was because he meant to.’
Sensing there was something other people shouldn’t know (or even imagine) about you was a habit of the times, brought on by what Davidson later described as ‘the harrowing pressures of the Cold War’. Maybe we should mourn the decline of affability and discretion, so beautifully combined in Davidson, along with his old-fashioned courage. But there can’t be much nostalgia for the period, with its ruined lives and blighted careers. And if that’s behind us, so is Davidson’s tremendous optimism for Africa’s ‘awakening’ on the eve of decolonisation: ‘for all its bewildering diversity, this continent seems united by a common surge of hope.’ Hopes for entire continents – Europe, Africa, North America – are no longer so eagerly expressed, even though the energy and passion of Davidson’s writing still reminds us of a time when many things seemed possible. The trick was to tread a fine line and keep walking, which he did.