Hella Decide obituary


As one of many first feminine diplomatic correspondents within the British media, Hella Decide, who has died aged 96, was on the centre of the Guardian’s protection of superpower summitry within the last a long time of the chilly struggle. Tall and chic, she was a commanding presence at press conferences with world leaders, and in addition had a uncommon means – based mostly on her cautious and clever reporting – to win the boldness of highly effective politicians and get privileged entry for interviews and background briefings.

Willy Brandt, as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany within the early Nineteen Seventies, turned her good friend, as did Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the final prime minister of Poland within the communist period. She was additionally trusted by Eduard Shevardnadze, who served as Soviet international minister on the top of Mikhail Gorbachev’s nuclear arms reductions and detente with the west.

These successes had been the end result of a unprecedented life journey for an Austrian Jewish lady who escaped Nazi repression in March 1939 after being put by her mom on a practice from Vienna to London as a part of the Kindertransport. Hella’s father, Ernst Decide, had an orthodox Jewish background; her mom, Johanna (nee Spitz), was a non-practising Jew, they usually divorced when Hella was a toddler. He emigrated to the US and she or he by no means noticed him once more. Hella’s maternal grandmother was arrested and brought to the Theresienstadt focus camp, the place it’s assumed that she died.

In July 1939, Hella, who had spent three months with foster mother and father in London, was joined by her mom, who arrived in Britain with virtually no contacts. Johanna had the great luck to get a job as a cook dinner for a well-to-do and beneficiant household, the Chorleys, who had a house in Stanmore in north-west London and one other within the Lake District. Their younger son, Roger (later Lord Chorley), turned Decide’s lifelong good friend.

Residing in Cumbria along with her mom, Hella realized English rapidly and did effectively at Fairfield college in Ambleside, the place she was an ardent member of the Guides. She went on to check economics on the London Faculty of Economics and acquired her first job in 1958 by answering a newspaper advert for a publish on a London-based weekly journal, West Africa. It had a small employees however her title – industrial editor – delighted her, as did the alternatives it gave her to journey repeatedly to the area. Africa was within the midst of decolonisation, and Decide acquired to know the leaders of a number of states on the cusp of independence, together with Guinea’s Sékou Touré, Senegal’s Léopold Senghor and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah.

In 1961 she approached the Guardian and persuaded the editor to ship her to Belgrade as a freelancer to assist to cowl the convention of the Non-Aligned Motion, which was making an attempt to carve out a place whereby governments didn’t must be purchasers of both the US or the Soviet Union. Decide used the argument that many Africans whom she knew can be there as company of the Yugoslav president, Marshal Tito, and the motion’s different main lights, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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Decide with the Guinean president Sékou Touré, in 1960. {Photograph}: Orion books

The Guardian’s diplomatic correspondent, Richard Scott, missed his aircraft and arrived in Belgrade a day late, and Decide was thrilled to have her story on the opening ceremony because the paper’s front-page lead – considered one of a whole lot she was to write down throughout virtually 40 years on the Guardian.

Impressed with Decide’s vitality and talent to combine with international politicians and diplomats, Scott requested her to cowl the annual leaders’ assembly of the UN common meeting. Decide discovered herself in her ingredient. After a number of extra months as a freelancer she was taken on to the Guardian employees as UN correspondent, based mostly in New York. A superb networker, she acquired to know dozens of younger diplomats from quite a few international locations who later turned senior figures of their respective chancelleries.

She fell in love with Narendra Singh, India’s deputy head of mission on the UN, after he had divorced his French spouse. They stayed collectively for 4 years, however each assumed the connection would by no means result in marriage due to household pressures on Singh’s facet.

Within the US her colleagues had been Scott, who had moved to Washington, and Alistair Cooke, who lined the US from New York and took Decide beneath his wing. She targeting diplomacy and international coverage, which she cherished, however was continuously dispatched to cowl US information. In the course of the 1964 presidential election she adopted the shedding candidate, Barry Goldwater. She lined one of many five-day Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights led by Martin Luther King Jr in 1965. She additionally contributed an uncharacteristically breathless piece on the Beatles’ arrival in New York in February 1964.

In 1965 the Guardian’s editor, Alastair Hetherington, phoned her with a proposal to cowl Vietnam and she or he had no hesitation in refusing. As she put it in an interview a few years later, about being a feminine journalist in what was a largely male world: “I protested and stated, ‘I’m not a struggle correspondent. And I’m a coward, I couldn’t do it’ … I might by no means have accomplished what so many of those ladies are doing now. I’d by no means, ever have the center to do it. I’m not pleased with myself. I’d battle any political battles, however I couldn’t get entangled in bodily warfare.”

Because the European Financial Group grew in significance and Britain struggled with the problem of whether or not to affix it, Decide was transferred to reporting on continental Europe in 1967. She was posted to Geneva so she might proceed to report on the UN whereas additionally travelling to Brussels and different EEC capitals.

In 1972, on the top of the Watergate disaster, which was to engulf Richard Nixon, she was despatched to Washington to assist with the Guardian’s protection of one of the dramatic durations of postwar US historical past. It was her dream job, particularly as Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s nationwide safety adviser, was on the peak of his energy, negotiating the US opening to China, the top of US involvement in Vietnam and the primary presidential go to to Moscow. Kissinger used to pay court docket to European correspondents in Washington, flattering them with invites to off-the-record lunches that produced alternatives for information tales or opinion items that favoured his agenda.

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Decide, left, along with her mom within the Thirties. {Photograph}: Household handout

In 1975 private issues had been to strike once more. Decide had developed a relationship with Ralf Dahrendorf, the German director of the LSE. She determined to resign her publish in Washington and are available again to London to get married. However the relationship abruptly unravelled and Decide discovered herself single and now with out the job she cherished. She described it because the lowest level in her life.

Peter Preston, newly appointed because the Guardian’s editor, understood that the perfect treatment for an individual with Decide’s willpower and resilience was to offer her a brand new work problem. She was made east European correspondent, based mostly in London, with a quick to journey all through the Soviet-dominated communist bloc whereas additionally overlaying US-Soviet summit conferences and different important diplomatic encounters.

Decide, together with different Guardian reporters (myself included), was excited by the emergence of Solidarity, the impartial commerce union motion in Poland within the Eighties. In a revealing look on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 2018, she stated considered one of her two most memorable profession moments was being with the Solidarity chief, Lech Wałęsa, in Gdansk on the day in 1983 when he was on account of be handed the Nobel peace prize however was successfully blocked from leaving Poland.

Her different large second was her interview, a number of months earlier, with Common Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish communist chief. It was one of many first he had given to a western correspondent since declaring martial regulation and arresting Wałęsa. Many readers criticised Decide for what they thought of was too delicate an interview.

In 1982 her job title modified to diplomatic correspondent, however she continued to cowl a lot the identical beat as earlier than. With the arrival of Gorbachev as Soviet chief, and his plans for wide-ranging easing of relations with the west and the development of a “widespread European house”, east-west summit diplomacy reached a brand new depth. Decide was in Reykjavik in 1986 for the assembly between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, which just about produced pledges from each males to dismantle all nuclear weapons. She additionally attended the Gorbachev summit with George HW Bush in Malta in 1989, which formally ended the chilly struggle.

On her retirement from the Guardian within the mid-90s, Decide put her nonetheless plentiful vitality into serving to to organise worldwide conferences for the writer and philanthropist George Weidenfeld. He had began a bunch known as the Membership of Three, which invited influential individuals from France, Germany and Britain to satisfy to debate present affairs. The programme later expanded to incorporate high-level individuals from China, Turkey and Russia.

In 2000 she was appointed CBE, and in 2006 she took a job in a extra bold Weidenfeld venture, the creation of a thinktank known as the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It was designed to check and counter extremism and the ideologies that gas it, and Decide served because the director of its artwork and tradition programme till 2017, persevering with to indulge her ardour for journey. She credited Weidenfeld with making her comfy, and proud, to be a secular Jew.

Though she regretted having few clear childhood reminiscences of Austria, Decide felt a particular attachment to the nation and took a robust curiosity in its postwar growth. She was angered by the elite’s unwillingness to research the roots of antisemitism or recognise its extent. She wrote two books on the problem. One was Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice (1996), a biography of the Viennese Nazi hunter. The opposite, Responsible Sufferer (2000), took problem with the picture of Austria, manufactured by the postwar Austrian elite, as a rustic that had suffered beneath nazism and had no duty for Hitler’s coming to energy.

Decide’s angle to Germany was extra complicated. An encounter with the previous German chancellor Brandt modified her outlook. Preston had requested her to get a response a couple of information story from Brandt, who was the visitor of honour at a dinner in Could 1971 to mark the Guardian’s a hundred and fiftieth anniversary.

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Decide’s first front-page story for the Guardian, on the Non-Aligned Motion convention in Belgrade, September 1961. {Photograph}: newspapers.com

As Decide recalled later, “[Brandt] stated: ‘Come again to my resort room and we will speak.’ I went again and we sat down and he requested about my background and we talked and we talked and we talked. I didn’t get out till 3 within the morning and everybody on the Guardian thought: ‘She will need to have gone to mattress with him.’ Nicely, she didn’t go to mattress with him, however she turned utterly reconciled to Germany as a result of she had acquired to know Willy Brandt. And he remained good friend till the day he died. And that basically, actually made me perceive that there are good individuals in Germany.”

Decide’s vary of high-level contacts was astonishing, and far of her social life appeared to revolve round lengthy weekends and holidays with diplomats in embassy residences in capital cities world wide. When she received a excessive Austrian award, the Goldenes Ehrenzeichen, in 1988, a lunch was given in her honour on the Austrian embassy in London, the place one of many company was the previous German ambassador, Hermann von Richthofen. As he wrapped up his tribute to Decide, he turned towards her, gave slightly bow of his head, clicked his heels within the Prussian method, and stated: “It was a pleasure to have served beneath you.” This introduced the home down.

One of many Guardian international editors she labored for, Martin Woollacott, who died in 2021, stated: “Despite her moodiness, fierce safety of her turf, occasional vanity, and imperious remedy of colleagues, very a lot together with three editors of the paper, she impressed a lot affection. She had a heat nature that was not all the time evident on first acquaintance. She had an important reward for friendship and a deserved fame for hospitality. Like her mom, she was a superb cook dinner, and was nonetheless giving massive dinner events in her 90s.”

But, regardless of her obvious self-confidence whereas with buddies or at diplomatic events, Decide by no means solely misplaced the sensation of vulnerability that started along with her disrupted childhood. “As a refugee one by no means loses a sure sense of insecurity,” she informed her Desert Island Discs viewers. “It stays with one one’s complete life. I’ve grasped at issues due to a want for safety. I’ve made many errors.”

In her 90s Decide began writing an exceptionally frank autobiography. It was virtually left unfinished when she had a catastrophic accident in London in November 2019, falling from the entrance steps of a good friend’s home into the basement space. She broke a number of ribs, her pelvis and her neck. She survived a precarious operation and two months later resumed work on the e-book, utilizing the Covid-19 lockdowns as a spur. She known as it Invisible Partitions, after the cage of insecurity that she felt all the time surrounded her.

Decide had no siblings and she or he wrote movingly about her ultra-possessive mom, who was as dominant as Decide herself, and grasped irrationally for Decide’s presence by her facet, even to the purpose of ringing the Guardian editor and demanding that Decide not be given so many international postings.

Within the e-book she stated she regretted not having accomplished extra to assist youthful feminine journalists’ campaigns for equal alternatives. She additionally stated that she had all the time longed for marriage and youngsters, however had compensated for the failure of her two longest relationships with males by immersing herself in journey and intensely arduous work. “Escapism has been my method of coping with unresolved questions of exile and identification, with vulnerability and self-doubt,” she wrote. “Friendship has given me braveness and saved me from loneliness.”


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