It was Monday, market day. There were many people in the streets of the small city of Guernica, which had a population of seven thousand inhabitants. At 4:30 p.m. the church bells started to ring, five minutes later the first airplane appeared and dropped six 1,000lb bombs, followed by a series of grenades.
A few minutes later, a second aircraft appeared. The hell lasted for three hours. In total, 42 aircraft had bombed and machine-gunned the city, its inhabitants as well as the surrounding area where they had taken refuge. The whole town was burnt. The fire lasted over an extended period of time. In all, 70% of the buildings were burned and there were an undetermined number of deaths, numbering from 800 to 1600. Seventy years later, historians still disagree on the number of victims of that Monday night, which transformed Guernica into a symbolic martyred city that has definitely become part of our collective memory. The aircraft belonged to the German “Condor Legion” and the Italian Legionary Air Force'. The air raid was named: Operation Rügen.
Two men significantly contributed to turning Guernica into the symbol that it remains to this day: George Steer and Pablo Picasso.
The first was a 27-year-old journalist, born in South Africa, an outspoken supporter of the Basque and Republican cause and a correspondent for the London daily newspaper, The Times. Spain was not his first theatre of war. In 1935 he was a special envoy in Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, which was being subjected to brutal attack by the Italians under Mussolini. -the dictator had eyes that were larger than his stomach- whose dream of an Empire was achieved by means of war crimes. Already in Ethiopia, there had been bombings of unarmed civilians - the Western democracies had betrayed a people that were being attacked by fascism.
George Steer arrived in Guernica only hours after the bombing and cabled his report about the martyred city the same night. It appeared the next day in The Times and in The New York Times before being published in a number of newspapers in many other countries. It was this article that alerted the world. Protest demonstrations in the streets of London and New York appeared virtually overnight, and the supporters of General Franco and their allies, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, soon unleashed a media counter attack. . In those two countries the media flew into an uncontrolled rage against the “hordes of Bolsheviks”, who, according o them, had set fire themselves to Guernica before leaving. Their lies were quickly denied. The account that history has retained is that of George Steer, where today a street in Guernica is named after him, and a bust of him was dedicated in April 2006.
The second man was already a celebrated 56-year-old painter, born in Spain and living in France. He supported the republican cause against the rebellion of General Franco. The Renseignements généraux (French political police) describes him as an anarchist that they considered to be a suspect from a national security perspective and as a “so-called modern painte” - the reason for which he would later to be refused French citizenship in April 1940. He immediately started to work in early May 1937. The result is a black and white giant canvas 8 meters in length and 3 meters in height that would be exposed in the Spanish pavilion of the Universal Exhibition. As Picasso said, “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of offensive war and defence against the enemy”.
Guernica is learning experience yet to be learned. The authors of this war crime, beginning with the chief of the “Condor Legion”, the Lieutenant-Colonel Volfran von Richthofen, was celebrated as a hero in Nazi Germany, and among those who are still living a comfortable retirement, giving interviews in a relaxed fashion. The bombing of the sacred Basque city was an enormous live experiment designed to evaluate the capacity of the German Air Force to efficiently destroy a city. As Herrmann Göring said at his Nuremberg trial, “The Spanish Civil war was an opportunity to my young air force and it was a means for my men to acquire experience”.
This war crime was neither the first nor the last in the 20th Century. The first bombings of civilian populations using chemical weapons were ordered by Winston Churchill, on Iraq in 1915. After Guernica there would be other martyred cities, such as Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. After Spain, all of Europe; after Europe, Asia from Palestine to Korea to Vietnam and Cambodia. The Guernicas of today are called Gaza, Tal Afar, Falloujah, Samarra, Najaf, as well as Grozny or Kandahar. The planes that launch their murderous bombs do not wear the Iron Cross but the colors of the “democratic” countries. The “Red enemies of God” that Franco, Hitler and Mussolini pretended to fight to save the Western Christians has been replaced by the “Islamists” and the “Axis of Evil”, who, according to Bush, the real Hitler of our times, are in Havana, Khartoum and Teheran. And the “International Community” being paralyzed before the martyrdom of Ethiopia and Spain is today worse than paralyzed before the martyrdom of Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it accomplice in the hundreds of Guernicas, which are daily repeated before our tired eyes.
Read George Steer’s report. In very few words he tells the essential.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Guenica, Tlaxcala asked artists to give their images of this tragedy, seen with todays eyes. Here are their works.
Yahya Tadayon, Iran, 2007 Marcin Bondarovicz, Poland, 2007
Amer Shomali and Basel Nasr, Ramallah, Palestine, 2007
GUERRIKA, by Juan Kalvellido, Tlaxcala
Ben Heine, Tlaxcala, 2007
Brilliant ! This is the"New Guernica”. This work will immortalize you! You're joking…
Rodrigo Rosa, ViaPolitica
The tragedy of Guernica
A city destroyed by an air raid
An eyewitness report
From Our Special Correspondent George Steer
BILBAO, April 27 1937 - Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine- gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in. the fields.
The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Jontas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Señor, not Rey Vizcaya. The noble parish, church of Santa Maria was also undamaged except for the beautiful chapter house, which was struck by an incendiary bomb.
At 2 am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.
Many of the civilian survivors took the long trek from Guernica to Bilbao in antique solid-wheeled Basque farmcarts drawn by oxen. Carts piled high with such household possessions as could be saved from the conflagration clogged the roads all night. Other survivors were evacuated in Government lorries, but many were forced to remain round the burning town lying on mattresses or looking for lost relatives and children, while units of the fire brigades and the Basque motorized police under the personal direction of the Minister of the Interior, Señor Monzon, and his wife continued rescue work till dawn.
Church Bell Alarm
In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. Every fact bears out this appreciation, beginning with the day when the deed was done.
Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 pm, when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aeroplanes, and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts pre pared following the bombing of the civilian population of Durango on March 31, which opened General Mola’s offensive in the north. The people are said to have shown a good spirit. A Catholic priest took charge and perfect order was maintained.
Five minutes later a single German bomber appeared, circled over the town at a low altitude, and then dropped six heavy bombs, apparently aiming for the station. The bombs with a shower of grenades fell on a former institute and on houses and streets surrounding it. The aeroplane then went away. In another five minutes came a second bomber, which threw the same number of bombs into the middle of the town. About a quarter of an hour later three Junkers arrived to continue the work of demolition, and thenceforward the bombing grew in intensity and was continuous, ceasing only with the approach of dusk at 7.45. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.
Rhythm of Death
It is impossible to state yet the number of victims. In the Bilbao Press this morning they were reported as "fortunately small," but it is feared that this was an understatement in order not to alarm the large refugee population of Bilbao. In the hospital of Josefinas, which was one of the first places bombed, all the 42 wounded militiamen it sheltered were killed outright. In a street leading downhill from the Casa de Juntas I saw a place where 50 people, nearly all women and children, are said to have been trapped in an air raid refuge under a mass of burning wreckage. Many were killed in the fields, and altogether the deaths may run into hundreds. An elderly priest named Aronategui was killed by a bomb while rescuing children from a burning house.
The tactics of the bombers, which may be of interest to students of the new military science, were as follows: — First, small parties of aeroplanes threw heavy bombs and hand grenades all over the town, choosing area after area in orderly fashion. Next came fighting machines which swooped low to machine-gun those who ran in panic from dugouts, some of which had already been penetrated by 1,000lb bombs, which make a hole 25ft. deep. Many of these people were killed as they ran. A large herd of sheep being brought in to the market was also wiped out. The object of this move was apparently to drive the population under ground again, for next as many as 12 bombers appeared at a time dropping heavy and incendiary bombs upon the ruins. The rhythm of this bombing of an open town was, therefore, a logical one: first, hand grenades and heavy bombs to stampede the population, then machine-gunning to drive them below, next heavy and incendiary bombs to wreck the houses and burn them on top of their victims.
The only counter-measures the Basques could employ, for they do not possess sufficient aeroplanes to face the insurgent fleet, were those provided by the heroism of the Basque clergy. These blessed and prayed for the kneeling crowds—Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists, as well as the declared faithful - in the crumbling dugouts.
When I entered Guernica after midnight houses were crashing on either side, and it was utterly impossible even for firemen to enter the centre of the town. The hospitals of Josefinas and Convento de Santa Clara were glowing heaps of embers, all the churches except that of Santa Maria were destroyed, and the few houses which still stood were doomed. When I revisited Guernica this afternoon most of the town was still burning and new fires had broken out About 30 dead were laid out in a ruined hospital.
A Call to Basques
The effect here of the bombardment of Guernica, the Basques’ holy city, has been profound and has led President Aguirre to issue the following statement in this morning’s Basque Press:— "The German airmen in the service of the Spanish rebels, have bombarded Guernica, burning the historic town which is held in such veneration by all Basques. They have sought to wound us in the most sensitive of our patriotic sentiments, once more making it entirely clear what Euzkadis may expect of those who do not hesitate to destroy us down to the very sanctuary which records the centuries of our liberty and our democracy.
"Before this outrage all we Basques must react with violence, swearing from the bottom of our hearts to defend the principles’ of our people with unheard of stubbornness and heroism if the case requires it. We cannot hide the gravity of the moment; but victory can never be won by the invader if, raising our spirits to heights of strength and determination, we steel ourselves to his defeat.
"The enemy has advanced in. many parts elsewhere to be driven out of them afterwards. I do not hesitate to affirm that here the same thing will happen. May to-day’s outrage be one spur more to do it with all speed."
A 3D Exploration of Picasso's Guernica by Lena Gieseke