Gernika: The beginning of aerial terror

Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
May 1, 2017

April 26 marked the 80th anniversary of the infamous aerial bombing of Gernika by the forces of General Francisco Franco in the fascists’ war against the Spanish Republic. The war began when Franco led a military rebellion against the legitimate, elected republican government in 1936, with the fascists eventually triumphing in 1939.

The Basque Country is a historically oppressed nation divided between the Spanish and French states. It was the scene of some of the worst fascist violence.

The following excerpt on the 1937 attack on Gernika is taken from an unfinished book on the Basque Country by Emma Clancy, a Basque solidarity activist and member of Irish republican party Sinn Fein. It is reprinted from emmaclancy.com.

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In early 1937, Madrid was still putting up a stiff resistance to the fascists. Franco set his sights upon Bilbo (the Basque name for Bilbao), the largest Basque city, with the aim of capturing the city’s iron ore and heavy industry to support his war effort.

The Francoists quickly planned a northern offensive to be led by General Emilio Mola, who issued an ultimatum on March 31 in broadcast and printed leaflets dropped on towns in the Basque province of Biscay, saying: “If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.”

Most of the infantry on Franco’s side were raised from Nafarroa (Navarre). The 50,000 heavily armed troops in four Nafarroan brigades were backed up by two Italian divisions, the Spanish Air Force, the Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe. Mola had 120 aircraft and 45 pieces of artillery at his disposal.

The Republican Army in the north had almost as many troops but far less firepower, half the artillery and just 25 ineffective aircraft. The offensive began with an act of brutality when the village of Durango — not on the front line and undefended — was bombarded for four days by the Luftwaffe, with 248 civilians killed. Republican positions were falling fast and on April 20, 1937, a new Francoist offensive began in Bizkaia.

Gernika has long had a sacred status among Basques. It was the site of the ancient Basque parliament of Bizkaia, the Casa de Juntas, and of the legendary Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika), an oak tree that has been a symbol of Basque sovereignty and the rights of the Basque people for close to 1000 years.

In 1937, the town had a population of about 7000 people. April 26 was a busy market day in the town centre. At 4.40pm, the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria launched an aerial bombardment of the town that lasted three hours.

Waves of planes hit the town centre every 20 minutes with high explosives and incendiary bombs of up to 1000lbs each. Those who tried to run from the town or hide in the fields were machine-gunned.

At 7.45pm, after the last planes had dropped their bombs, the centre of the town was destroyed. The assault killed 1654 of the town’s inhabitants. Gernika was 30 kilometres from the front. The Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika had incredibly survived untouched.

A report by British journalist George Steer, war correspondent for the London Times, was published in the Times and the New York Times on April 28. Steer, who rushed to the town the evening of the attack to interview survivors of the devastation, reported: “The most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.” 

His report from Gernika was all the more significant because Franco’s forces claimed the Basques had burned the town themselves as a propaganda stunt. They then claimed the Communists had bombed it. Franco denied that German forces were even participating in Spain’s Civil War.

In response to the fascist propaganda, Basque lehendakari (president) Jose Antonio Aguirre publicly declared: “I maintain firmly before God and History, who will judge us, that during three-and-a-half hours German planes have bombarded the defenceless civilian population of the historic town of Gernika, pursuing women and children with machine-guns, and reducing the town itself to ashes.

“I ask the civilised world whether it can permit the extermination of a people who have always deemed it their duty to defend their liberty as well as the ideal of self-government which Gernika, with its thousand-year-old Tree, has symbolized throughout the centuries.”

Franco replied: “Aguirre lies. We have respected Gernika, just as we respect all that is Spanish.”

Mola was more forthright, saying: “It is necessary to destroy the capital of a perverted people who dare to oppose the irresistible cause of the national idea.”

Basque priest Father Alberto Onaindia witnessed the carnage in Gernika and wrote in desperation to the Primate of Spain, Cardinal Goma: “I have just arrived from Bilbao with my soul destroyed after having witnessed the horrific crime that has been perpetrated against the peaceful town of Guernica … Senor Cardinal, for dignity, for the honour of the gospel, for Christ’s infinite pity, such a horrendous, unprecedented, apocalyptic, Dantesque crime cannot be committed.”

He begged the Cardinal to intervene to ensure the Francoists’ threat — that Bilbo was next — was not implemented. Goma responded by insisting that Bilbo must surrender.

Referring to the Basque Nationalist Party’s (PNV) loyalty to the Republic, Goma added: “Peoples pay for their pacts with evil and for their perverse wickedness in sticking to them.”

Francoist forces viewed the scene a few days later, and a Carlist soldier reportedly asked a senior officer in Mola’s staff: “Was it necessary to do this?” The lieutenant colonel replied that it had to be done in all of Bizkaia (Biscay) and Catalunya (Catalonia).

In 1970, PNV member Joseba Elosegi, one of the Basque soldiers from the Battalion Saseta that was present on the day of the bombing, carried out an act of self-immolation in a protest against Franco in Donostia, shouting “Gora Euskadi Askatuta!” (Long live the free Basque country!).

Elosegi was badly burned but survived. He described his protest as the desperate act of a man who had “obsessively remembered” for more than three decades the scenes he witnessed at Gernika.

Steer immediately understood the significance of the attack on Gernika. In his Times article, he wrote: “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 demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”

His report was reprinted in the French communist newspaper L’Humanite on 29 April, where the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso read it. The artist captured the international outrage over the attack in his world-renowned painting.

He had been commissioned earlier that year by the Spanish Republican government to paint a mural for the government building at the World Fair in Paris. On May 1, 1937, he dropped his original plan and produced one of his most famous works, Guernica, instead.