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 4/26/1937:  A Dark Day for Basques

Seventy years ago this week the Basque town of Gernika (Guernica in Spanish) was bombed.  This surprise attack allowed the Nazi war machine an opportunity to test its war theory of destructive bombing, while enabling Franco's Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War to bomb the Basques into submission.  We pause to remember the hundreds who lost their lives that day.

Related links:  Gernika bombing 70 years ago    bbc article    Spanish Civil War Postcards

Eitb.com  Gernika-1937     Eibar bombing video

Editor's note: There are several items included here.  The first is courtesy of the Center for Basque Studies (University of Nevada, Reno) and it is a PDF outline of the Bombing of Gernika. Then there is an article by Mark Kurlansky.  What concludes is drawn from two internet sources that originally appeared online at www.pbs.org  and eyewitnesstohistory.com that are reproduced here in case they become no longer accessible; some minor changes have been made. 

The German bombers appeared in the skies over Gernika in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937 and immediately transformed the sleepy Basque market town into an everlasting symbol of the atrocity of war. Unbeknownst to the residents of Gernika, they had been slated by their attackers to become guinea pigs in an experiment designed to determine just what it would take to bomb a city into oblivion.

Spain was embroiled in a convulsive civil war that had begun in July 1936 when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco sought to overthrow Spain's left-wing Republican government. It did not take long before this bloody internal Spanish quarrel attracted the participation of forces beyond its borders - creating a lineup of opponents that foreshadowed the partnerships that would battle each other in World War II. Fascist Germany and Italy supported Franco while the Soviet Union backed the Republicans. A number of volunteers made their way to Spain to fight and die under the Republican banner including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Hitler's support of Franco consisted of the Condor Legion, an adjunct of the Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion provided the Luftwaffe the opportunity to develop and perfect tactics of aerial warfare that would fuel Germany's blitzkrieg through Europe during 1939 and 1940. As German air chief Hermann Goering testified at his trial after World War II: "The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience." Some of these experimental tactics were tested on that bright Spring day with devastating results.

In 1937, Adolph Hitler's Luftwaffe indiscriminately bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, killing 1,650 civilians. The New York Times reported, "The object of the bombardment seemingly was demoralization of the civilian population....not a military objective." Soon after, America rightfully denounced the bombing as a "monstrous crime".  After World War II these German pictures of the bombing were made public.

It was market day in Guernica when the church bells of Santa Maria sounded the alarm that afternoon in 1937. People from the surrounding hillsides crowded the town square. "Every Monday was a fair in Guernica," says José Monasterio, eyewitness to the bombing. "They attacked when there were a lot of people there. And they knew when their bombing would kill the most. When there are more people, more people would die."

town of Guernica It was market day on a Monday in Gernika when people from the surrounding areas came to town.  Because of this the day was chosen to maximize casualties.

For over three hours, twenty-five or more of Germany's best-equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters, dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, slowly and systematically pounding it to rubble.

One survivor Luis Aurtenetxea recalled that "we were hiding in the shelters and praying. I only thought of running away, I was so scared. I didn't think about my parents, mother, house, nothing. Just escape. Because during those three and one half hours, I thought I was going to die."

survivor Jose Monasterio

"We were hiding in the shelters and praying. I only thought of running away, I was so scared. I didn't think about my parents, mother, house, nothing. Just escape. Because during those three and one half hours, I thought I was going to die." (eyewitness Luis Aurtenetxea)

Those trying to escape were cut down by the strafing machine guns of fighter planes. "They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line, sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing new moves. They must have fired thousands of bullets." (eyewitness Juan Guezureya) The fires that engulfed the city burned for three days. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed. Sixteen hundred civilians - one third of the population - were killed or wounded.

News of the bombing spread like wildfire. The Nationalists immediately denied any involvement, as did the Germans. But few were fooled by Franco's protestations of innocence. In the face of international outrage at the carnage, Von Richthofen claimed publicly that the target was a bridge over the Mundaka River on the edge of town, chosen in order to cut off the fleeing Republican troops. But although the Condor Legion was made up of the best airmen and planes of Hitler's developing war machine, not a single hit was scored on the presumed target, nor on the railway station, nor on the small-arms factory nearby.

victim of Spanish Civil War Following the bombing, Franco's regime immediately went into damage control because they feared the negative backlash from the world.  Franco's forces insisted that the town had not been bombed but instead retreating Basques had burned it.

Gernika is the cultural capital of the Basque people, seat of their centuries-old independence and democratic ideals. It has no strategic value as a military target. Yet some time later, a secret report to Berlin was uncovered in which Von Richthofen stated, "...the concentrated attack on Guernica was the greatest success," making the dubious intent of the mission clear: the all-out air attack had been ordered on Franco's behalf to break the spirited Basque resistance to Nationalist forces. Guernica had served as the testing ground for a new Nazi military tactic - blanket-bombing a civilian population to demoralize the enemy. It was wanton, man-made holocaust.

Note: On May 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that, after sixty-one years, in a declaration adopted on April 24, 1999, the German Parliament formally apologized to the citizens of Guernica for the role the Condor Legion played in bombing the town. The German government also agreed to change the names of some German military barracks named after members of the Condor Legion. By contrast, no formal apology to the city has ever been offered by the Spanish government for whatever role it may have played in the bombing.

Guernica after the bombing in 1937 Seventy percent of the town was destroyed. Sixteen hundred civilians - one third of the population - were killed or wounded.


70 years of 'shock and awe'

The 1937 air raid on the Basque city of Guernica ushered in the modern concept of total war.
By Mark Kurlansky

MARK KURLANSKY often writes on Basque history and is the author, among many other books, of "The Basque History of the World." His most recent book is "Nonviolence: Twenty-five lessons from the History"

April 26, 2007

SEVENTY YEARS AGO, on April 26, 1937, at 4:40 in the afternoon when the stone-walled, medieval Basque town of Guernica was packed with peasants, shoppers and refugees for its Monday afternoon market along the riverfront, a church bell rang out. The townspeople had heard the warning before. It meant that enemy planes were approaching.

Since ancient times, Basques had gathered in this town under an oak tree to reaffirm their laws. Even today, the elected head of the Basque government travels to Guernica to take his oath of office under an oak tree, "humble before God, standing on Basque soil, in remembrance of Basque ancestors, under the tree of Guernica…."

This tree, a few thousand residents, the people who had come to the market and thousands of refugees from other parts of the Basque provinces who had fled the ongoing Spanish Civil War were the only targets. Oddly, the oak tree survived.

Because Guernica had no air defenses, dozens of planes from the German and Italian air forces, including the newest experimental warplanes, were free to come in low in daylight, dropping with great accuracy an unusual payload of incendiary and splinter bombs chosen by the Germans for maximum destruction of buildings. People who fled were chased down by planes with heavy-caliber machine guns. The planes came in so low that there are still eyewitnesses who remember seeing the pilots and who note that they looked like Germans.

Three hours later, the planes were gone, the historic town had been reduced to burning rubble and the Basque government estimated that 1,645 civilians were dead out of a population of 7,000. It's hard to know just how accurate that number is. The only ones who had a chance to accurately count the dead were the rebel troops of Francisco Franco — on whose behalf the German and Italian planes had swept in in the first place. They at first denied that the attack had taken place; later, they admitted to only 200 deaths. The records of what they actually found have never been released. But given the intensity of the attack, reports of survivors and the number of missing relatives, the Basque government figure has been recognized as at least being closer to the truth.

Two days after the attack, London Times correspondent George Steer's eyewitness account was published in the London Times and the New York Times, and the world responded with outrage at this new type of warfare — randomly attacking civilians from the air on a large scale. It was widely seen as a crime that should never be allowed to happen again.

It was not the first time civilians had been bombed from the air; not even the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Gen. Emilio Mola of Franco's pro-fascist rebel forces had vowed to destroy the Basque province of Viscaya for its fierce opposition to the insurgency. "Starting with the industries of war," he had said. But instead he started with the rural town of Durango, a town of ancient churches, rambling cobblestone streets and no industries of war. Next was Guernica.

Durango had passed with little notice, but Guernica did not. Pablo Picasso, who had been commissioned by the Spanish government to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, chose Guernica as his subject, and his stark depiction of mayhem and destruction permanently fixed this image of war in Western culture. To many previously apolitical Americans and Britons, it was the bombing of Guernica that convinced them of the brutality of fascism.

Historians argue whether the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" was first used about Guernica or Hiroshima. Steer wrote in the Times: "In the form of its execution and the scale of its destruction … the raid … is unparalleled in military history." But 70 years after Guernica — after the bombings of Coventry, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hanoi, Hue, Beirut and Baghdad — it has become clear that modern war is fought from the air and that the greatest number of casualties are civilians.

Guernica was destroyed with 1937 state-of-the-art weaponry, the latest in German and Italian attack aircraft. But, of course, those weapons are primitive compared to what was unleashed on Baghdad for "shock and awe" at the start of the Iraq war. Shock and awe had also been the intention of the fascists in Spain. But such attacks on civilians today are met not so much with the outrage of 1937 but with casual television viewing.

On this, the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the little Basque village of Guernica, it would be good to contemplate the direction the world is going in and whether we want to continue or alter the course.


VIDEO CLIP:  Gernika the Mark of Man

Rehearsal for War

Noel Monks was a correspondent covering the civil war in Spain for the "London Daily Mall." He was the first reporter to arrive on the scene after the bombing. We join his story as he and other reporters drive along a dusty Spanish road:

"We were about eighteen miles east of Guernica when Anton pulled to the side of the road jammed on the brakes and started shouting. He pointed wildly ahead, and my heart shot into my mouth, when I looked. Over the top of some small hills appeared a flock of planes. A dozen or so bombers were flying high. But down much lower, seeming just to skim the treetops were six Heinkel 52 fighters. The bombers flew on towards Guernica but the Heinkels, out for random plunder, spotted our car, and, wheeling like a flock of homing pigeons, they lined up the road - and our car.

Anton and I flung ourselves into a bomb hole, twenty yards to the side of the road. It was half filed with water, and we sprawled in the mud. We half knelt, half stood, with our heads buried in the muddy side of the carter.

After one good look at the Heinkels, I didn't look up again until they had gone. That seemed hours later, but it was probably less than twenty minutes. The planes made several runs along the road. Machine-gun bullets plopped into the mud ahead, behind, all around us. I began to shiver from sheer fright. Only the day before Steer, an old hand now, had 'briefed' me about being strafed. 'Lie still and as flat as you can. But don't get up and start running, or you'll be bowled over for certain.'

When the Heinkels departed, out of ammunition I presumed, Anton and I ran back to our car. Nearby a military car was burning fiercely. All we could do was drag two riddled bodies to the side of the road. I was trembling all over now, in the grip of the first real fear I'd ever experienced."

"... I saw the reflection of Guernica's flames in the sky."

Monk and his fellow reporters drive on, traveling near Guernica where they can hear what they think may be the sounds of bombs. They continue to the city of Balboa, where after filling his report to London, Monk joins his colleagues for dinner. His story continues as his dinner is interrupted by the news from Guernica:

"...a Government official, tears streaming down his face, burst into the dismal dining-room crying: 'Guernica is destroyed. The Germans bombed and bombed and bombed.' The time was about 9.30 p.m. Captain Roberts banged a huge fist on the table and said: 'Bloody swine.' Five minutes later I was in one of Mendiguren's limousines speeding towards Guernica. We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica's flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. 'What I happened, Father?' I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn't talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: 'Aviones. . . bombas'. . . mucho, mucho.'

...I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and-smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.

In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro. One middle-aged man spoke English. He told me: 'At four, before the-market closed, many aeroplanes came. They dropped bombs. Some came low and shot bullets into the streets. Father Aroriategui was wonderful. He prayed with the people in the Plaza while the bombs fell.'..

...The only things left standing were a church, a sacred Tree, symbol of the Basque people, and, just outside the town, a small munitions factory. There hadn't been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had been mainly a fire raid.

...A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refuge."

For more information click on:  PDF outline of the Bombing of Gernika.

A copy of this BBC News story is posted here in case it is re/moved from the original online posting 04/26/2007 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/6583639.stm

The legacy of Guernica

It is 70 years since the bombing of Guernica during Spain's Civil War. The BBC's Danny Wood visits the town to find out what the event means to Spaniards today.
Composite picture of Guernica after the bombing and today
Guernica 70 years ago and today

Josefina Odriozola was a 14-year-old girl shopping in the market with her mother when German and Italian planes supporting the Fascist forces of Gen Franco closed in on the town.

"I remember it well," she says.

"We left everything in the market and went home. We lived just outside the town, but the bombing started and we were there in the main square. Three planes flew in full of bombs and then left empty. Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, until everything was burning."

Josefina is one of about 200 people, many in their 80s, who are still alive to describe what they witnessed on that day. Today, it is not the bombing that makes her most angry, but what followed.

"They burnt the city down with their planes and they denied they had done it - they blamed it on the Communists," she says.

"My sister was 13 years older than me and they told her that the Reds had destroyed Guernica. But she said: 'No, the Reds don't have planes.' And they said to her: 'You little Red, we're going cut all your hair off.' Why? Because she was telling the truth. We couldn't even say the truth about the attack."

Historical truth

That same concern with historical truth is on the minds of more and more Spaniards as the country marks the 70th anniversary. Spanish society is becoming more interested in knowing the full story about its recent history, from the Civil War to the death of dictator Gen Franco in 1975.

Josefina Odriozola
Josefina is angry that the truth about the bombing was covered up

Jose Ortunez and his Guernica History Association have spent 30 years reconstructing the truth about what happened here in 1937. The forces of Gen Franco blamed the attack on their enemy in the Civil War: the Communist-backed Republican government.

Thanks partly to work by people like Jose, Spaniards know the truth, that the attack from the air was by German and Italian planes supporting General Franco.

Gen Franco wanted to terrorise the people in the Basque region, an area of strong resistance to his nationalist forces in the Civil War. For Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, it was an opportunity to get some practice with a new form of warfare: strategic, aerial bombing of civilians.

No strictly military objectives were touched. Factories and bridges were left alone - civilians were the only targets.

Ironically for a town almost completely destroyed by armed conflict, Guernica, before the Civil War and afterwards, continued to be a major production centre for bombs and automatic pistols.

The figures for the number of casualties in the bombing are still disputed, but most historians think between 200 and 250 people were killed and many hundreds wounded.

Positive message

The attack not only terrorised the people of Guernica. This methodical and well-planned destruction spread fear across Europe on the eve of World War II.

The centre of Guernica
Guernica is symbolic of interest in unearthing the truth about the past

But today, Guernica is sending out a more positive message. Iratxe Astorkia, director of Guernica's Peace Museum, says the permanent exhibition of the museum aims to make the visitor reflect on three things: the nature of peace, what happened in Guernica 70 years ago and what happens nowadays with peace in the world.

The museum and its centre for investigation have converted Guernica into a world centre for peace studies and conflict resolution.

And for many Spaniards, Guernica is symbolic of the renewed interest in unearthing the truth about their own recent past.

"I think Guernica is a good example of not forgetting and trying to go further," says Ms Astorkia.

"More and more young people in Spain want to know about it. They lost their parents, their sisters their brothers and they didn't know much more than that."

Ms Astorkia partly blames the education system for ignorance about this period. Barely a few pages are devoted to Spain's Civil War in official school text books.

An estimated 30,000 people murdered during the Civil War still lie in mass graves. The government is preparing new legislation that will officially honour victims of the Franco regime for the first time.

Keeping the young informed

With survivors and witnesses of the bombing in their 80s, the challenge now is to convey the importance of Guernica to a new generation.

Luis Iriondo in the bomb shelter
Luis Iriondo hid inside this bomb shelter for hours

One witness who does a very good job of that, is Luis Iriondo. Seventy years ago, as a 14-year-old boy, Luis ran across Guernica's main square and found refuge from the bombs in a shelter.

Through a doorway is the wine cellar-like room where Luis found safety with dozens of others. He says it was completely dark and there was no ventilation, so after five minutes he could hardly breathe.

As the bombs started dropping he says he was terrified and expected to be buried alive.

"This bombardment lasted for three, maybe three and a half hours," he says.

"You could hear the bombs and feel the hot currents of air being forced away by the explosions. I tried to pray.

"Finally it finished, and I didn't really know what had happened, I knew that it was a bombardment and expected houses to be in ruins. But when I left the shelter I could see that everything was on fire."

Incendiary bombs had destroyed three quarters of the town. Luis fled to the hills and remembers looking back and seeing the buildings collapse. He says when he sees images of the twin towers falling down in New York, it reminds him of that day seven decades ago.

Iconic painting

Today, 84-year-old Luis thinks it's more important than ever to remember Guernica and its message:

Picasso's Guernica painting
Picasso's work could not go to Spain while it was a dictatorship

"War doesn't solve anything," he says. "It just sows the seeds for more war. World War I led to World War II. The attack on Iraq - look where that's led."

Luis is an artist and talks in schools about his experience, encouraging children to paint what happened in Guernica. Back in Madrid, it is the artwork of one of the world's most famous painters that has helped bring Guernica's message to millions of people.

At the Reina Sofia Art Gallery, Pablo Picasso's Guernica is always surrounded by visitors, of all ages, both Spanish and foreign. But it was not always in the gallery.

Picasso would not allow it to return to Spain while the country was a dictatorship. For that reason, says the head of collections at the Reina Sofia, Javier de Blas, many Spaniards associate the work with their country's desire to be free of Gen Franco.

"It was a symbol of this construction of democracy," says Mr De Blas. "The whole world accepted that the country had recovered its political and social liberties in part because Picasso permitted the return of the painting to Spain."

For many, it is also a constant reminder of the truth that the Franco regime preferred to cover up.

"We're in an moment of reflection concerning everything that happened in our recent past," says Mr de Blas. "This painting continues to do transcendental things in order to bring us towards understanding the truth."

After the death of Franco in 1975, there was an agreement between the left and right of politics, not to critically examine the past.

But as the country marks 70 years since the bombing of Guernica, things seem to be changing. Many Spaniards feel that their transition to democracy will not be complete until they take a closer look at their recent history.