Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Marking the anniversary of the horror that was Guernica

                                  Pablo Picasso's Guernica

During the afternoon and early evening of Monday, April 26th, 1937,  the German and Italian fascist air forces destroyed the Basque town of Guernica . The war crime was ordered by the Spanish nationalist military leadership and carried out by the Congor Legion of the German luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazone Legionairre. Designed to kill  or main as many civilians as possible, Operation Rugen was deliberately chosen for a Monday afternoon when the weekly town market would be at its most crowded.
 Spain at the time 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 democratically elected Popular Front 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. Millions of people around the world felt passionately that rapidly advancing fascism must be halted in Spain; and more than 35,000 heroic volunteers from dozens of other countries made their way to Spain to fight and die under the Republican banner including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.
 Guernica, in the Basque  country where revolutionary sentiment among workers was deep, was defenceless from the bombers, which could fly as low as 600 feet.The raid’s purpose was to test a new bombing tactic to intimidate and terrorize the resistance. For more than three hours, waves of explosive, fragmentary, and incendiary devices were dumped in the town. In total, 31 tons of munitions were dropped between 4.30 in the afternoon and 7.30 in the evening. In the aftermath of the raid, survivoHistory rs spoke of the air filled with the screams of those in their death throes and the hundreds injured. Civilians fleeing the carnage in the fields surrounding the town were strafed by fighter planes. Human and animal  body parts littered the market place and town center, such , such horror.Guernica was effectively wiped of the map. From a population of 5,000 some 1,700 residents were killed and a further 800 injured. Three quarters of the buildings were raised to the ground. Farms four miles away were flattened.
The destruction of Guernica was part of General Franco's wider, brutal campaign against the existence of the Spanish Republic. This campaign led not just to widespread destruction of property, but thousands of civilian casualties too, as well as widespread displacement. Many sought refuge abroad, as many as 3,800 Basque children were evacuated to England and Wales for the duration of the war. The British Government at the time callously refused to be responsible for the children, but  throughout the summer children were dispersed to camps throughout Britain. Eight of these colonies were here in Wales. They were received with a mixture of hostility and kindness, but they had all managed to escape the grips of Franco's fascist Spain.
 The significance of Guernica is that it was the first time that civilians were deliberately targeted in an air attack; it was the first time that a population centre was carpet bombed from the air; and it was one of the first times that a population was used as a target from the air by a foreign power  to test the effectiveness of its aircraft and the effectiveness of terror on the civilian population.Guernica changed the mode of war. Before then, civilians in cities and towns away from the front were by and large were relatively safe. In wars before then air power was not capable of such bombing attacks. In World War I, by and large, troops slugged it out in trenches on the front and there was no air war.
News of the atrocity reached Paris several days later. Eyewitness reports filled local and international newspapers.
Picasso, sympathetic to the Republican cause, was horrified by the reports. Guernica is his memorial to the massacre, and after hundreds of sketches, the painting was done in less than a month before being delivered to the Fair’s Spanish Pavilion, where it became the central attraction. Rather than the typical celebration of technology people expected to see at a world’s fair, in his mural, they saw  a raw and anguished anti-war statement, a haunting piece of work that   became a universal howl against the ravages of war. On a large canvas  he painted deformed figures of women and children writhing in a burning city.A broken sword in hand, a dismembered fighter lies with wide open eyes, an impassive bull, a wounded dove and an agonising horse nearby. Picasso did not agree with Franco´s regime and he was living in France for a long period of time until his death in 1973 when he was 91 years old. One of the most famous passages about his life is when he was interrogated by the Gestapo while the Nazi occupation  in Paris. When the officers saw the Guernica  they asked him “Did you paint that?” and he replied “No, you did” Picasso's picture still resonates with tragedy, capturing the full terror and horror of this terrible moment in history. It is still regarded as the 20thcentury’s most powerful artistic indictment against war, and remains just as relevant to civilians around the world who continue to be caught in today’s conflagrations. The work’s emotional power comes from its immense size of 349 cm times 776 cm (about 11ft tall and 25ft wide). It is a painting challenges rather than accepts the notion of war as heroic.
.For many Basque people, the memory of the bombing and Picasso's visceral artistic response form part of their cultural identity. Franco, who ruled Spain as a fascist dictator for nearly forty years, from 1936 until his death in 1975, claimed the attack on Guernica never took place. They tried to blame the Basques, but the truth is Germany deliberately bombed the town to destroy it and observe in a clinical way the effects of such a devastating attack, practicing a new form of warfare, where only civilians were the targets.In October 1937, a Nationalist officer told' a Sunday Times correspondent: 'We bombed it, and bombed it, and bombed it and Beuno why not.'
 The Republican forces sent Guernica on a global tour to create awareness of the war and raise funds for Spanish refugees. It travelled the world for 19 years before it was loaned to The Museum of Modern Art in New York for safekeeping. Picasso refused to allow it to return to Spain until the country “enjoyed public liberties and democratic institutions,” which did not occur until 1981 following Franco’s death. Today it is on permanent display in the Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of modern art in Madrid.
This atrocity horrified the world and helped shift public opinion towards the Spanish Republican Cause, but shamefully the British Government stuck steadfastardly to its non intervevention line. The fascists hated liberalism and humanity, their ideology was one of evil destruction, 'Long Live Death' they cried.  Guernica represented their creed, with one of the Fascist Generals declaring " Like a resolute surgeon, free from false sentimentality, it will cut the diseased flesh from the healthy body and fling it to the dogs. And since the healthy flesh is the soil, the diseased flesh, the people who dwell on it, fascism and the army will eradicate the people and restore the soil to the sacred national realm... Every socialist, Republican, every one of them, without exception, and needless to say, every Communist, will be eradicated, without exception.' An ideology of unfettered hate, and evil..... it's ideology still trying to tear the world apart,  it's forces  still seek to gather, fostering  hatred and division.
After Guernica , George Steers eyewitness account in The Times described what he saw as 'without mercy, with system', words that remain tragically pertinent to the bloody legacy of carpet bombing in conflicts ever since. Conflicts that continue across the world.... humanity still descends into darkness.... the Rape of Nanking, the Second World War, the Holocaust, Syria, Bahrain, Cheknya, Rwanda, the continuing confontation between Israel and Palestine......
 At the United Nations in 2016, French Ambassador Francois Delattre compared the destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo to Guernica.“Aleppo is to Syria what Guernica was to the Spanish war, a human tragedy, a black hole destroying all we believe in,” he said.
So we must remember Guernica , and  its legacy, we must make sure the fascists are stopped in their tracks, we must not let them pass.... we must carry on singing no pasaron to whatever disguise they dress themselves up in.It is important and timely to reflect on this tragic occasion .Guernica must be remembered , for our time, and for future generations, a terrifying rendition of the slaughter of  innocents.
 By April 1939, all of Spain was under fascist control and Franco declared a victory .Solidifying his power with a brutal dictatorship by oppressing and systematically killing any political opposition.Over half a million people were killed in the war, and in the next few years many tens of thousands more were executed, not forgetting all those who died from malnutrition, starvation, and war-engendered disease. General Franco's military regime remained in power until his death in 1975 depriving  Spain of freedom for several decades afterwards, the wound inflicted still resonates.

Guernica - A.S Knowland

Irun- Badajoz - Malaga - and then Guernica

So that the swastika and the eagle
might spring from the blood-red soil,
bombs were sown into the earth at Guernica,
whose only harvest was a calculated slaughter.
Lest freedon should wave between the grasses
and the corn its proud emblem, or love
be allowed to tread its native fields,
Fascism was sent to destroy the innocent,
and, goose-stepping to the exaggerated waving
of the two-faced flag, to save Spain.

But though the soil be saturated with blood
as a very efficient fertiliser, the furrow
of the ghastly Fasces shall remain barren.
The  planted swastika, the eagle grafted
on natural stock shall wither and remain sere;
for no uniformed force shall marshall the sap
thrilling to thrust buds into blossoms, or quicken
the dead ends of the blighted branches;
but the soil shall be set against an alien crop
and the seed be blasted in the planting.

But strength lies in the strength of the roots.
They shall not pass to ruin Spain!

Reprinted from
The Penguin Book of
Spanish Civil War Verse (1980) 


  1. So clearing written about the horror of fascism but then the military occupation of Palestine by Israel is described as a 'confrontation' between Israel and (what is left of) Palestine. The occupied and displaced people are not on an equivalence with Israel. They have no army, air force or navy but the desire for their inalienable rights.

  2. Cheers Israel is also guilty of the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.