The Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
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© Cor Faber en Ellen Bijma Last update website march 2024
“Haben Sie das gemacht?” the German officer asks in 1940 in Paris. “Nein, Sie!” replies Picasso harsh.
The painting in front of both depicts the consequences of the terrible bombardment on April 26, 1937 on the town of Guernica, Gernika in Basque.
Guernica was not the first time that the German Condor Legion in particular applied "carpet bombing" and tested incendiary bombs. The town of Durango, about 20 kilometers south of Guernica, had already been taken care of on March 31. The Condor Legion consisted of bombers, fighters and support personnel. Still, Guernica would get more attention. The number of casualties was much greater. Although information about this varies, the number that is generally believed to be around 1800 is estimated. Foreign reporters were also there the day after to see the ruins. But perhaps what made the biggest impression was the painting Picasso created a few weeks later that gained some international acclaim. Picasso stipulated that the painting would not be allowed to go to Spain until democracy had been restored in that country. That only happened after 1975 when the dictator Franco died and Spain once again became a parliamentary democracy. After a tour of Spain, it has been hanging in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid since 1992.
Monday, April 26, 1937 is market day in Guernica. The civil war is getting closer and less than a month before that, the town of Durango has already been bombed. The Basques understand nothing of the war. As far as they are concerned it is Spaniards fighting Spaniards and this is the Basque country, not Spain. Yet they too can no longer pretend that nothing is wrong. For some time retreating soldiers have been passing through Guernica, not a good sign. Those soldiers continue to Bilbao, 20 kilometers to the west. Bilbao, which must be the last defense, partly due to the Iron Ring around the city. A defense that would completely miss its mark, as it appears it could hold back troops from the past, but will prove incapable of modern warfare.
General Mola, one of the instigators of the uprising and now commander of the northern troops, is leading a reign of terror over northern Spain. He threatens to destroy the Basque Country if they don't surrender. Full of surrender he throws himself into that performance, supported by the German Condor Legion under the command of Colonel Wolfram Von Richthoven.
Not that those two can go through a door together. Von Richthoven has been instructed to keep the Basque Country intact. His boss, Hitler, is eager to make use of the Basque Country's heavy industry and other facilities. Violent quarrels regularly break out between the two. Mola dies on June 3, 1937 in a plane crash. Although, was it an accident?
General Mola
Colonel Von Richthoven
Around four o’clock in the afternoon a single plane arrives. It looks like it is a scout, so no trouble seems to be expected. The church bells begin to ring as an alarm, but people don't take much notice. The bells have already rung a few times today, but nothing happened. Even now it will be a false alarm. Then the first explosions sound and people start to move and run to the shelters. Not that they would be safe there, some bomb shelters are even still under construction and those that are finished will hardly help if bombs explode right next to or on top of them. The roofs of the shelters consist of tree trunks with bags of sand on top. But the explosions only happen on the edge of the center and when the planes leave again half an hour later and there are no more explosions, the people come back and things on the market go on as usual.
Less than half an hour later all hell breaks loose in Guernica. Dozens of planes fly over and unleash a downpour of bombs on the center of the town. Ordinary bombs, but also incendiary bombs. To make matters worse, barrels of gasoline are also thrown from the doors of the planes. This way the incendiary bombs can eventually cause even more damage. Many people who managed to reach the bomb shelters suffocated. The fire sucks the oxygen out of the bomb shelters. People are fleeing Guernica. To make matters worse, they are chased by fighter planes that unload their machine guns at them. The bombardment continues until 7:30 PM and Guernica is in ruins. General Mola declares two days later that it is now Bilbao's turn. The bombing of Guernica must have helped to frighten the inhabitants of Bilbao.
A Messerschmitt BF109 and a Junker JU88 of the German Condor Legion that took part in the bombing raid. Aircraft were fitted with nationalistic markings to prevent the German involvement from becoming known. That was, of course, an open secret.
The ruins after the bombing
Bullet holes can still be seen in a pillar in the center
Already the next day there are journalists in Guernica. Among them George Steer who works for the English newspaper The Times and the American The New York Times. They take pictures and talk to survivors of the drama. The next day there are articles in all kinds of newspapers around the world and international attention is focused on the event. The outrage is great. Questions are being asked again about the presence of Germany in Spain. That country apparently does not care about participating in the non-intervention pact, which they have also signed. But the questions are dismissed or even simply ignored when asked in parliaments. They do not want to confront Germany, for fear of offending that country and provoking a conflict. In fact, England would rather see Franco win than see Spain eventually fall under the yoke of Russian communism.
There are all sorts of reports and rumors going around. For example, it is said that the Basques set Guernica on fire themselves. Also, only a bridge and a small arms factory would have been the goal. However, the bridge is still there to this day and the same applies to that factory. Franco has always claimed to have known nothing about it. The official reading is that there would have been twelve victims. Of course, the reports of journalists contradict that number.
Soon after the event, Picasso decides to make the painting. If you don't know the background to it, you can easily think it's just a strange painting, the work of a twisted mind.
Guernica is known as the Capital of Peace. In its place is the Museum of Peace, Museo de la Paz. This museum has a permanent exhibition of the bombing. In a room you experience the effects of the bombardment with sounds, vibrations and lights, but of course it doesn't come close to what people must have actually experienced at the time. Picasso's painting might come closer if you look at it and let it sink in.
The Bombing of Guernica april 26th 1937