The bombing of Guernica – death of an innocent village

Guernica was not the first Basque village to be bombed by the nationalists. As early as 22 July 1936, the centre of Otxandiano, in the south of Biscay, was the victim of a bombing raid that killed 84 people, including children. On 31 March 1937 the village of Durango was razed to the ground by the Italian Air Force. But Guernica went down in history books as a symbol of the senselessness of the war for various reasons.

Bombadierung von Guernica
In less than three hours only ruins were left of Guernica.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224/Unknown author/CC-BY-SA 3.0

George Steer had travelled as fast as he could from Bilbao to Guernica after hearing the terrible news: the Basque village was reduced to rubble the day before. The British correspondent was lucky that the Basque government let him travel through the republican territory without restrictions.1Preston, Paul: We Saw Spain Die – Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. London 2008, p. 318 – 322

Even before he arrived in Guernica on Monday, April 26, 1937 at about eleven o’clock in the evening, he saw smoke rising into the sky from a distance of more than ten kilometers. Upon his arrival, the wooden and tiled buildings were still burning brightly. Steer immediately set to work to reconstruct what had happened the day before in Guernika.

Attack on market day

April 26, 1937 was a Monday and a market day. Besides the farmers and inhabitants, the town was also filled with war refugees. Historians assume that at the time of the attack there were about 10,000 people in Guernica.2Preston, Paul: We Saw Spain Die – Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. London 2008 At about 4:30 p.m., when people were still crowding towards the market, suddenly the church tower bells rang, warning of approaching airplanes.

According to Steer’s reports, the people fled into the ditches and air-raid shelters. A German bomber finally circled over the village and dropped six heavy bombs in the direction of the railway station.3Steer, George: The Tragedy of Guernica – Town Destroyed in Air Attack – Eye Witness’s Account. The Times , 28 April 1937 The fact that the first bombs fell near the railway station is also confirmed by Reverend Alberto Onaindía:

“We were passing near the station when we heard a bomb explosion; two more immediately followed. A plane flying very low dropped its cargo and flew away, and all this in a few seconds. It was Guernica’s first war experience. The panic of the first moments shocked the inhabitants and the farmers came to the market. We observed a considerable commotion.4 Onaindía, Alberto: Hombre de paz, Buenos Aires 1974, p. 238
Alberto Onaindía
Eye witness

A few minutes later the next bombs were already falling. First appeared smaller airplanes, which dropped hand grenades and 250 kilogram bombs on Guernica. After the frightened population wanted to escape the bombs as quickly as possible, Heinkel He51 fighters took off and fired machine guns at the fleeing people, driving them back into their shelters.

When the village was already in ruins, twelve planes dropped heavy demolition, fragmentation and incendiary bombs, which turned Guernica into a sea of flames. Since the water pipes were massively damaged, the fires could not be extinguished. During the attacks, the cries of the population, filled with fear of death, could be heard. Some prayed in helplessness and others gesticulated wildly in the direction of the airmen.5Onaindía, Alberto: Hombre de paz, Buenos Aires 1974, p. 238 – 240

The attacks ended at about 7:45 pm. Since there was no air defence in the village, the population was defencelessly at the mercy of the German bombers of the Legion Condor. The only protection the population had at that moment was the spiritual support of the Basque clergy, who prayed tirelessly for the population during the attack, Steer writes in his report.6Steer, George: The Tragedy of Guernica – Town Destroyed in Air Attack – Eye Witness’s Account. The Times, 28 April 1937

“Never before have I felt so defenceless and defenseless as a victim as on that April 26, 1937. Guernica burned. In the first two hours we did not notice many flames because it was daytime and the smoke covered the fires. But when we tried to enter the city, we could not take many steps without feeling suffocated by the smoke and flames that began to consume all the apartments. Many people gathered in front of the accumulation of houses. Some were crying, others were praying, and quite a few watched the spectacle petrified with horror and fear.”7 Onaindía, Alberto: Hombre de paz, Buenos Aires 1974, p. 240
Alberto Onaindía
Eye witness

According to the Basque Government, more than 1 000 people were killed in the bombing. However, this figure was considered controversial. In fact, historians currently estimate that 200 to 300 people were killed.8Preston, Paul: The Destruction of Guernica. London 2012

International reactions

When the excommunicated Basque Bishop Mateo Múgica heard the next day about the bombing of Guernica, he wrote a letter to his former Spanish colleagues and bishops throughout Europe. At the time, he was in fact in Roman exile, having in the past spoken out quite positively about Basque independence. In the letter, Múgica stressed that the Basque children were the greatest victims of the tragedy. His letter had an impact: prelates in France, England, Belgium and Switzerland offered their help to take in children.9Legarreta, Dorothy: The Guernica Generation – Basque Refugee Children of the Spanish Civil War. Reno 1984, p. 65

The fact that the bombing of Guernica became known outside Spain at all is thanks to the many international correspodents such as Georg Steer. His detailed report on the destruction of Guernica was already published in The Times and The New York Times on 28 April. A shorter article by his colleague Christopher Holme was published the day before in the Glasgow Herald and The Guardian.

The reports triggered an international echo. In the USA, Steer was even invited to the House of Representatives as a witness to testify about the participation of German bombers.10Preston, Paul: We Saw Spain Die – Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. London 2008, p. 318 – 322

Steer’s detailed eyewitness account was even printed in French in the communist daily newspaper L’Humanité. Now there are two versions of how Pablo Picasso was informed about the tragic events in his home country. On the one hand, Picasso is said to have read Steer’s report in L’Humanité on 29 April.11van Hensbergen, Gijs: Guernica – The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. London 2004, p. 45 On the other hand, Alain Serres says that Picasso is said to have seen the pictures of the destroyed village in the daily newspaper Ce Soir on 1 May. The newspaper was founded a few months earlier by one of his friends, Louis Aragon.12Serres, Alain: And Picasso Painted Guernica. Alexander St Crows Nest 2010, p. 20

However, the two versions need not contradict each other: Serres’ article was printed without pictures, while the front page of Ce Soir showed the first pictures of the destroyed Guernica. Those pictures, coupled with Steer’s detailed and sober descriptions, probably inspired Picasso to his most famous work, which he produced for the World Exhibition in Paris on behalf of the Republican government.

A copy of the famous Picasso painting can be seen in Guernica itself. The original can be seen in the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid.
Christoph Pleininger/Alerta

The question of guilt

In the reports of George Steer there was already talk of German bombers on 28 April 1937. Because of the threatening propaganda disaster, the leadership in Berlin became nervous. After all, in August 1936 they had joined the committee for non-interference in Spanish affairs.

On May 4, 1937, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the then Nazi ambassador in London, wrote to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin to urge Franco to deny energetically and sharply that German airmen had attacked Gernika. A press statement by Franco, with the lie that the Basques themselves had set fire to the village with petrol, was published the next day.

A good week later, Adolf Hitler wrote to von Ribbentrop that an international investigation of the events in Guernika was to be avoided at all costs.13Thomas, Gordon & Witts, Max Morgan: Guernica – The Crucible of World War II. Briarcliff Manor 1975, p. 12 – 13

However, the nationalists’ lie could not easily be written into the history books, even though Steer’s account was viewed critically at first. Ultimately, however, it was also the key to the slow rethinking of the war in Great Britain.14Preston, Paul: We Saw Spain Die – Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. London 2008, p. 318 – 322 Nowadays, it has been established beyond doubt that the Legion Condor, with the help of the Italian air force razed Guernica to the ground on 26 April 1937.

“Bomb holes still to be seen on the streets, just great. – The city was completely closed for at least 24 hours, it was the prerequisite for a great success, if only troops would have moved in. So only a full technical success of our 250 and EC. B.1.“15Maier, Klaus A.: Guernica 26.04.1936: Die deutsche Intervention in Spanien und der Fall „Guernica“. Freiburg 1975, p. 55
Diary entry of Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram Freiheer von Richthofen
Chief of Staff of the Legion Condor

Among the most renowned historians who researched the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century, there is a general consensus that the destruction of Guernica was consciously accepted. After all, the village is one of the first places in world history to have been completely destroyed by an air raid.16Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. London 2008, p.270

In addition, there is the question of the extent to which Guernica was important at all from a military or strategic point of view. The Basque front was more than twenty kilometres away from the village. Two barracks and a munitions factory were located outside the village. Some historians point out that Guernica was a retreat for Basque troops. Thus, the bridge, which is said to have been the official target of the attacks, was a legitimate military target.17Caballero Jurado, Carlos: The Condor Legion – German Troops in the Spanish Civil War. Oxford, p. 26

However, the bridge survived the bombing raid unscathed, while the village sank into the sea of flames. Some historians also find a justification for this: After the first attack, visibility was too poor to drop the bombs more precisely because of the heavy smoke.18Maier, Klaus A.: Guernica, Fakten und Mythen. in: German Studies Review
Vol. 18/No. 3. p. 466

This may be plausible from a military point of view, but some questions remain unanswered: Why did it take 50 tons of demolition, fragmentation and incendiary bombs to destroy the bridge? Why was the attack not stopped after the first wave due to poor visibility? Why was the market day on April 26th chosen for the attack, if the primary target was not civilian casualties?

The attempt of the Legion Condor to break the morale of the population in the hard-fought Basque Country through bomb attacks was approved by General Franco himself.19Preston, Paul: The Destruction of Guernica. London 2012

Gernikako Arbola: The oak stump had survived the attack on Guernica.
Christoph Pleininger/Alerta

Moreover, Guernica is an extremely important place for the Basques. The Guernica oak tree is a symbol of the freedom of the Basque people, whose desire for independence the Spanish nationalists wanted to prevent by all means. Interestingly, the oak tree survived the bombing raid unscathed. The same applies to the Basque Parliament House, next to which the oak tree is planted.20Thomas, Hugh: The Spanish Civil War. New York & Toronto 1989, p. 606

Guernica: place of peace and research

It took sixty years before the Federal Republic of Germany officially recognized the German attack as such. Especially the work of the Green politician Petra Kelly was important for the reconciliation with Guernica. She was the first German politician to visit the Basque village as early as 1987.

“I am here today, and I am German, and I am ashamed of what happened here on 26 April 1937. On 26 April 1937, almost fifty years ago, German Luftwaffe planes allied with Franco bombed this place in Euskadi “21Niebel, Ingo: Petra Kelly y Guernica. in: VII. Jornadas Internacionales de Cultura y Paz. 1997
Petra Kelly
April 18, 1987

In the same year the Peace Research Center in Guernica was established. Researchers work together with social organisations and educational institutions to promote the culture of peace. In addition, since 1997 there has been a Peace Museum in the centre of the village, which focuses on the bombing of Guernica. The importance of peace in the village was enforced by the nomination as the European city for peace by UNESCO. You will hardly find a more peaceful place in Spain than Guernica.