THE NAZI BOMBING OF GUERNICA...
LUIS Iriondo points to an oil painting on the wall of his studio. It shows a woman sitting on a pile of rubble holding her head in her hands. She is weeping amid an apocalyptic scene. In the background fire lights up silhouettes of wrecked buildings and behind her is a man nailed to a large wooden cross. He is dead and his head lolls forward and his body swings limp from outstretched arms nailed to wood. “This is called The Christ of Guernica,” Luis says softly. In his mind’s eye the 84-year-old artist can still see that woman crying and feel the heat of a firestorm that is seared into his consciousness, a memory, 70 years later, that is still much too vivid. He painted the picture to commemorate a day he will never forget. As a 14-year-old boy, Luis was in the Basque market town of Guernica the day Nazi bomber planes came and razed it to the ground. The atrocity happened during the Spanish Civil War on April 26th, 1937. As many as 1600 people may have died during the attack, although the true death toll may never be known and is something of dispute to this day. Hundreds more people suffered terrible burns and injuries and most of Guernica’s population of around 5000, including the elderly and babies, were left homeless and with nothing but the clothes on their backs. “The fire brigade from Bilbao came to help but there was no water…so we watched Guernica burn,” Luis says, his eyebrows raised and eyes widening to fill his large, silver-rimmed glasses, as if he is back there again.
The destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian war planes is a moment in history immortalised by another painting, the famous eponymous masterpiece by Pablo Picasso who was outraged at the bombing. The Spanish artist’s picture is a startling, mono image famous across the world
and his portrayal of the carnage of war is used by the UN as a tapestry backdrop to its debating chamber in New York - a potent reminder to the world’s politicians of the consequences of their decisions.
Whereas Picasso’s powerful art may have been to inform the world of Spain’s torment, Luis’s painting was a personal, cathartic process and his private grief hangs out of public view in a studio downstairs from his Guernica apartment. A tall man with a weathered face, Luis has an expression that belies a hidden pain, as if he is on the verge of tears. “I paint my memoirs, not to sell…but because I want to. I am working on another painting. It is the moment I found my mother the day Guernica was bombed. My picture is of someone watching two people hugging,” he says. Despite the Iriondo family home being completely flattened during the air raid, somehow, miraculously Luis says, his mother, father, sister and two brothers, all escaped physically unhurt. But many people died, including childhood friends that Luis grew up with in the small, rural community. This week, on the 70th anniversary of the attack, he will meet with the remaining survivors to remember the innocent victims of the bombing of Guernica.
GUERNICA (Gernika-Lumo in Basque) is a symbol of Basque identity and freedom. The quiet, rural town, with a population of around 15,000 people, lies east of the city of Bilbao in Biscay Province in the autonomous region of the Basque country of Spain. The town is where every Basque president takes an oath and
for centuries Basque politicians met under an oak tree known as the Tree of Guernica. Prior to the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was populated by monarchists, traditionalists, leftists and nationalists, reflecting Spain’s wide political spectrum of the 1930s. But during this period there was great political tension and unrest within the nation’s Second Republic, a period marked by a worldwide economic depression, high unemployment and increasingly polarised politics in Spain. Groups on the left defended the Second Republic, whereas on the right, Catholics, monarchists and fascists, said the government was removing their social and economic privileges and was a threat to traditionalist Spain.
On July 17, 1936, war erupted when a rebellion by the right began, an attempted coup d’etat long feared by the Popular Front government. The conflict ended in April, 1939, with the victory of the rebels and the founding of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, a fascist supported by Adolf Hitler. Some estimates put the death toll during the conflict as high as one million people. Franco’s rule lasted until 1975 and the Spanish Civil War is viewed as the first major battle between Fascism and the Left. During the war supporters of the Republic gained the support of the Soviet Union while Franco’s army received the backing of the fascist states of Germany and Italy.
The Basque people opposed the fascists and supported the government. At the outset of war in 1936, Jose Antonio Aguirre, the first President of Euskadi (the Basque lands of Spain), knew the future of the Basque country depended on a Republican victory and on raising an army of 100,000 soldiers, he declared:“For the Basque people freedom is as important as the very air they breathe.” During the early stages of fighting Guernica continued as normal, Luis says its population embracing an attitude of peaceful co-existence. The town was the nerve centre of the area and every Monday farmers would come to trade livestock and crops, a tradition that continues to this day. But as the battle front grew nearer the effects of the war became more apparent and civilian refugees began to arrive in the town. On March 31st, 1937, Franco’s troops bombed the nearby town of Durango so Guernica’s authorities ordered air raid shelters to be built. It was an ominous sign.
At the time, Luis was a pupil in his third year at the local secondary school. He lived in the centre of Guernica with his mother, who ran a furniture shop, his father, a coal merchant, and two brothers and one sister. “For us teenagers, the war up to that point seemed like a bit of a party. We had refugees and soldiers arriving and it was quite exciting,” he says. On the day of the attack Luis was sent to the bank about 3pm for an interview with the manager. His mother, aware that conflict was drawing nearer to Guernica, wanted her son to move to Bilbao to work in a branch there. Luis was inside the bank when the bells of Santa Maria Church started to toll. “I remember it well. It was a clear blue sky, like today. When the bells started I wasn’t afraid because planes flew over Guernica all the time. We never thought we’d be attacked,” Luis says. But a visiting director from the Bilbao branch was frightened so Luis was asked to take him to a shelter in the centre of town. The square was packed with people and animals as it was market day for the district. As they approached the first bomb exploded. “Everyone panicked and started running and screaming. I was certainly afraid now,” Luis says.
The barrage had begun. As the shock waves from exploding shells shook the ground he was standing on, Luis bolted to a shelter with dozens of other people. “There were so many people inside (the bunker). It was pitch black. We could hardly breathe. We nearly suffocated because of a lack of air,” Luis says, gesticulating with his hands. He feared the bunker would be their tomb. There were women fainting, children crying and people praying. As each shell exploded outside, the noise, like claps of thunder, shook the walls and reverberated around the claustrophobic black space they were crushed into. “I was so frightened I forgot a special oration I had been taught at school.” The total destruction of Guernica only took about three hours. For the duration, Luis stayed inside the shelter with about 50 other people and despite the sustained bombardment the bunker remained intact. Luis clasps his hands together as if praying. “When we came out the town was burning and the sky had turned black with smoke. We just wanted to run and escape and to find our families. I saw lots of bodies. One of my friends was lying dead. He’d been shot. We saw a large house collapsing like the Twin Towers. ” Luis discovered that another air raid shelter in the town had taken a direct hit and 45 people were killed. “There were body parts everywhere. I will never forget that sight,” Luis says, his eyes welling up with tears. He didn’t find his mother and the rest of his family until later that evening. All had survived unharmed.
The blitzkrieg of Guernica had started around 4pm and continued systematically until the town was practically razed to the ground. The attack was carried out by the German Condor Legion, with help from the Italian Air Force, acting on the commands of Franco’s rebel army. According to the Guernica Peace Museum, the aircraft took off from an aerodrome in the Spanish town of Vitoria with wave after wave of planes flying in formation over the town. There were three types of aircraft used - Heinkel 1115s and Junker 52s for bombing purposes, and Heinkel 51s for machine-gunning. The planes flew out over the Bay of Biscay before performing a half-turn to follow the Oca Valley and attack Guernica from north to south. The tactics employed were to drop shells, followed by small incendiary cluster bombs, while at the same time machine-gunning anyone who had not reached cover, not only in the town but across outlying districts and neighbouring parishes.
Pedro Balino, 86, another survivor and a friend of Luis, ran to a hill overlooking the town when the bombing started and watched the assault hidden among trees. “The planes were flying in triangles and there were different sizes of shells being dropped. We watched the bombs fall from the planes. They would come out flat then flip over to point down, then hit the ground and explode. The noise was deafening,” says Pedro, who was 16 years old at the time. After the attack, Pedro also witnessed many bodies, as well as the injured and dying who’d been shot as they ran for cover. “We saw people being machine-gunned as they ran. Ratatatatatatatatata,” Pedro says, holding an umbrella up like a gun and moving it from side to side. “It is one thing to tell this tale…but another to have lived it.” The destruction of Guernica by shelling was followed by an inferno in the town centre fanned by strong winds blowing from the Bay of Biscay. “The town became a gigantic bonfire,” Luis says.
The military tactics were so devastating that Guernica has gone down in history as the first experiment in total war. Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, the commanding officer of the German Condor Legion, was ordered to perform the raid by Franco’s army but the intent of the raid is still disputed. Richthofen’s diaries were made public in the 1970s and indicate that an attack represented part of a wider Nationalist advance in the area. The Nazis said the main target was the Renteria Bridge in the suburbs of the town, to restrict the progress of retreating Republicans. But the bridge was one of the few structures left completely untouched. “Franco and the Nazis wanted to destroy Guernica and target the civilian population. In doing this they were attacking a symbol of Basque nationalism,” Luis says.
What is not disputed is that the assault provided Germany’s Condor Legion, an adjunct of the Luftwaffe, the opportunity to develop tactics for WW2. At the Nuremberg Trials, Hermann Goering testified: “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.” The true death toll will never be known. According to the Guernica Peace Museum, the figure is impossible to determine because there were so many refugees in the town swelling the population. Another factor was that Franco’s army kept people away from the town for three days after the attack, so bodies could have been disposed of. At the time the Basque authorities claimed that 1654 people died and 889 were injured, mainly the elderly, women and children. It is now generally accepted that 250 people were killed.
There were very few buildings left standing - a few homes, a weapons factory, Santa Maria Church, and the Renteria Bridge, which, according to the Germans,
was supposed to be the objective of the assault. The Tree of Guernica also survived. Three days after the attack Franco’s forces marched into the smouldering ruins of Guernica giving the Nazi salute to anyone who remained. Most of those who survived had fled in fear of reprisals, including Luis and Pedro. “I was left
with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. For six months I would wear the same clothes all week, wash them on a Saturday, then wear them all week again,” Pedro says.
IN the aftermath of the atrocity there was great controversy. The Basque government, and eye witnesses such as The Times journalist George Steer, informed the world of the involvement of Nazi planes. But Franco’s army never acknowledged any responsibility and the dictator blamed the carnage on Basque Republicans, accusing them of having set fire to the town during their retreat to Bilbao. “That was Franco‘s greatest lie. I watched planes bomb Guernica for three hours. It was an act of terrorism. I know what I witnessed,” Pedro says. It took five years to rebuild the town. After fleeing as refugees, both Luis and Pedro later returned to Guernica to raise families. But under Franco’s rule the Basque people were repressed. “The atmosphere was tense. There was only fear for us and the Basque language was banned. People were even sent to prison for talking Basque. We were not even allowed to say the Germans were responsible for the bombing. It was 40 years of silence until Franco died,” Luis says. In 1997, the then German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors apologising on behalf of the German people and state. But the Condor Legion has never apologised for their role, Luis says, former pilots saying they were only following orders. Veterans of the Legion even refused an invitation to meet with survivors. But both Luis and Pedro say they forgive the men for their actions. “But we will never forget,” Luis adds.
AT the time of the bombing Picasso was already working on a painting. Early in 1937 he’d been commissioned by the Spanish government to produce a large
mural for the World fair to be held in Paris that July. The Spaniard’s mind was focused on the conflict ripping his country apart. On hearing of Guernica, Picasso said: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.” Picasso’s painting is immense, eleven and a half foot tall and almost twenty six feet wide. Painted in black and white to invoke the immediacy of a newspaper photograph, the mural presents a scene of carnage depicted through people, animals and buildings wrenched by violence. After the Paris Exhibition it went on tour round Europe and after Franco’s victory it was sent to the USA to raise money for Spanish refugees. In 1968, Franco wanted Guernica returned to Spain but Picasso refused. The artist later stipulated in his will that Spain must return to being a Republic as a precondition for the mural’s return. Picasso died in 1973. Franco died two years later, in 1975. Guernica was eventually returned to Spain in 1981 and today it hangs in the Museo Raina Sofia in Madrid. Basque nationalists, who have repeatedly used its imagery, want Guernica brought to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but officials at the
Raina Sofia say it is too fragile to move.
The people of Guernica also want the painting brought to Basque country, but to the town that witnessed so much death and destruction. Pedro, wearing a traditional black beret known by the Basques as a chapala, takes me to a wall in the centre of the town which depicts Picasso’s Guernica. The image is made from black and white tiles and underneath the words ‘Guernica Gernikara’ are written. “It means Guernica to Gernika - the painting of Guernica should come to Guernica,” Pedro says. Luis, who has 11 grandchildren, agrees and says having the artwork in the town would bring tourism and provide a financial future for the community. “I’d never heard of Picasso in 1937. I saw the painting in Paris when I was a refugee following the bombing. When I first saw it I did not recognise myself or Guernica. The horse, the bull - these were not animals common to Guernica. But as time went on, the more I heard, the more I felt the painting represented us, and because it means so much to us now I would like to see it come here.”
Aside from hosting events to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing this week, the town will also welcome delegates from around the world to the 17th Gernika International Conference on Culture and Peace. Although Guernica remains a symbol of Basque identity the people wish the town to be, moreover, a symbol of peace for the world. The annual event is organised by a research centre for peace called Gernika Gogoratuz and in recent years the town has become a focal point for conflict resolutions and human rights. For the people of Guernica, this is as a fitting legacy for those who died. “There will be people here from Iraq and places that have also suffered bomb attacks- from coties such as Coventry, Rotterdam and Dresden. From the ruins of our town a flag has been raised for peace in the name of everyone in this world,” Luis says. Ends.
Copyright, Billy Briggs, 2007.No reproduction without permission.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.