The morning of April 26, 1937 dawned like any other in Guernica, northern Spain. It was market day, and as the sun rose, 10,000 locals, refugees and peasants came to gather in the traditional Basque town’s centre.
But this was not the typical day of trading that they may have expected. The country was in the midst of civil war and by 4.30pm chaos had descended.
For more than three hours, in support of the insurgent Francoist cause, the Nazi Condor Legion and fascist Italian Legionary Air Force dropped 31 tons of munitions onto Guernica. The aerial bombing made ruins of 85.22% of the buildings. And, though the figure is now disputed, the Basque government said it killed 1,654 people and wounded a further 889.
In 1936, a failed coup by a group of fascist military generals against the legitimate Spanish Republican government had triggered what would become a bloody three-year civil war in Spain, leading to 36 years of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. By the time of the attack, Guernica was host to Republican civilian refugees, and a provisional war hospital had been set up. But neither made it a key military target – so why the bombing?
Guernica, the symbol
The town was not a major centre like Madrid or Barcelona. But after a defeat in Guadalajara while trying to take Madrid, the insurgent Francoists learnt the importance of modest but symbolically powerful victories. Since the nearby city of Bilbao was still resisting their attacks, these fascists saw in Guernica a guaranteed victory.
In similar fashion, Nazi Germany never perceived Spain as a strategic ally, and was not particularly interested in the Spanish war. Instead, it used it as a field in which to experiment with new strategies before World War II. The Nazis justified the Guernica attack as one of strategic importance in the support of the francoist advance on Bilbao. But the truth is that as the bombing came to an end, the Rentería Bridge, the strategic main access route to the town, remained untouched.
For the Francoists, Guernica was a symbol of Basque resistance and a plurinational Spain threatening their project of a totalitarian regime. As General Emilio Mola, in charge of the insurgent military campaign in the north, would say:
It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do".
For each party involved in the attack, Guernica was symbolic. But what they couldn’t expect was that it would come to represent far more than just what happened on 26 April, 1937.
The Paris World Fair, due to open in May 1937, was the perfect pretext for the legitimate Republican government to tell the world of the horrors of the undemocratic fascist uprising in Spain, and the growing power of fascism in Europe. Spanish authorities commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural portraying the situation. He accepted, but warned he might not be able to fulfil the assignment.
His canvas was blank until the bombing of Guernica. Then, in little more than a month, the piece – a striking depiction of the fascist attack on the town – was ready.
It was more than just a symbol of the horrors of war in Spain: from World War II until the present day, Picasso’s Guernica has become a reminder of the atrocities of all global wars, which has made it an inconvenient masterpiece for those trying to ignore the past or justify it, when it has no justification.
To commemorate the painting’s 80th year, Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, has organised a temporary exhibition, which quickly garnered criticism from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory for its lack of historical context.
It presents a thorough evolution of Picasso’s personal aesthetic, but in a shockingly ahistorical fashion. The word “Francoism” does not appear once, and there seems to be a reluctance to use terms such as “civil war” or “fascism”. It is said that the Condor Legion bombed the town but the role Franco and the insurgents played remains unexplained. Exhibition curators stated that “the political context is not as present as one would expect but many have already done so and this is not going to disappear”.
However, this lack of contextual memory may lead to an unhistorical interpretation of the world. Spain is still struggling to apply legislation on historical memory passed in 2007, aimed at recognising the rights of the victims of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship.
The law enables families to apply to restore the honour of anyone convicted of a political crime during Franco’s rule. It also requires that symbols including plaques, street names and statues, honouring Franco and his regime are removed. However, a UN report has found that this rule has been deprived of funding since 2012, and in some places ignored altogether.
Spain turning its back on history is already having dreadful consequences, giving clear proof of how alive “sociological Francoism” is – even now that Spain is a democratic state, Francoist social practices are still around. It is not a crime to be a Franco apologist but mocking Franco or the fascist symbols can be. The real terrorism, the policy of terror that the Franco regime practised, is still unpunished, and Francoism is continuing to victimise people in present-day Spain.
80 years on from the Guernica bombing, Spain should be using this anniversary to remember its past and honour the victims of war. Now both painting and town should more than ever stand for the fundamental importance of human rights, and against repression. The symbolic value of these places of memory cannot be ignored any longer.