The bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 wiped the small Basque town off the map. The outrage inspired Picasso’s painting Guernica, one of mankind’s greatest pieces of art being replicated today by the persistent air strikes on the peoples of Ukraine and Palestine. 

The Bombing of Guernica painted by Picasso

The attack on Guernica, an undefended town of 7,000 people, was carried out by Germany’s Condor Legion sent by Hitler in support of the Nationalist uprising against Spain’s elected Republican Government.

Ruins from the bombing of Guernica

Guernica in ruins.

The aircraft appeared in the late afternoon. It was Monday. Market day. The streets were packed. Wave after wave of Junkers and Heinkels delivered two-pounder incendiary projectiles and 1,000-pound Sprengbombe Cylindrisch, thin-cased demolition bombs that rained down like the fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.

The church of Santa Maria received numerous directs hits. As the walls crumbled, the tower shimmied for a moment, then toppled like a felled tree. The bells tolling to warn of the attack tolled one last time to ring out the end of a thousand years of history. People as they ran with their children were gunned down by low flying Messerschmitts. It was the first time an aerial saturation bombing of a civilian population had ever occurred. The fires burned for three days. Up to 1,600 people died.

The justification for the bombing of Guernica had been to impede the retreat of the Basque militia by destroying the bridge over the River Mundaca. Nearly four hours of blitzkrieg had left the bridge standing.

Before the Bombing of Guernica

Spain’s Second Republic came to power in February 1936 following the exile of King Alfonso XIII. Women were able to vote for the first time and tilted the balance in favour of the coalition made up principally of liberals and socialists promising equal rights, land reform and the creation of a universal health service, the first country in the world to do so.

Five months after the election, on 17 July, a Nationalist front of the land-owning rich, the Church and a brutal military led by General Franco rose up to overthrow the government. It was the beginning of a three-year Civil War in which one million people were lost and Spain lived under a dictatorship until Franco’s death in 1975.

The Nationalists were supported with modern weaponry and troops from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Britain, France and the United States maintained a policy of non-intervention. Even after the destruction of Guernica, they sent no aid, no arms and made it difficult for volunteers setting out for Spain to join the International Brigades.

The major democracies rightly assumed that the overwhelming fire power of the Nationalists would win the war. They sacrificed Spain’s democratically-elected government to appease Hitler and guarantee good trade relations with the future victors.

Germany on the killing fields of Spain rehearsed battle plans and strategies. The annihilation of Coventry by the Luftwaffe on the nights of 14 and 15 November 1940 followed the same pattern as the bombing of Guernica in 1937.

In the same way that Britain, France and the United States watched from afar as Spanish democracy was savagely crushed by unelected tyrants, they watch again with empty words as Ukraine and Palestine turn to rubble and the innocent are butchered in air attacks directed at hospitals, schools and apartment blocks.

Picasso’s Guernica

Guernica is displayed in a large, low-lit windowless room in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. The monochrome mural (7.77 metres by 3.49 metres) blends the contemporaneous styles of cubism and surrealism. It is described by critics as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history. I would agree. The masterpiece holds you spellbound and makes you wonder what madness and barbarity lives in the heart of man.

Female volunteer against The bombing of Guernica

Fighting for Spain

While the militias and volunteers of the Spanish Republic fought for three years against a stronger, better equipped army – much like the Ukrainians today – the social programme promised in the 1936 election campaign progressed across areas held by the Republic. The mantilla had gone. Girls picked up a gun and manned the barricades.

In November 1937, the World’s Fair took place in Paris. Guernica was shown for the first time in the Spanish pavilion. One day, when Picasso was present, a German official spent a long time studying the painting before turning to Picasso.

‘Did you do this?’ he asked.

‘No,’ Picasso replied. ‘You did.’

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  1. As I may have written elsewhere, a simple cross-check against the Iraq-Kuwait invasion indicates one salient factual difference: Putin is Saddam with nukes.

    So we must infer from the limited response of the West either that Western strategists no longer believe that MAD (Glowing Red Square, anyone?) deters the Putin regime, or that the Western nuclear powers have abandoned MAD and would let some use of Russia’s nukes pass, as with chemical weapons in Syria, without a response in kind. Neither of these is reassuring.

    At least we can recall the saying of, not Churchill but possibly Abba Eban, that Americans, or perhaps people generally, will do the right thing only after exhausting all the alternatives. This does seem to be playing out now.

  2. The gag about the Nazi commenting on Guernica (You did this? No you did) is likely apocryphal. It usually appears in relation to a raid on Picasso’s studio in Paris when a postcard of Guernica is spotted by the officer (or the painting is actually present in the studio in other versions).

    You mightwell have pursued here the position of misogynist bully Picasso who managed to dodge two world wars and the civil war in Spain whilst posturing as macho man throughout his long life.

  3. God almighty Clifford… sound like yet another mouthpiece for the wests propergander vomit on Ukraine……just go back a bit to its history..for a start…and then to the so called colour revolution of 2014…and who was behind it….and then what was decided at Minsk..etc etc….. then take it from there… find the real honest truth…………

  4. Well highlighted and what a stark comparison…

    History has a terribly sad way of repeating itself and how certain humans (dare we even call them human!) are prepared to carry out such atrocities – it is shocking and scarcely believable that this is still being carried out on Europe’s doorstep and we have to stand by wondering what to do and why it has come to this.

    Simply put, Europe and Nato were not ready for this war. Putin has always had old gripes and an agenda with the West. He is a throw back to the 20th century with a mentality to match – like Hitler he will stop at nothing to get his way at the expense of massacring innocents.

    As you point out, if Europe had stationed troops at the borders right at the outset then it would have been a different story but there was no strategy – never has been. This has been all too apparent by the way the British government has acted (or not) over the last ten years. Rather than take Putin and his cronies to task the government has been guilty of entertaining this evil regime and all its money. The British public have been wondering what’s going on but were instead given reasons as to why they shouldn’t be in the EU! We have been duped and conned. The British government have been complicit and are culpable.

    One might well ask what a modern-day mural of Mariupol done by Picasso would look like?

    In my own (cartoon) version I would have a map of Europe and Russia in the middle with a devastated smouldering Ukraine – a defiant Putin on the right with tanks, nuclear warheads, oil barrels, gas pipes, oligarchs, stacks of money – on the left would be the EU floating in oil, cash, arms, an army standing to attention looking the other way, politicians cowering and in the corner, Boris Johnson on his knees wondering why he has blood on his hands…

  5. I am only sorry that Biden has been so weak as leader of the western response. He made a hash of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, made it clear that NATO would only defend NATO soil (instead of saying nothing and keeping his powder dry), and even let slip that if Putin only took ‘just a little bit’ of Ukraine, he’d turn a blind eye. Sadly, he seems to have turned two blind eyes on the whole crisis.

  6. Very moving and apt description of the links between these two tragedies. For those of us blessed to have lived so much of our lives in relative peace, how we grapple to come to terms with the sudden fact that our world again/still more like “their” world than we had imagined. Very strong essay, Cliff.

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