“We were hiding in shelters and praying. I only thought of running away, I was so scared. I didn’t think about my parents, mother, house, nothing. Just escape. Because during those three and one half hours, I thought I was going to die.”
– Luisa Aurtenetxea
“They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line, sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing new moves. They must have fired thousands of bullets.”
– Juan Guezureya
Above are two descriptions of one of the most brutal episodes of the bloody Spanish Civil War – the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain on today’s date, April 26, in 1937. The two quotes are eyewitness accounts of two Spanish citizens who lived through the experience. The image above the quotations – that of the famous painting by Picasso of the scene – has become the enduring image of slaughter and death; the reaction of a Spanish artist to the carnage taking place in his homeland. And long after the events of the Spanish Civil War have been forgotten, Picasso’s work has been there to remind all who see it of the destruction and chaos of war.
The Spanish Civil War Breaks Out
(Pictured above: Guernica after the bombing) Civil War had broken out in Spain in July of 1936 between the Republican forces supporting the elected Spanish government, and those of the insurgent army officer, Francisco Franco. The fascist governments of Hitler’s Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy extended military assistance to fellow-fascist Franco in return for access to raw materials in Spain for use in their growing war machines. The town of Guernica was a small rural city of only 5,000 inhabitants which had declared non-belligerence in the conflict. But the independence-minded Basque region as a whole was seen as stronghold of opposition to Franco. Thus when Luftwaffe Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen (cousin of the famous World War One flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen) proposed bombing Guernica on Franco’s behalf, Franco approved of the attack as a way of breaking Basque resistance to his forces. The attack commenced on that April day at 4:30, the busiest hour of the market day. For over three hours, some of the best planes in Germany and Italy’s arsenal dumped 100,000 pounds of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the helpless village, systematically reducing it to rubble. Over 1600 civilians, more than a third of the population were killed, and fires engulfed the city, leaving it burning for days.
Picasso, in Paris is Horrified by the Slaughter
In Paris, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (pictured above at work on “Guernica”) had agreed to paint a mural that was to be the centerpiece of the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in the French capitol. But he had been unable to settle on an inspiration for the work. On May 1, news of the bombing of Guernica reached Paris. The eyewitness reports which appeared in French newspapers along with stark black and white photographs left the stunned Picasso filled with rage. There had been rumors that Picasso was indifferent to the suffering of his country. Picasso issued a statement while he was working on the mural that would become “Guernica”:
“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.”
His anger over this atrocity in his native land gave him the inspiration for which he had been searching and resulted in the famous painting which Picasso did in the same black, white and gray colors that he saw in the newspaper photos. Thus has the memory of Guernica and of Picasso’s reaction to its savage destruction at the hands of Franco’s forces endured long after the Spanish Civil War has faded from memory.
For additional insight into the killing field that was Guernica, please take a look at my article previously published on “Suite 101” :
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