Home / Guernica: Seventy Years Later And Nothing Has Changed

Guernica: Seventy Years Later And Nothing Has Changed

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There have been quite a number of ceremonies in recent years honouring historic battles and the like from the twentieth century. Just last weekend Canadians “celebrated” the ninetieth anniversary of their participation in the slaughter of Vimy Ridge during World War One (why if they’ve waited this long they couldn’t hold out for another ten years for the centenary I don’t know) with the opening of a new memorial in France at the site of the battle.

Of course the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link Canada’s presence at Vimy with the Canadian troops being killed in Afghanistan today. Not that he said anything remotely resembling the truth; ninety years later and we still haven’t learned anything, our soldiers are still dying in someone else’s war.

No he hauled out the usual platitudes about paying the ultimate price, making the supreme sacrifice, and dying for your freedom. Nobody has bothered to explain how a Canadian soldier getting blown up on either Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 or some outback near Kandahar in Afghanistan guaranteed or is guaranteeing my freedom.

Hell, the men who are dying in Afghanistan aren’t even ensuring the freedom of the people who live in that country, so I don’t know how anybody can claim they’re doing anything for me. But that’s what politicians do, they try and make use of symbols to generate emotional responses in people so they don’t think about the illogic of what is being said and question things being done in their name.

But amidst all the hoopla surrounding Vimy this year, the invasion of Normandy during World War Two three years ago, and every November 11th commemorating the end of World War One, an anniversary of import has managed to slip by most politicians. This April 26th will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica by German bombers supporting the fascist rebellion in Spain led Francisco Franco.

The bombing raid has the distinction of being the first full scale attack on a strictly civilian target during a war. While Mussolini had used some air power in his ugly conquest of Ethiopia the year earlier and others have tried to lay claim latterly to being the first civilian targets hit by bombs, the attack on Guernica still holds the dubious distinction of being the first ever deliberate targeting of civilians by the military.

Reading the eye witness account at the link above leaves one no doubt of the intent behind the attack. If they hadn’t meant to bomb civilians they could have stopped after the first bomber dropped his payload and realized it wasn’t a military target.

Instead, according to the eyewitness the raid lasted for three and one quarter hours during which three types of German plane dropped bombs of up to a maximum of 1,000lbs and over 3,000 2lb aluminium incendiary devices. Nor would the accompanying fighters have deliberately sought out and machine-gunned people who had taken shelter in the fields surrounding the town if it hadn’t been a deliberate attack on the civilian population.

Of course it’s not really that surprising that no one is making a big deal of this being the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Gurenica. None of the Western governments wanted to pay attention to the war when it was happening. In fact Canada even went so far as to try and make it illegal for Canadian citizens to volunteer to help the Republicans fight off Franco.

No one should get involved because it is an internal dispute, was the line bandied about by Great Britain, Canada, America, and France. So they stood by while Mussolini and Hitler warmed up for invading the rest of Europe by sending troops and planes to help Franco. I have to hope that the reason no one commemorates this war to this day is that all of our governments are embarrassed about their behaviour.

By not interfering they missed the chance of cutting the nascent German power off at the knees. Instead they sent out a pretty clear signal to Hitler that he was going to be allowed to do pretty much what he wanted for the next couple of years. Besides there are some things that haven’t changed about American foreign policy – always support the right wing dictators over the democratically elected socialist.

It was a pretty common thought in those days that a strong Germany under Hitler was a good thing because it kept Stalin and the Soviet Union at bay. Of course that theory got thrown out the window when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. It was Stalin’s way of thumbing his nose at the West for trying to throw him to the wolves, and it freed Hitler to attack Europe in 1940.
When was the last time you looked closely at Picasso’s Guernica? To me it had always seemed like the most accurate portrayal of the aftermath of a bombing that I’d ever seen. Photographs don’t really do anything, even if the occasional body is strewn about, they just never had the impact that even the smallest reproduction of this work had on me.

But nothing prepared me for actually seeing the piece on display. I had no idea it was a mural that took up an entire wall of the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In 1980 when I walked in the front doors of the museum I was stopped dead in my tracks by its sheer magnitude. (In his will Picasso had prohibited the painting from ever being seen in Spain until a democratically elected government was elected again. Ironically if I had come to New York City a year later I would never have had an opportunity to see the painting as it was shipped back to Spain shortly after I saw it with the election of the first government since the Republicans in the 1930s) I couldn’t believe that anyone after having seen that work could give an order that would allow civilians to be bombed.

So maybe that’s the other reason no one is going to be opening any champagne on April 26th of this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Guernica. What would a politician say at this event? Ultimate sacrifice and supreme price or whatever their damned phrases are just don’t cut it for this one do they.

Standing up and admitting you haven’t learned squat from the past isn’t something that politicians are very good at, and that’s not going to change in a little over a week’s time. If they were honest they could get up and say today we remember our first lesson in mass destruction using airplanes and bombs. Seventy years later and we can now take out people in greater numbers and from further away then we dreamed of back in those primitive days.

We salute the people of Guernica for being the first victims of mankind’s descent into brutality in the modern era. They gave of themselves selflessly so others could die in greater numbers in the future. They made the supreme sacrifice and paid the ultimate price, and the entire arms industry salutes them for opening up a whole new target group – civilians.

No I guess that wouldn’t look too good on a commemorative t-shirt or ball cap, and don’t even think of a monument. Nobody wants to be reminded of Gurenica, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London, Singapore, Saigon, Baghdad, Beirut, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Hong Kong, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem, Dafur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Rome, Kabul, Teheran, Algiers, Mumbai, Karachi, Kashmir, Punjabi, or any other place where civilians have died or continue to be killed.

Seventy years ago, on April 26th 1937, German bombers fighting with Francisco Franco bombed Guernica a small village in the Basque region of Spain. There was no discernable military target. The combination of incendiary, devices and high explosives plus repeated passes by fighter planes with machine guns left no doubt that the target of this raid were the citizens of Guernica themselves.

They must not be forgotten.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Rick Calhoun

    I have seen some idiotic stuff on the internet, but this takes the cake.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    While I sympathize with your efforts here, I have to point out that military conflicts had been going in the direction of total war waged on civilians and soldiers since the time of Napoleon, and that the campaign fought in Spain against the French puppet king in the early 1800’s had all the brutality of the attack on Guernica in 1937, 130 years later. In fact the word, guerrilla entered the English language because of this war.

    In addition, I would ask you to consider General William Sherman’s campaign in Georgia in 1864 – with its clear goal of “making Georgia howl.” Had Union armies access to aircraft in 1864, the campaign waged in Georgia by General Sherman would have made Guernica look like a picnic.

    G’mar Hatima Tova,

  • Dr Dreadful

    Civilian casualties have always been a part of warfare as collateral damage. In the Middle Ages it was accepted practice for the winning side in a battle to attack, loot and sack the nearest town.

    The significant thing about Guernica, and the reason why it set a historical precedent, is that Franco and the Germans attacked the town in full knowledge that there was little to no military presence there. It was simply an opportunity for the Luftwaffe to get in some target practice in preparation for the larger war to come.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “The significant thing about Guernica, and the reason why it set a historical precedent, is that Franco and the Germans attacked the town in full knowledge that there was little to no military presence there. It was simply an opportunity for the Luftwaffe to get in some target practice in preparation for the larger war to come.”

    That, DD is precisely the point.

    The guerrilla war in Spain (the Peninsula War against Napoleon’s brother, the Spanish king) took loads of civilian casualties because the civilians themselves were divided in loyalty and each side murdered off people like they were nothing but passenger pigeons.

    The 1864 campaign by General “War is hell” Sherman was aimed at the civilians living in Georgia, not the weak Confederate force defending the state. Had Sherman the ordnance that was available to the Fascists and Nazis, or had he the aircraft, the civilian casualties would have been much higher.

    The Germans watched carefully what had happened during the American Civil War and took careful note. Some of the “lessons” learned were applied at Guernica.

  • bliffle

    One would be well advised to read Ambrose Bierce’ “Tales of Soldiers and Civilians” to get some idea of the horror of the USA civil war.

  • Clavos

    Or take a really good look at Matthew Brady’s photos.