Soldiers walk through the destroyed streets of Guernica
On this day in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. The attack was planned to fall on a market day, when they knew there would be a lot of people on the streets of Guernica. Guernica had little strategic value, but was a cultural centre of the Basque people who had been resisting Franco’s Nationalist forces. Over the course of three hours, over twenty five planes dropped one hundred thousand pounds of bombs, reducing the beautiful town to rubble. Those who tried to escape were shot down by the guns on the fighter planes. Final death tolls are unclear – most sources suggest around 1,500 were killed, however recent calculations have put the figure as under 400. The incident has become immortalised in the famous anti-war painting by Spaniard Pablo Picasso, which helped bring the atrocities of the civil war to international attention. The bombing served as a testing ground for Hitler’s military and the concept of ‘total war’, in which civilians are considered combatants and thus attacks on them are justified. The Guernica attack was indeed one of the first air raids and inaugurated the widespread use of aerial attacks in warfare. Just two years after the devastation of Guernica, World War Two broke out and the world experienced its first truly ‘total’ war.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso
“We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. ‘What happened, Father?’ I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn’t talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: ‘Aviones…bombas’…mucho, mucho.’“
– recollections of Noel Monks, the first journalist on the scene