Guernica (Gernika in Basque; officially Gernika-Lumo), in the Basque province of Biscay, and 30 kilometres east of Bilbao, has long been a centre of great significance to the Basque people. Its Gernikako Arbola ("the tree of Gernika" in Basque) is an oak tree that symbolizes traditional freedoms for the Biscayan people and, by extension, for the Basque people as a whole.
Not only was Guernica considered the identity of Basque, but it was also considered the spiritual capital of Basque people. Guernica has always been celebrated as the home of Basque liberties.
Guernica was also the location of the Spanish weapons manufacturer Astra-Unceta y Cía, which had been a supplier of firearms to the Spanish military and police forces since 1912.
At the time of the bombing, the population of Guernica was 7,000 people, and the battlefront was 30 kilometres away.
Advances by Nationalist troops led by Generalísimo Francisco Franco had eaten into the territory controlled by the Republican Government. The Basque Government, an autonomous regional administrative body formed by Basque nationalists, sought to defend Biscay and parts of Guipuzcoa with its own light Basque Army. At the time of the raid, Guernica represented a focal strategic point for the Republican forces. It stood between the Nationalists and capture of Bilbao. Bilbao was seen as key to bringing the war to a conclusion in the north of Spain. Guernica also was the path of retreat for the Republicans from the northeast of Biscay.
Prior to the Condor Legion raid, the town had not been directly involved in the fighting, although Republican forces were in the area; 23 battalions of Basque army troops were at the front east of Guernica. The town also housed two Basque army battalions, although it had no static air defenses, and it was thought that no air cover could be expected due to recent losses of the Republican Air Force.
Monday 26 April was market day; there were more than 10,000 people in the former Basque capital. Generally speaking, a market day would have attracted people from the surrounding areas to Guernica to conduct business. Market days consisted of local farmers bringing in their crops to sell to the village people. They would bring the crops of the week’s labour to the main square, which is where the market was held.
There is a historical debate over whether a market was being held that particular Monday; prior to the bombing, the Basque government had ordered a general halt to markets to prevent blockage of roads, and restricted large meetings. It is accepted by most historians that Monday "...would have been a market day".
James Corum states that a prevalent view about the Luftwaffe and its Blitzkrieg operations was that it had a doctrine of terror bombing, in which civilians were deliberately targeted in order to break the will or aid the collapse of an enemy. After the bombing of Guernica in 1937, Wieluń and Warsaw in 1939, and Rotterdam in 1940, it was commonly assumed that terror bombing was a part of Luftwaffe doctrine. During the interwar period the Luftwaffe leadership officially rejected the concept of terror bombing, and confined the air arms use to battlefield support of interdiction operations.
The vital industries and transportation centres that would be targeted for shutdown were valid military targets. It could be claimed civilians were not to be targeted directly, but the breakdown of production would affect their morale and will to fight. German legal scholars of the 1930s carefully worked out guidelines for what type of bombing was permissible under international law. While direct attacks against civilians were ruled out as "terror bombing", the concept of attacking vital war industries-and probable heavy civilian casualties and breakdown of civilian morale-was ruled as acceptable.
General Walther Wever compiled a doctrine known as The Conduct of the Aerial War in 1935. In this document, which the Luftwaffe adopted, the Luftwaffe rejected Giulio Douhet's theory of terror bombing. Terror bombing was deemed to be "counter-productive", increasing rather than destroying the enemy's will to resist. Such bombing campaigns were regarded as diversion from the Luftwaffe's main operations, destruction of the enemy armed forces. According to Corum, the bombings of Guernica, Rotterdam and Warsaw were tactical missions in support of military operations and were not intended as strategic terror attacks.
The Condor Legion was entirely under the command of the Nationalist forces. The order to perform the raid was transmitted to the commanding officer of the Condor Legion, Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, from the Spanish Nationalist Command.
While questions are often raised over the intent of the raid, the diaries of the planner and commander of the mission made public in the 1970s indicate that an attack on Guernica represented part of a wider Nationalist advance in the area and was also designed to support Franco's forces already in place.
Richthofen, understanding the strategic importance of the town in the advance on Bilbao and restricting Republican retreat, ordered an attack against the roads and bridge in the Renteria suburb. Destruction of the bridge was considered the primary objective since the raid was to operate in conjunction with Nationalist troop movements against Republicans around Marquina. Secondary objectives were restriction of Republican traffic/equipment movements and the prevention of bridge repair via the creation of rubble around the bridge.
On 22 March 1937 Franco started to put his plan into action, starting with his air chief, General Kindelan. The German army would first take the Guadalajara front. Italians then would be restructured at Palencia. From there two new divisions were formed. General Emilio Mola would start the campaign against the Basques. All Nationalist equipment was sent to the north front to support Mola. The main reason to attack first from the north was the suspicion that it could be overthrown quickly. Mola wanted to make this fight quick; he let the Basque people know that if they wanted to surrender he would spare their lives and homes. On 31 March Mola's threat was put into action and the fighting began in Durango.
Condor Legion persuaded Franco to send troops to go north and to be led by General Emilio Mola. 31 March 1937, Mola attacked Vizcaya province, as well as bombing Durango by the Condor Legion. Republicans put up a tough fight against the German troops, but eventually were forced back. Many refugees traveled to Guernica for safety, about a thousand people turned to Guernica. On 25 April, Mola sent a warning to Franco saying that he was planning a heavy strike against Guernica. Resistance against this attack was useless, to all Basques they should surrender and their lives maybe spared.
To meet these objectives, two Heinkel He 111s, one Dornier Do 17, eighteen Ju 52 Behelfsbomber, and three Italian SM.79s (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) were assigned for the mission. These were armed with 250 kg (550 lb) medium high-explosive bombs, 50 kg (110 lb) light explosive bombs and 1 kg (2.2 lb) incendiaries The ordnance load for the 24 bombers was 22 tonnes (22 long tons; 24 short tons) in total. A follow up to the bombing raid was also planned for the next day involving Messerschmitt Bf 109 raids in the area. The order was noted on 26 April by Richthofen as:
Starting at once: A/88 and J/88 for free fighter bomber mission on the streets near Marquina-Guernica-Guerriciaz. K/88 (after Returning from Guerriciaz), VB/88 and Italians for the streets and the bridge (including suburb) east of Guernica. There we have to close the traffic, if we finally want a decision against personnel and materiel of the enemy. Vigon agrees to move his troops for blocking all streets south of Guernica. If this succeeds, we will have trapped the enemy around Marquina.
The first wave arrived over Guernica around 16:30. A Dornier Do 17, coming from the south, dropped approximately twelve 50 kg (110 lb) bombs.
The three Italian SM.79s had taken off from Soria at 15:30 with orders to "bomb the road and bridge to the east of Guernica, in order to block the enemy retreat" during the second wave. Their orders explicitly stated not to bomb the town itself. During a single 60-second pass over the town, from north to south, the SM.79s dropped thirty-six 50 kg (110 lb) light explosive bombs. Vidal says that at this point, the damage to the town was "relatively limited... confined to a few buildings", including the church of San Juan and headquarters of the Izquierda Republicana ("Republican Left") political party.
The next three waves of the first attack then occurred, ending around 18:00. The third wave consisted of a Heinkel He 111 escorted by five Aviazione Legionaria Fiat fighters led by Capitano Corrado Ricci. The fourth and fifth waves were carried out by German twin-engined planes. Vidal notes:
"If the aerial attacks had stopped at that moment, for a town that until then had maintained its distance from the convulsions of war, it would have been a totally disproportionate and insufferable punishment. However, the biggest operation was yet to come."
Earlier, around noon that day, the Junkers Ju 52s of the Condor Legion had carried out a mission around Gerrikaraiz. Following this they landed to re-arm and then took off to complete the raid on Guernica. The attack would run from north to south, coming from the Bay of Biscay and up the course of the Urdaibai estuary.
The 1st and 2nd Squadrons of the Condor Legion took off at about 16:30, with the 3rd Squadron taking off from Burgos a few minutes later. They were escorted from Vitoria-Gazteiz by a squadron of Fiat fighters and Messerschmitt Bf 109Bs of Günther Lützow's 2. Staffel (2nd Squadron) of Jagdgruppe 88 (J/88), for a total of twenty-nine planes. Lützow himself did not participate in the attack, he was on home leave from 8–29 April 1937.
From 18:30 to 18:45, each of the three bomber squadrons attacked in a formation of three Ju 52s abreast—an attack front of about 150 m (490 ft). At the same time, and continuing for around 15 minutes after the bombing wave, the Bf 109Bs and Heinkel He 51 biplanes strafed the roads leading out of town, adding to civilian casualties.
The bombing shattered the city's defenders' will to resist, allowing the rebel Nationalists to overrun it. This indirectly supported Douhet's theory, which expected this result. The rebels faced little resistance and took complete control of the town by 29 April. The attacks destroyed the majority of Guernica. Three quarters of the city's buildings were reported completely destroyed, and most others sustained damage. Among infrastructure spared were the arms factories Unceta and Company and Talleres de Guernica along with the Assembly House Casa de Juntas and the Gernikako Arbola. Since the Luftwaffe was then operating on Wever's theory of bombing as a military action, the mission was considered a failure as a result. However, the rubble and chaos that the raid created severely restricted the movement of Republican forces.
Since his appointment on the northern front, the Soviet aviation advisor Arjénoukhine had insistently called for air reinforcements, motivating his demands by high losses inflicted by nationalist aviation over Republican troops as well as civilian population. On 8, 9 May I-15 and 6 R-Zet were sent by air from central Spain through Toulouse, in France. Planes were immediately immobilized by non-intervention committee, and later sent back unarmed to central Spain.
The number of civilian casualties is now set at between 170 and 300 people. Until the 1980s it had been generally accepted that the number of deaths had been over 1,700, but these numbers are now known to have been exaggerated. Historians now agree that the number of deaths was under 300.
An early study by Gernikazarra Historia Taldea estimated the number of victims to be 126, later revised to 153, and is still considered by the organisation to be provisional. Those incomplete data roughly correspond to the mortuary records of the town that survived, and do not include the 592 deaths registered in the Bilbao's hospital. Raul Arias Ramos in his book La Legion Condor en La Guerra Civil states that there were 250 dead. The study by Joan Villarroya and J.M. Sole i Sabate in their book España en Llamas. La Guerra Civil desde el Aire states that there were 300 dead. These studies, cited by historians such as Stanley Payne and Antony Beevor as well as media such as the BBC and El Mundo, provide the currently recognized death toll in those numbers.
After Nationalist forces led by General Emilio Mola's forces took the town three days later, the Nationalist side claimed that no effort to establish an accurate number have been made by the opposite side. The Basque government, in the confused aftermath of the raids, reported 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. It roughly agrees with the testimony of British journalist George Steer, correspondent of The Times, which estimated that 800 to 3,000 of 5,000 people perished in Guernica. These figures were adopted over the years by some commentators. These figures are represented in a majority of the literature from that period and up to the 1970s.
The Nationalist junta gave a patently false description of the events (claiming that the destruction had been caused by Republicans burning the town as they fled) and seem to have made no effort to establish an accurate number. At an extreme low, the Francoist newspaper Arriba claimed, on 30 January 1970, that there had only been twelve deaths.
Issues with the originally released figures were raised following an appraisal of large scale bombing raids during the Second World War. A comparison of the Guernica figures with the figures of dead resulting from air attacks on major European cities during the Second World War exposed an anomaly. James Corum uses the figure of forty tons of bombs dropped on Guernica, and calculates that if the figure of 1654 dead is accepted as accurate then the raid caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs. By way of comparison the Dresden air raid during February 1945 which saw 3,431 tons of bombs dropped on the city caused fewer deaths per ton of bombs: 7.2–10.2 fatalities per ton of bombs dropped. Corum, who ascribes the discrepancy between the high death toll reported at Guernica and in other cases such as Rotterdam to propaganda, goes on to say that for Guernica:
...a realistic estimate on the high side of bombing effectiveness (7–12 fatalities per ton of bombs) would yield a figure of perhaps 300–400 fatalities in Guernica. This is certainly a bloody enough event, but reporting that a small town was bombed with a few hundred killed would not have had the same effect as reporting that a city was bombed with almost 1,700 dead".
The attack has entered the lexicon of war as an example of terror bombing. It is also remembered by the surviving inhabitants and Basque people as such. Due to the lingering divisions from the conflict, the event remains a source of emotion and public recrimination.
A commonly held viewpoint is that the involvement of the Luftwaffe in the Civil War occurred because of shared anti-communism and to form a proving ground for troops employed later during World War II. This view is supported by the comments of then Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg Trials:
"I urged him (Adolf Hitler) to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect."
Guernica may have been considered as a military target, being a communication centre not too far from the battle line. The Germans bombed Guernica in a deliberate attempt to destroy the entire town.
After the war a telegram sent from Franco’s headquarters was found revealing that he had asked for a Condor Legion attack on Guernica. His goals were to discourage the Basque people and take over the Basque Government. Hermann Goering also confessed in 1946 that Germany had considered Guernica as a testing ground.
Alongside the potential for gains in combat experience it is also thought that various strategic initiatives were first tried as part of Luftwaffe involvement in the conflict. Theories on strategic bombing were first developed by the Luftwaffe with the first exhibition of "carpet bombing" in the September 1937 Asturias campaign. Comparisons between the raid on Guernica and the fate of other cities during the conflict are also telling. As the fighting progressed into March 1938 Italian pilots flying as Aviazione Legionaria under Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle were involved in thirteen raids against Barcelona involving fire and gas bombs.
The use of "carpet bombing" was becoming standard practice by Condor Legion personnel. To illustrate this point, military historian James S. Corum cites an excerpt from a 1938 Condor Legion report on this use of this tactic:
We have had notable results in hitting the targets near the front, especially in bombing villages which hold enemy reserves and headquarters. We have had great success because these targets are easy to find and can be thoroughly destroyed by carpet bombing."
On the Spanish side, threats made prior to the raid by General Emilio Mola to "end the war in the North of Spain quickly" and threats apparently made against Republicans in Bilbao afterward implied a blunting of strategy and that air raids were effective and set to become an increasingly favorite instrument in the Nationalist war effort.
Vidal outlines some other commonly voiced theories on the raid:The lack of reconnaissance missions before the bombing suggests to him that the Legion intended the destruction of the town rather than a specific target. Reconnaissance missions had been ordered as a prerequisite before raids around built-up areas on 6 January 1937. The intent of the order was to minimize civilian deaths and it had been issued by Mola, then Supreme Commander of the Air Force Salamanca.
Since the raid appears to have ignored Mola's earlier plans for reconnaissance prior to the raid, Vidal concludes that Richthofen must have received direct orders from Mola or Franco.
According to Nicholas Rankin (Telegram from Guernica, Faber and Faber, London 2003, page 121):
Nationalist denied any involvement, as well as the Germans. Most were fooled by Franco’s protestations of innocence. Von Richthofen claimed that the Germans had a target that was a bridge over the Mundaca River, which was on the edge of town. It was chosen for the fact that it would cut off the fleeing Republican troops. The German troops were the best airmen and planes as well that could be provided. None of the bombs or explosives hit the presumed target.
Nationalist reporters suggested that the town had been bombed, but by aeroplanes that were Republicans. The bombs were said to have been made in Basque and the explosions happened because of dynamite in the sewers. Another theory by Nationalist was that there was a "few bomb fragments found" in Guernica, but the damage was caused by Basque incendiaries. They presumably did it to inspire righteous anger and spirit for resistance.
In Vidal's view, such a mission would have typically used 10-kilogram bombs, and no incendiaries. Vidal also argues that the 22-ton load-out used in the raid represented a relatively large quantity for an attack on the stated primary objective. By way of comparison, Vidal indicates sources which give total tonnage of bombs dropped on the front during the first day of the offensive as sixty-six.
Vidal argues that the Italians had been trying to obtain a separate peace agreement with the Basque nationalists and were not inclined to jeopardize those efforts by deliberately inflicting civilian casualties.
The first English-language media reports of the destruction in Guernica appeared two days later. George Steer, a reporter for The Times, who was covering the Spanish Civil War from inside the country, authored the first full account of events. Steer's reporting set the tone for much of the subsequent reportage. Steer pointed out the clear German complicity in the action. The evidence of three small bomb cases stamped with the German Imperial Eagle made clear that the official German position of neutrality in the Civil War and the signing of a Non-Intervention Pact was a sham. Steer's report was syndicated to the New York Times and then worldwide, generating widespread shock, outrage, and fear. There was coverage in other national and international editions also:The Times ran the story every day for over a week after the attack.
The New York Post ran a cartoon showing Hitler brandishing a bloody sword labelled "air raids" as he towered over heaps of civilian dead littering "the Holy City of Guernica".
The US Congressional Record referred to poison gas having been dropped on Guernica. This did not actually occur.
During debates in the British Parliament Guernica was also inaccurately described as an "open city" which contained no military targets.
Noel Monks, an Australian correspondent in Spain for the London Daily Express, was the first reporter to arrive on the scene after the bombing. He received the following cable from his office, "Berlin denies Guernica bombing. Franco says he had no planes up yesterday owing fog. Queipo de Llano says Reds dynamited Guernica during retreat."
Overall, the impression generated was one which fed the widely held public fear of air attack which had been building throughout the 1930s, a fear which accurately anticipated that in the next war the aerial forces of warring nations would be able to wipe whole cities off the map.
The Nationalists claimed that Guernica had been deliberately burned and dynamited by fleeing Republican forces, which had been using the city to store ammunition and explosives. While Republican forces had been involved in pursuing a scorched earth strategy in the past, (notably in Irun, which was dynamited), Steer's reporting was supported by the reporting of other journalists who witnessed the same levels of destruction. The view that civilian casualties had been kept to a minimum was not widely accepted. The delay in arrival of firemen from Bilbao and their supposed inaction in containing the fires was also reported.
The bombing gained immediate international media attention as the first intentional targeting of civilians by aerial bombers, a strategy widely recognized as "deviant", causing "international horror".
Steer's reports on the horrors of Guernica were greatly appreciated by the Basque people. Steer had made their plight known. The Basque authorities later honored his memory by naming a street in Bilbao George Steer Kalea, and commissioning a bronze bust with the dedication:
"George Steer, journalist, who told the world the story about Guernica."
Despite Francoist efforts to play down the reports, they proliferated and led to widespread international outrage at the time.
Guernica quickly became a world-renowned symbol of civilian suffering resulting from conflict and inspired Pablo Picasso to adapt one of his existing commissions into Guernica. The Spanish Republican Government had commissioned a work from him for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. Though he accepted the invitation to display a piece, he remained uninspired until he heard of the bombing of Guernica. Before the bombing of Guernica took place, Picasso never cared much for anything that had to do with politics. Once Picasso heard the news he changed his commissioned work for Spain into a reflection on the massacre.
Picasso began the painting on 11 May 1937, working on a piece of unbleached muslin (349 cm x 776 cm). Since the work was so large, Picasso had to use a ladder and a long-handled brush to reach the furthest corners of the canvas. He spent over two months creating Guernica. He used only black and white paint to invoke the truth-telling authority of documentary photography. Yet his Cubist use of fragmented imagery makes his a poetic commentary, rather than strident propaganda. "The protest is found in what has happened to the bodies, the hands, the soles of the feet, the horse's tongue, the mother's breasts, the eyes in the head—the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in the flesh. We are made to feel their pain with our own eyes."
The display of Picasso's work at the Republican Spain Pavilion during the 1937 World's Fair reflected the impact on public consciousness. The painting went on to become a symbol indicative of Basque nationalism during the Spanish transition to democracy. Today it resides in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war.
Immediately after the bombing of Guernica, René Iché, a French sculptor, created one of his most violent and personal sculptures. He was shocked and horrified by the enormous civilian massacre and worked endlessly on the plaster statue. Iché used his daughter to model a child's body. He refused to display his work because of the violence. Just after his death an exhibition was held to commemorate the artist. This piece was displayed for a short time, then returned to his family.
Recrimination for the activities of the Condor Legion and shame at the involvement of German citizens in the bombing of Guernica surfaced following German reunification in the 1990s. In 1997, the 60th anniversary of Operation Rügen, then German President Roman Herzog wrote to survivors apologizing on behalf of the German people and state for Germany's role in the Civil War in general. Herzog said he wished to extend "a hand of friendship and reconciliation" on behalf of all German citizens. This sentiment was later ratified by members of the German Parliament who went on to legislate in 1998 for the removal of all former Legion members' names from associated German military bases.
On the 70th anniversary of the bombing, the president of the Basque Parliament met with politicians, Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, and deputies from Hiroshima, Volgograd, Pforzheim, Dresden, Warsaw, and Oswiecim, as well as several survivors from Guernica itself. During the meeting they showed images and film clips of the bombing, took time to remember the 250 dead, and read the Guernica Manifesto for Peace, pleading that Guernica become a "World Capital for Peace".
On 13 February 2003, during the commemoration of the 58th anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden, inhabitants of Dresden, Germany, including survivors of the firestorm of 1945, joined together with witnesses of the bombing of Guernica to issue an appeal to the people of the world:
On 26 April 2007, Dr. Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima and President of Mayors for Peace compared the experience of Guernica to Hiroshima:
Human beings have often sought to give concrete form to our powerful collective longing for peace. After World War I, that longing led to the League of Nations and numerous rules and taboos designed to govern warfare itself. Of these, the most important was the proscription against attacking and killing civilian non-combatants even in times of war. However, the second half of the twentieth century has seen most of those taboos broken. Guernica was the point of departure, and Hiroshima is the ultimate symbol. We must find ways to communicate to future generations the history of horror that began with Guernica....
In this sense, the leadership of those here in Guernica who seek peace and have worked hard to bring about this memorial ceremony is profoundly meaningful. The solidarity we feel today derives from our shared experience of the horror of war, and this solidarity can truly lead us toward a world beyond war.