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On 26 April 1937, the Basque town of Gernika was bombed during the Spanish Anti-Fascist/ Civil War on the orders of leaders of the military-fascist coup against the elected Government of the Second Spanish Republic.
The townspeople remember this in an annual candlelit procession.
Wikipedia gives the numbers of dead as between 150 and 1,650, a huge variance reflecting the politicisation of the historical event very much still in the present.1 The military-fascists were the victors and a four-decade fascist dictatorship ensued, never overthrown but amended in the 1980s.
Another source agrees with the higher figure and points out that a third of the town’s population then of 5,000 inhabitants, were either killed or injured.2
A tradition has grown to mark the bombing with the sounding of a siren at 4pm, the time when the bombing began. The siren sounded this year is a survivor from the Astra handgun factory of the time which strangely, was recently discovered in Catalonia and returned to the town Council.
In the evening, outdoors theatre presentations are held and the town centre is circled in procession by people carrying lit candles, led by a group carrying a giant Basque flag. I was fortunate (and honoured) to be invited by a Basque friend this year to participate in both events.
BOMBING AND LIES
The actual bombing was carried out by external fascist allies, the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, under the code-name “Operation Rügen”. It was one of theearliest cases of the mass-bombing by air planes of an urban population.3
It has remained infamous for that reason but also because the Catalan artist Pablo Picasso made a famous painting about the atrocity, though he called it by the Spanish-language name for the town: “Guernica”. Planes also carried out strafing runs over fleeing civilians, shooting them down.
As has become a regular facet of fascism, the military-fascists lied, denying culpability. In a more specific kind of fascist lying, they tried to blame the damage on arson by their opponents, i.e by antifascists. An English journalist reporting on the war for the London Times went to investigate.
He was George Steer and provided evidence from bomb fragments and eye-witnesses that the bombing was by fascist planes.
Despite the known active support of the fascist countries for the military uprising, the western powers promoted ‘non-intervention’, even blockading assistance to the embattled Republic. The Soviet Union and socialist Mexico were the Republic’s only external allies.
Historians since have argued about whether there was a straightforward military rationale for the bombing or whether it was a question of terrorising the Basque people. It is undeniable that the 26th was a market day and that Gernika was of particular national historical importance to the Basques.
Gernika is in the Basque province of Bizkaia, which had joined in with the Second Spanish Republic in opposition to the military-fascist coup attempt, as had Gipuzkoa and Alava provinces – the latter however was taken quite early by fascists.
The remaining Basque province inside the Spanish State (there are another three inside the French state) was Nafarroa (Navarre) where the national Carlist movement was reactionary and joined the fascists, their militias murdering around 1,000 Nafarroan Republicans and Socialists.
The military-fascist uprising, supplied hugely with armaments, transport and personnel supplies overwhelmed the isolated Second Republic and all the areas that had stood by the Republic were placed under military occupation, followed by the worst repression of all.
Gernika and surrounding areas were occupied by Spanish, Italian and German troops and the whole Spanish state, after April 1939, entered four decades of dictatorship under General Franco. After a while, resistance broke out in strikes and in armed guerrilla struggle.
But to commemorate the bombing of Gernika in a broad appropriate and popular act only became possible some years after the death of Franco in 1975.
In addition to the public performance of theatre, dance and music, the people bring candles or collect them let and walk in procession around the town, led by a group holding a spread giant Ikurrina (Basque flag).
People in various parts of the Spanish State had been pushing for recovering historical memory, commemoration of events and disinterment of mass graves, whether secretly or in the open. In 2017 a number of groups working in historical memory got together in the Gernika Lumo area.
Their intention was to coordinate their efforts so that Gernika would become a focus for considering aspects of justice and peace, not just in the Basque Country but internationally. Among their objectives was the relocation of Picasso’s “Guernica” painting to Gernika itself.4
While the current annual commemoration then has been developing for only five years, work has been going on by constituent groups and others for years before that and, of course, the inspirational events occurred 86 years ago in what some consider the opening stages of WW2.
These commemorative events would be of great importance in any conceivable period but are more so in the current one of the rise once more of fascism across the world.
1“But, based on the testimony of medical personnel in Guernica on the day and in nearby hospitals that received casualties, the Basque government estimated that 1,645 people were killed and a further 889 injured in the attack.” https://www.lse.ac.uk/canada-blanch/Assets/Documents/media/media2017/27Apr17BBC.pdf
3It is often quoted as the first such case but it wasn’t: On 29 March 1936, Italian Fascist planes bombed the Ethiopian city of Harar. Seeing Gernika as the first may represent a Eurocentric viewpoint. Coincidentally, journalist George Steer covered that war also.
4The painting is permanently on exhibition in Madrid, 422 km. away.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Link commemoration committee: https://guernicagernikara.eus/memoriaren-lekuko/gernika-lugar-de-la-memoria/