The bombing of Guernica by the German air force on April 26, 1937 forever transformed this small Basque town into a symbol of the war in Spain, and beyond fascist barbarism. Republican stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, it was devastated by aerial bombardments which claimed nearly 2,000 victims. The famous painting of Pablo Picasso immortalized this drama in a spectacular way. But what exactly happened, in what context, and why Guernica still a subject of controversy in Spain?
Franco's coup and fascist mutual aid
The Guernica drama takes place during the civil war that struck Spain following General Franco's coup d'état. He intended to overthrow the Republican government elected in 1931; this election had caused a rise in the tensions in the country, culminating with the revolt of Asturias in 1934, then the arrival in power of the Popular Front in February 36, which confirmed the anchoring on the left of the Spanish Republic. The army and the monarchist right decided to intervene in March, and the coup d'état broke out on July 18, 1936: Spain fell into civil war.
From the start of his insurrection, Franco enjoyed the support of two European dictators: Mussolini and Hitler. This support takes the form of the sale of heavy weapons (such as artillery) and logistical and air support, through the infamous Condor Legion. The aim of the Italian and German leaders is not only to help a "comrade", but to test their new techniques of warfare, especially in the air, the very ones which would terrorize Europe a few years later; Goering will not hide the fact that he used the Spanish experience for the attack on France, for example.
It will be noted that the European democracies have refrained from supporting the Spanish government so massively ...
The bombing of Guernica
The difficulties begin when it comes to addressing the reasons for the bombing of the Basque village. At that time, the Francoists took Malaga in February, but encountered difficulties in front of Madrid; the Basque country is their next goal. Yet Guernica has no real strategic interest, it is not a Republican base, let alone an industrial center; on the other hand, it is a symbolic place of Basque identity and independence, but that does not necessarily explain the mass bombardment it will suffer.
The Condor Legion takes care of it, easily since the village is unprotected; the bombardment lasts a whole afternoon and according to the most neutral assessment will make more than 2000 victims, all civilians. The village and its historic center are destroyed.
Picasso, and the martyrdom of Guernica becomes a symbol
This massacre inspired Picasso to create a vast allegorical painting, Guernica. This famous large canvas was composed, in his Parisian studio, by Pablo Picasso between April 30 and the first days of June 1937. Commissioned by the Spanish government to produce a work for the July Universal Exhibition in Paris, Picasso has already chose his subject when he learned, on April 26, the news of the bombing of the small Basque town by the Nazi air force, an ally of General Francisco Franco; the massacre of the civilian population, totally unarmed in the face of this surprise attack, makes "the front page" of the Paris daily Tonight which publishes a series of photos.
The Spanish artist immediately sets to work. The black and white photos inspire the monochrome of the painting to better express the horror of reality. Using a technique similar to that of cubist collage, the painter composes a canvas on which he makes sketches of figures carrying a strong symbolic charge. The result is a political manifesto of immense aesthetic value against this war and all the others, against the violence and injustice perpetrated against defenseless populations and individuals involved in the game of absurd destruction of the powerful of this world. It is certain that he was personally touched by the tragedy; he described his painting as "an offensive and defensive instrument of war against the enemy."
Regardless, the Guernica massacre is being relayed in Europe, and provokes the outrage of democracies and contributes to the internationalization of the conflict, at least ideologically. Franco will try to counter this boomerang effect by first accusing the Republicans of being responsible, and then passing on to the German forces, who would have acted without the nationalist endorsement. The martyrdom of Guernica has indeed become a thorn in the side of the Francoist rebellion.
A drama in the image of the Spanish Civil War
The bombing of Guernica pretty much sums up the terrible heartbreak that the Spaniards experienced during this civil war, with all its consequences even today. Historiographical debates are always lively, marked by ideologies, whether on the war itself (and its numerous massacres, on both sides) or on Guernica alone, its symbol.
Let's give the floor to Picasso: “The Spanish Civil War is the battle of reaction against the people, against freedom. [In Guernica] I clearly express my horror of the military caste which sank Spain into an ocean of pain and death. "
But beyond Spain, Guernica will also announce what will be the world conflict which will erupt a few years later, and where the Guernica will number in the thousands ...
- The Last Hours of Guernica by Gordon Thomas. New World, 2007.
- Guernica. For the first time, Total War, by Ian Patterson. Dormesson, 2007.
- Guernica by Picasso, by Anette Robinson. Scala, 2015.