The bombing of Guernica and the beginning of total war

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April 26, 1937: a symbolic date that changed history and the way the instrument of war is conceived. An instrument always to be condemned, but which from that day officially entered a new system of destruction of values that would have anticipated the way conflicts would have gone in the rest of the century. A small town in the north of Spain, Guernica, in the middle of a hot area of the Spanish civil war. A location without any kind of military objective, which was targeted as the first total war experiment in history.

What happened in Guernica?

These are the years of the Spanish Civil War, in which the nationalist military forces, led by General Franco, are responsible for a coup d’état and subsequent attacks against the forces of the Republic. There was no desire to negotiate any peace, but the goal was to bring down the Republic and start a dictatorial regime, which then took place and lasted until 1975. In those years, however, the republican forces still resisted. The hottest front is that of the Biscay area, on the northern coast of Spain. The area is still controlled by the Republic, but the advance of the Nationalist army had already begun a few weeks earlier, starting from the mountains of the south-east.

What happened on the afternoon of Monday April 26, 1937, however, did not really have to do with the concept of war. It was something more. A real experiment, a test of strength that wanted to measure for the first time in history what effect a fierce aerial bombardment would have had on a civilian target. Monday was chosen for this very reason: it was market day in Guernica, and typically this attracted up to 10 thousand people from the surrounding area. The ruthless and unscrupulous goal was to kill as many as possible. Out of any logic of war that would target the enemy military forces. No, this time the operation was intended to demonstrate how the German and Italian air forces, allies of Franco in the Spanish conflict, could strategically reduce an average-populated town to ashes, killing as many civilians as possible.

It is the so-called “total war”, a concept still new at that time. At the base was the will to break the moral and human limitations that still maintained unwritten rules that could not be violated. For example, that the civilian population should never have become the target of an attack. Because it would break the human foundations on which our society is based, as well as make little sense in terms of warfare. But at that moment the priority was to break the pattern. And to test the power of Allied aviation, as Nazi general Hermann Göring admitted at the Nuremberg trials: “Guernica was a testing ground for German aviation. It was an unpleasant story, okay, but we couldn’t do otherwise because we didn’t have another place to test our airplanes.”

The bombing of Guernica

And so they set up a very specific strategy and took action to madness. The attack began at 16:30 and was divided into successive waves. The first phase saw the entire Francoist bombing group arrive in coordination, throwing all kinds of bombs on Guernica, from normal to incendiary ones. People tried to protect themselves in the air-raid shelters but soon realized that it would be useless: many shelters were already in flames and people were already dying with no way out. The population then fled in every direction, heading towards the countryside and trying to get away from the inhabited center.

Immediately afterwards the second phase began, in which the most advanced aircraft of the German and Italian aviation appeared. The objective in this case was to stop the escape of civilians, definitively destroying the city and bombing the buildings on the outskirts. A ring of fire that should have trapped the entire population of Guernica. To end the attack, a third wave arrived, with a series of arson attacks aimed at setting fire to every street in the city, hitting men and animals as they tried to escape.

The whole operation lasted about three hours. Estimates speak of 1500-2500 deaths, more or less a third of the population of Guernica.

The attack on Guernica was unanimously condemned by the entire national community. For years, no one publicly admitted the explicit intention of hitting a purely civil target. Goebbels himself expressed regret at what happened to the citizens of Guernica and stated that no German planes had been involved. The event was the subject of cover-ups and denials for years, with the Francoist army also giving responsibility to the communist republican groups. But among the non-public communications everyone knew how it had gone. The Italian general Pietro Pinna, in a report that year, wrote: “The destruction of Guernica, carried out by German and Italian aircraft, has given the measure of what aviation can do against an inhabited center.”

Almost a century has passed since that first taste of World War II which destroyed so many taboos existing up to that moment, as well as so many lives. A few years later there would be Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the awareness that no borders existed anymore in the possible scruples of those who waged war.

The painting by Pablo Picasso

The bombing of Guernica inspired Pablo Picasso to create the homonymous painting, which is both his greatest masterpiece and the most important example of a work of art capable of denouncing the horrors of war.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Guernica is exhibited at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. A tapestry that reproduces the painting was made in 1985 and offered by the Rockefeller foundation to the UN, which keeps it on display in the corridor in front of the Security Council room. However, the painting is not exhibited continuously: for example, when in 2003 the UN was discussing the possibility of starting a “preventive war” in Iraq, the leaders decided to cover it with the flags of the Security Council. The UN spokesperson explained that the painting would give the cameras a confusing visual effect in the background.