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                      of Gernika
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Bombing of Gernika

The outset of the conflict: The Spanish civil war

17 - 20 July 1936. It took only four days to create chaos. The first hours were of insecurity, fear and uncertainty. In some locations violence took to the streets, a time of collective madness during which each group sought to annihilate their opponents ... The extent to which reality had changed gradually became clear. It was no longer possible to take a train to other towns, many people could not reach their loved ones, others tried to pass by unnoticed, whilst some tried to flee and could not.

Spain was at war, divided between friendly territory and enemy territory. Eating, working, thinking, relationships with others and one's immediate surroundings were no longer everyday events. Peace had suddenly disappeared, and had taken life with it.

"The destiny of Spain had been settled by a heads-or-tails uprising, and each side proclaimed its version of the truth. The only common ground between the two versions was their incompatibility". Rafael Abella: La vida cotidiana durante la Guerra Civil (Everyday life during the Civil War).

The bombing of Gernika

el guernica de picassoThe people of Gernika lived through the devastation of the war from the outset, although during the first months the conflict did nothing to drastically alter the normal local atmosphere in the town. At first normality was disturbed only by a handful of arrests. The young men of the town then began to enlist in the Basque "gudari" battalions, and subsequently the first military groupings were mobilised, local companies were militarised and rationing was introduced.

As the battle front drew nearer, the direct effects of war became more apparent. The first civilian refugees arrived, along with retreating Basque battalions. A blood hospital was installed at the Carmelites' school. First-hand news of the conflict arrived with alarming rumours. On 31 March 1937 Franco's troops bombed Durango, and terror struck at the hearts of the population. The local authorities ordered a number of air-raid shelters to be built. And so, 26 April 1937 was a Monday. Market day.

"Around noon we got really nervous, what with all the bells pealing as the planes few over, and of course we were even more afraid after what had happened in Durango"
CAVA MESA, Ma Jesús et Alii. Collective memoirs of the bombing of Gernika

"It was terrible to come out of the air-raid shelter and see it all. The entire market area was burning, everything was in flames. We were all trembling. How could we ever have imagined this was going to happen! The whole town burnt to the ground! We didn't even talk about how scared we were!"
CAVA MESA, Ma Jesús et Alii. Collective memoirs of the bombing of Gernika.


Attacked from the air. Technical aspects of the bombing

El ataque aéreoThe first plane appeared around four o'clock in the afternoon and dropped a number of bombs. About fifteen minutes later the first wave arrived - three planes flying low in triangular formation. This was the beginning of the systematic bombing of Gernika, which continued for over three hours.

The technical aspects of the bombing of Gernika are still one of the most passionate topics of modern history. The destruction of Gernika was perpetrated by the German Condor Legion and the Italian air force, acting on the commands of Franco's rebel army. The military tactics applied were so devastating that Gernika has gone down in history as the first experiment in total war.

"The planes took off from the aerodrome at Vitoria, flew out over the sea and then performed a half-turn to follow the Oca valley and attack Guernica from North to South. Apparently there were three types of plane: Heinkel 111s and Junker 52s for bombing purposes, and Heinkel 51s for air combat and machine-gunning. They must have come in two groups working in shifts, and there is general discrepancy as to the numbers of each. We calculated that between 15 and 20 bombers and fighter planes took part in each wave of bombing. Their numbers were quite sufficient. The tactics employed were to drop ordinary shells first, and then small incendiary cluster bombs, at the same time machine-gunning any villagers who had not yet reached cover - not only in the town itself, but also in its outlying districts and also around the neighbouring parishes."
Martínez Bande. Vizcaya.


The destruction of the town

During the bombing no less than 31 tons of ordnance was dropped on the town of Gernika. The town centre, which covers an area of less than 1 km2, was razed to the ground. 85.22% of all buildings (271 in total) were completely destroyed and the others were partially affected. Incendiary bombs caused a fire that raged for several days. In keeping with the principles of "terror bombing", neither the armament factory nor the Errenteria bridge (the only strategic targets in the town) were hit.

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  • bombardeo de gernika
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According to the Basque Government, the attack claimed 1,654 lives. The Mayor of Gernika, Jose Labauria, reported that over one thousand people had perished in the town, including 450 in the refuge of Andra Mari Street. Father Eusebio Arronategi, who like Labauria was actually in Gernika during the bombing and the days that followed, helping with the rescue work and the identification of bodies, professed to have seen "thousands of his fellow citizens suffocated, dead and wounded". 38 eye witnesses, including international reporters who rushed to the town soon after the attack, back these figures up. But the total number of fatalities is hard to calculate, because the 60,000 m3 of rubble that remained in the town were not removed until the end of 1941. During the intervening period, Franco's regime refused to admit any deaths and did its level best to eliminate all the records kept of the attack by the Basque authorities, wiping even the memory of the victims off the pages of history. Nevertheless, research continues into calculating the number and the identities of those who lost their lives during this terrible tragedy.

"When the bombing stopped, the people began to leave the air-raid shelters. Nobody cried. Their faces showed amazement - none of us could understand what they were seeing. We could not see more than 500 metres in front of us eve at sunset. The flames were everywhere, sending up a thick pall of black smoke ".
Alberto de Onaindía. Selected by Hans Christian Kirsch: Der Spanische Bürgerkrieg in Augenzeugenberichte


The occupation of Gernika

mujer_entre_malezaFranco's troops entered Gernika three days after the bombing. The military contingent was composed of Italians, Germans, Moors and Carlist requeté troops. Many local people had already fled for fear of reprisals, particularly those who were known as republicans and nationalists. During the first few days the soldiers distributed bread and other foodstuffs to the population, but it was not long before the effects of shortages and rationing were felt.

The Moors were stationed at a number of points in the town, among which the Santa María church, and afterwards the women of Gernika were obliged to clean these places which had been profaned - it was this humiliation which marked them most.


The experience of the bombing

mujer_entre_malezaThe bombing took the entire population of Gernika by surprise. Even those who had been warned of danger had not expected such a terrible attack. When the first bombs began to fall on the town, the people sought refuge in places they considered to be the safest, or simply the places they had managed to reach. In addition to the municipal shelters, they could also use the factories, cellars and basements of various buildings. Others preferred to leave the town and hide out in the scrub of the surrounding hillsides, in plantations and in farmhouses or ditches.

It was a terrible experience for everyone; fear, anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty and defencelessness. Many of the local people spent long hours during the attack fretting for their missing families. Those who were spared to talk about their experience recall the lack of air in the shelters, the crying of the children and the prayers. When it was all over, their feelings could be described as a kind of deep confusion, dismay, incredulity and amazement at a scene they had never thought possible.

"At half-past four in the afternoon I was going through the figures of the pay settlement at the contractors' office in Calle San Juan [...] we saw a plane fly over the town, drop three bombs at different points and then head off towards Amorebieta. Since it was market day, there was a large crowd of frightened people who sought refuge in the shelters or fled towards the nearby woods or farmsteads. I used the shelter we had built in the cellar, and there I stayed for about an hour as the bombing continued with no let-up [...]
The bombing lasted until quarter past eight in the evening. When I came out, I saw that my car [...] was in flames. An incendiary bomb had fallen on it. I made my way towards the railway line, to see what had happened to the munitions factory... I was surprised to find that the raid had left them intact; deliberately, as it turned out, to allow them to use the means of production when they marched into Guernica. The Council Chambers and the Tree of Guernica were also spared, probably to prevent protests on the part of Basques, particularly those from Navarra, who were advancing with Franco's troops".
Castor Uriarte, Bombas y mentiras sobre Guernica (Bombs and lies over Guernica)


Information after the bombing

La difusión del bombardeoThe information provided of the events at Gernika that 26 April 1937 was steeped in controversy from the outset. A number of eye-witnesses, together with the most senior members of the government of Euzkadi and Basque society in general, informed the world of the destruction of Gernika and the involvement of the German army and Franco's troops. The news was published in the main European organs thanks to the rapid action taken by a number of journalists, of which the best-known is George Steer.

Franco's army never acknowledged responsibility - on the contrary, evidence was twisted, and his press service accused the Basque republicans (referred to as reds and separatists) of having set fire to the town during their retreat towards Bilbao. To this day the Spanish army has failed to acknowledge that it took part in the bombing of Gernika.

"Before God and History, which will eventually judge us all, I hereby state that for three and a half hours German planes bombed the defenceless civilian population of Gernika with unprecedented viciousness. They reduced the town to ashes and machine-gunned women and children, many of whom were killed, while the rest fled in terror".
Jose Antonio Aguirre. President of the Basque Government.

"Aguirre is lying. We respected Gernika in the same way as we respect everything Spanish".
Francisco Franco.

"The statement released by Salamanca according to which Guernica was destroyed by the reds is completely untrue. I personally talked to over 20 refugees from Guernica in the outskirts of the town on the night of the bombing. Apart from the number of planes involved, all the various accounts match in every detail. [...] Conclusive proof that Guernica was destroyed by aviation may be shown as follows: there were countless holes around the town and on the roofs which had not been burnt down, and these had not been there at noon during my visit to Guernica. There were trees uprooted, their branches shorn off by shrapnel ... Another journalist with me collected three German bombs dated 1936. Everyone in the town knows that a large number of women and children were attacked in an air-raid shelter, and obviously they would never have gone to a place which the reds were going to burn down ... I was in Guernica until 1.30 in the morning, and there was no smell of petrol anywhere .... A large section of Guernica is not a pile of ashes - it is a pile of rubble". George Steer, The Times, , 6 May 1937


Gernika in the porst-war period: Franco's regime and represion

Gernika was rebuilt during the first years of Franco's régime. This task was carried out by the political prisoners held at the Augustine Brothers' school, and non-prisoners earning a wage. Reconstruction took five long years and, paradoxically, the person who was ultimately responsible for the destruction of Gernika, Francisco Franco, was made an adopted son of the town.

Reconstruction of the buildings and the design of new streets and gardens did not constitute repairs to all the areas destroyed. The atmosphere in Gernika before the war was tense for a long time. Franco introduced tough repression of both ideology and culture. There were new regulations and codes of conduct; people were reported to the authorities and searches were carried out on a daily basis, and nothing escaped scrupulous examination by the Civil Guard. The people of Gernika were forced to confront fear, distrust and mutual suspicion. Nobody gave them back the happy, open town they had once known.

In spite of everything, during Franco's dictatorship Gernika did not cease to be a symbol of Basque freedom, and in 1964 celebration of the Basque national day, Aberri Eguna, drew two thousand people to the town.

"There was much distrust. This was afterwards, because before we had all been equal. After that there were police, informers (...) Many people were sent to prison, and there was a general fear until Franco died".
CAVA MESA, Ma Jesús et Alii. Collective memoirs of the bombing of Gernika


Towards reconciliation

In the modern age, reconciliation constitutes a basic conflict-solving tool, and as such its meaning is rich and complex. Even so, we all understand that reconciliation means making friends of those who were former enemies. In this situation, it is necessary that aggressors acknowledge their guilt and accept responsibility for past acts.

Today Gernika is an advanced example of reconciliation; the process has not yet been completed, but the journey embarked upon is a long one. Initially it proved necessary to cover serious deficits, since Germany delayed the first steps to repair the damage caused.

Acknowledgement of German involvement in the bombing of Gernika did not come until 1997, when President Herzog sent a letter to the survivors in which he admitted that Germany had been involved in the attack in 1937. This symbolic act was the result of the work carried out by many people and many institutions; the result of countless arrangements made, hopes and frustration. Today Gernika is twinned with the German town of Pforzheim, and its people have produced new courses of understanding and mutual support in connection with a nation which once attacked it. Justice has not been done, but the path has been cleared towards reconciliation and the memory of Gernika has been kept alive.

"And they rained down fire, shrapnel and death on us. And they destroyed our town. And that night we couldn't go back home for our supper, or sleep in our beds. We had no home anymore. We had no house. But that event, which was so incomprehensible to us, left no feelings of hate or vengeance in us - only a huge, immense desire for peace, and for such events never to happen again. A flag of peace should rise up from the ruins of what was our town for all the peoples of the world".
Statement by surviving witnesses following a reading of admission of German involvement by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

icono pdf Bibliography on the Bombing of Gernika

If you need more information contact the Documentation Centre on the Bombing of Gernika (dokumentaziozentrua@gernika-lumo.net). dokumentaziozentrua@gernika-lumo.net.