April 26, 1937 Guernica

The time and place is unknown to history but the question must have come up, in some lost and forgotten conference. What would it take, to bomb a city.  To Hell.  On that day, people of the former Basque capital of Guernica became guinea pigs.  Unsuspecting victims of a cold blooded and beastly experiment, mere data points in a future World War.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-’39 pitted a left leaning alliance of Anarchists, Marxists and the Republican government of President Manuel Azaña against a Rightist coalition of Nationalists, Monarchists and Catholics originally under the leadership of José Sanjurjo and later led by General Francisco Franco.

Among nations, only Mexico and the Soviet Union openly supported the Republicans while Nationalists received aid and support from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Estado Novo regime of Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar and volunteers of the Romanian Iron Guard.

Posters of the Spanish Civil War

Many among the International Left saw this as the authentic front line against International fascism. As many as 40,000 poured into the conflict claiming to represent 53 nations such as the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Canadian Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion and even groups of Germans and Italians of the Garibaldi Battalion.

For Nazi Germany, this was a dress rehearsal. An opportunity to try out new weapons and tactics for the larger war, to come. Adolf Hitler sent the multi-tasking Condor Legion, combining units of the Luftwaffe and the Heer, the Army component of the German Wehrmacht.

The time and place is unknown to history but the question must have come up, in some lost and forgotten conference. What would it take, to bomb a city.  To Hell.  On that day, people of the Spanish town of Guernica became guinea pigs.  Unsuspecting victims of a cold blooded and beastly experiment, mere data points in a future World War.

Many years later, German air chief Hermann Goering testified at his trial for war crimes:

“The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.” – Hermann Goering

Guernica was a market town in the northern “Basque” region of Spain, a place where local farmers and village people come in from the countryside, to conduct business.  Monday, April 26 was Market day, with an estimated 10,000 in the former Basque capital.

Noel Monks was an Australian reporter, covering the war for the London Daily Express. The German bombers first appeared on this day in 1936, some eighteen miles outside Guernica.


Monks and a driver named Anton were on a dusty road that afternoon when six Heinkel 52 fighters came in fast and low, directly at them. The pair leapt out of the car and into the mud of a bomb hole, as machine gun bullets tore into the road. “When the Heinkels departed”, Monks wrote, “out of ammunition I presumed, Anton and I ran back to our car. Nearby a military car was burning fiercely. All we could do was drag two riddled bodies to the side of the road. I was trembling all over now, in the grip of the first real fear I’d ever experienced.”

Guernica, Ruinen

Let Monks pick up the story. He was the first correspondent into the burning city:

“We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. ‘What I happened, Father?’ I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn’t talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: ‘Aviones. . . bombas’. . . mucho, mucho.’

Luftwaffe Incendiary Bomb, circa 1937

I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and-smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.

In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro. One middle-aged man spoke English. He told me: ‘At four, before the-market closed, many aeroplanes came. They dropped bombs. Some came low and shot bullets into the streets. Father Aroriategui was wonderful. He prayed with the people in the Plaza while the bombs fell.’..

Five separate raids struck Guernica that day, each in their turn.

…The only things left standing were a church, a sacred Tree, symbol of the Basque people, and, just outside the town, a small munitions factory. There hadn’t been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had been mainly a fire raid.


Estimates of that time count the number of dead as high as 1,700.  Monks wrote of “…A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refugio.”

Later estimates put the number between 170 and 300, not counting the 592 dead registered in the hospital, in Bilbao.

First came the propagandists.  A fog of lies, blanketing the ground.  Monks received this cable, from his office in London:  “Berlin denies Guernica bombing. Franco says he had no planes up yesterday owing fog. (Nationalist General) Queipo de Llano says Reds dynamited Guernica during retreat.”

As much as 74% of Guernica was destroyed in the raids.  There were the cold calculations.  The ratios.  How many buildings destroyed per ton of bombs.  How many lives.

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed his famous work in June of that year, the oil painting in Gray, Black and White depicting what it is like to be under attack from the air, perhaps the most powerful piece of anti-war art, in history.

For those left on the ground of Guernica, there was little doubt.  The bombing raids of the age were more than capable of wiping entire cities, off of the map.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso in Amsterdam being hung in the Municipal Museum 12th July 1956. H/TKeystone Hulton Archive Getty Images


A Trivial Matter
There were few “good guys” in the Spanish Civil War and those there were, must have been quickly disillusioned. Nationalists murdered an estimated 150,000 prisoners of war and civilians over the course of the three year conflict, plus another 20,000 following their victory, in 1939. An estimated 49,000 were murdered at the hands of the Republicans. Hat tip, History.com
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