April 26th in German History: The Bombing of Guernica

10 Facts About Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Guernica. Credit: Pablo Picasso.org

The Spanish Civil War is a conflict not often mentioned in most American history classes. Such classes perhaps merit a brief mention by teachers or perhaps a few pages of a reading assignment, but little time is spent examining the causes, effects, and details of the war. If anything, the Spanish Civil War is featured more prominently in literature classes because of books like For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps the most well-known part of the war is such because it is the subject of an odd-looking painting by Pablo Picasso. I refer to, of course, of the bombing of Guernica by German bombers on April 25th of 1937.

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and multiple nations soon sent troops and weapons to the two sides. In addition to wanting to ensure that their preferred side won the war, many nations intervened in order to test new weapons. The two largest contributors were Fascist Germany and Nazi Germany, which supported Nationalist Spain, but the Soviet Union also provided aid to the Republicans. The German “Volunteers” were part of the Condor Legion, which at the start of the Civil War had flown Nationalist leader Francisco Franco to mainland France from Africa along with the well-trained Army of Africa that he commanded. The Condor Legion was made entirely of personnel from the German Luftwaffe. Germany sent no ground forces, and throughout the war it would aid the Nationalists by carrying out tactical and strategic bombing campaigns and helping supply Nationalist ground forces. Their most famous operation was the bombing of Guernica, a town in the Basque region of Northern Spain. The town of Guernica had proclaimed neutrality in the conflict, although the Basque region as a whole did oppose the Nationalists as the Republicans promised them more autonomy. The Condor Legion, in accordance with a request from the Nationalist side, began bombing the town at 4:30 pm when the market in the center of the town was the busiest. The bombing lasted for three hours and was carried out by Ju 52 and He 111 planes. The estimates of civilians killed vary from 150 to 1650, the smaller number having been provided by local authorities and the other one by the Basque government. The Republican government commissioned Picasso to paint Guernica to commemorate and communicate the horror of the bombing.

The bombing of Guernica created widespread outrage and increased anti-Fascist sentiment in many nations. New York Times reporter George Steer found concrete evidence that the bombs were German and so proved that the official German position of neutrality in the war was a lie. However, the international revulsion at the bombing did not stop it from being repeated on hundreds of cities in the coming years. Germany would use tactics learned in the Spanish Civil War in its bombings of British and French cities, and the Allies would use strategic bombing to a far greater effect on German and Japanese cities. If a tactic is effective in war, there is little that international condemnation can do to stop its use, especially in a conflict as large as the Second World War. The concept of a civilized war is a fallacy, nations will do whatever is necessary to win, they will not suffer defeat just because the methods necessary to victory are inhumane. Preventing war in the first place is the only real solution, for the rules of war will be broken as soon as one side believes that doing so will give them a necessary advantage.

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