Guernica — III

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The Nationalist version of Guernica -- that it wasn't bombed by fascist aircraft, but instead set alight by the Basque defenders themselves -- was not widely accepted at the time, but for decades afterwards it was still plausible enough for some people to believe. As late as 1969, letters like this could appear in The Times without comment:

In The Times of June 26, which I read in Paris, PHS repeats a hoary old myth and invents a new one. Not even Picasso, to my knowledge, has accused General Franco's forces of bombing Guernica and causing the deaths of two thousand people. The usual myth is that the Nazis were responsible. This view, however, is incompatible with the evidence of the German Foreign Ministry Archives and with other evidence now available, some of which I analysed in my book on Franco.

There was, in fact, a minor Nationalist air raid, in which the targets were a railway station and an arms factory. Some German bombs may also have fallen on the town. But the massive destruction was caused by systematic dynamiting of one quarter of Guernica -- and one quarter only -- by the retreating Republicans.

Ironically, Picasso's masterpiece probably celebrated a non-event.1

This was written by Brian Crozier, author of Franco: A Biographical History (1967), among other works.2

Such views are now impossible to sustain; we now know that the raid was indeed conducted by the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion, Germany's main contribution to Franco's war effort. I'm not sure when exactly, but at some point the diaries and reports of Lieutenant Colonel (later Field Marshal) Wolfram von Richthofen became available. Von Richthofen was the chief of staff of the Condor Legion.3 And it was he who planned the Condor Legion's operations, including the attack on Guernica.

So we now know what happened at Guernica on 26 April 1937. Some 43 German bombers (mostly Ju 52s, with a few of the new He 111s) and fighters (He 51s) attacked in relays over a period of two and a half hours. The bombers dropped 50 tons of high explosive, fragmentation and incendiary bombs on the town and laid waste to about half of it. About 300 people were killed, it is now thought: far short of the 1600 claimed by the Basques, but still a great shock to a small town. Franco's officers knew and approved of the attack in advance, contrary to their denials then and later.

Another question remains: why? Why was Guernica targeted for destruction like this? The popular interpretation is that it was an experiment in Douhetist total war, a foretaste of the greater horrors to come. The Germans were testing the ability of bombers to shatter civilian morale by destroying the cities and towns where they lived; and a few years hence they were to put the knowledge gained to terrible use against Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry.

But is this true? James S. Corum argues instead that the aim of the attack on Guernica was not terror. For one thing, the fact that Guernica was the spiritual centre of the Basque country (with the famous tree and the ancient parliament) was merely incidental; von Richthofen evinces no knowledge of the cultural significance of the town. Instead, it was bombed because it was a major crossroads not far behind the front lines, through which the hard-pressed Basque forces would have to retreat. It could also become a stronghold, if the Basques were allowed to reinforce it. The aim therefore was to block the roads, and this was achieved (though only for about 24 hours).4 Von Richthofen's diary tells the story:

26 April 1937: K/88 was targeted at Guernica, in order to halt and disrupt the Red withdrawal, which has to pass through here.
27 April 1937: Guernica burning.
28 April 1937: Guernica must be totally destroyed.5

This tactic of intense aerial bombardment of towns and villages just behind the front lines in order to disrupt communications and supply lines was used again and again by Nationalist air forces during the war, both before and after Guernica, a fact which comes through very clearly in Antony Beevor's excellent history of the Spanish Civil War. So it's not clear to me why he thinks Guernica was any different in intent: 'One intention of the raid may have been to block the roads, as he [von Richthofen] wrote, but everything else points to a major experiment in the effects of aerial terrorism'.6

According to Corum, throughout von Richthofen's career as a senior Luftwaffe commander there's no evidence that he ever deliberately targeted civilians in the German campaigns in western and eastern Europe during the Second World War -- though equally he was not worried if they got in the way of his bombs. I'm almost convinced by Corum's take on Guernica, but there's one problem: the fragmentation bombs dropped by the Condor Legion's bombers. These are anti-personnel weapons, pure and simple: when they explode, they scatter shrapnel through the air. If you drop them on a town then you can't claim you intended them to destroy bridges or set fire to buildings, where civilian casualties are secondary. Doesn't this mean that the Germans fully intended (not just fully expected, which is a given) to kill civilians at Guernica? As with Dresden, there may be no need to choose between competing explanations: perhaps both civilians and communications were the target.

In fact, the way in which Guernica has come to be the milestone on the road to total war is a bit reminiscent of the way Dresden has come to stand for total war itself. Neither raid was intended to be anything particularly different from those which preceded or followed it; both have been singled out for their respective roles by virtue of the unexpectedly great devastation they caused, the media attention they received at the time, and the way they have consequently lingered in historical memory. The myth of Guernica is not exactly untrue, but it is something of an exaggeration and it eclipses the reality of Guernica, along with the realities of Durango, Alcañiz and many other places in Spain, China, Ethiopia ...

I promise I'm almost done with Guernica, but there's one more post to come.


  1. The Times, 9 July 1969, p. 11. 

  2. I haven't heard of Crozier before (although he was born in FNQ); he seems to have had an active career as a globe-trotting conservative pundit. I wonder if he ever retracted the claims he made in The Times

  3. He was also a distant cousin of the Red Baron, and was himself a fighter ace in the First World War. 

  4. James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 199. 

  5. Quoted in Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006), 233. 

  6. Ibid. 

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