Gernika is the happiest town in the world. Its affairs are run by a group of peasants who meet beneath an oak tree and always make the fairest decisions.      Jean-Jacques Rousseau c.1760

From the village of Mundaka, we boarded a single-track railway line which took us through tidal flats and salt marshes, past sun-scorched fishing boats and pampas grass. Yellow-billed storks sat motionless on the branches of bleached trees and, in the distance lay the snow-covered mountains of Cantabria.

The first thing you notice about Gernika (the Basque spelling is preferred), is that, unlike its near neighbours, Bilbao and San Sebastian, there are no shady, narrow streets, no ornate iron railings, no covered wooden balconies, no clothes drying on washing lines. Gernika is a modern town, open and spacious, full of plazas, parks and apartment buildings.

The Basques are an ancient people with a long history of self-reliance and a strong desire for autonomy. The Basque Republic was founded in Gernika in October 1936 in the shadow of the Gernika oak tree, which, over hundreds of years, has evolved into a symbol of freedom for all Basque people.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936. Initially, Franco was pre-occupied with the Republicans in the south but, by the spring of 1937, he and his generals had turned their attention to the Basques in the north.

Monday April 26th was market day in Gernika and people from all over Vizcaya were in town to buy food and livestock. The fighter planes with their machine guns were the first to arrive, weaving and dipping, flying so low that their wing tips stroked the grass along the riverbank. They were closely followed by the bombers. The two worked in shifts and flew in waves across the town. Relentlessly. For three hours. Around 5pm, the bombers began to drop incendiary cluster bombs: They came down like rain, like silver pencils that exploded. Through the dust and the smoke they looked like hundreds of candle flames burning. We found some that had not exploded. They were all engraved with the German eagle. (Jose Ramon Segues). Hitler had agreed to support Franco in the bombing of Gernika as it offered him an opportunity to test new weapons and strategies. Intense aerial bombardment later became a significant part of his Blitzkrieg tactics.

By nightfall, the fires were so intense and the debris so overwhelming that many survivors, calling from beneath the rubble, could not be rescued. That was horrible – more horrible than the bombing itself (Carmen Zabaljauregi).

1,654 people were killed that day and 85.22% of the buildings in the town were destroyed. Franco’s army never acknowledged responsibility for the attack. On the contrary, he blamed the Basque republicans, claiming that they had exploded dynamite in the sewers and used gasoline to set the fires. Priests were brought to Gernika to perpetuate the story from the pulpits. Those who disputed it were given prison sentences and children in schools were  ‘re-educated’. It was not until Franco died in 1975 that the narrative began to shift in Spain. It was not until 1997 that Germany finally acknowledged responsibility for its role in the bombing of Gernika.

On May 1st 1937, just five days after the bombing, Pablo Picasso, who was living in Paris, began work on Guernica. He offered the painting, on extended loan, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York with the understanding that it would remain outside Spain until such time as democracy was re-established in his homeland. It was not until 1981 that Guernica, travelling on a commercial flight from New York to Madrid, arrived in Spain. As the plane touched down at Barajas airport, the captain made an unexpected announcement: Ladies and Gentlemen, Guernica has returned to Spain.

As we made our way back up the coast to Mundaka, I thought about the people of Gernika, who like the citizens of Mariupol, Aleppo and Hiroshima, awoke with ordinary expectations for the day ahead. By nightfall, in the words of Joseba Elosegui: There were people standing in front of the place where their homes had been, screaming the names of their loved ones who were missing.


The Day Guernica Was Bombed – A Story Told by Witnesses and Survivors  William L. Smallwood