This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Since About Basque Country has existed, we’ve paid very special attention to the tragic events the Basques lived throughout the ten terrible years between the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and the end of the Second World War.
By focusing on these two subjects, we do not wish to forget that during the whole of the battle between Democracy and Totalitarianism (which lasted until the mid 1970s for the Basques south of the Pyrenees, and whose aftereffects can still be felt), tragedy was felt throughout our nation, on the front and behind it, for soldiers and civilians.
But, without a doubt, the Bombing of Guernica contains all those fundamental elements that define that terrible war in and of itself: the absolute inhumanity of the insurgents; the tragedy the defenseless Basque people lived; the moral destitution of those who denied their responsibility in the tragedy, and once they could no longer hide their acts, tried to downplay it, minimizing the number of victims, banalizing the events, even to this day.
As we said, we’ve written a lot about this subject. Below you will find some of our reflections in two articles:
- Truth and Lies about the Bombing of Guernica in 1937
- The bombing of Guernica. Goodwill shines brightest when surrounded by the blackest evil
On this 80th anniversary, we were fortunate enough to have Xabier Irujo, who we’ve written about on many occasions, publish a seminal book to uncover the truth about what happened on April 26, 1937: Gernika, 26 de abril de 1937 (Planeta publishers).
Xabier Irujo is the director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and is the historian who has done the most and deepest research on the subject. He has extensive knowledge, and his research has reached depths no one else’s has.
And this is a good thing, because it gives us key data to understand what happened, and to stop any attempt to downplay the tragedy at Guernica that some still try to do today. We believe that one a day like today, the best thing to do is to read this interview of Professor Irujo by Naiara Baza, which was just published in the newspaper Bilbao.
There’s nothing to be missed, so please, don’t miss it! This is because, as we said in the title, against the lies, more truth. (Remember that to enlarge the image and read the article comfortably, click on the image, and then click on the small icon that appears in the upper right corner of the image.)
Plus, in 2013, he offered a conference that is worth listening to.
Xabier de Irujo. ‘Guernica April 26, 1937’
We must feel in order to learn
On March 21, Gernika 26 de abril de 1937 was published. What new sources of investigation have allowed this new study to be published?
In the last ten years, I have visited over 35 archives, and I have gathered dozens of thousands of scans, o hundreds (if not thousands) of documents. This particular gathering of information had never been done before. I couldn’t have done it alone, and I was fortunate enough to have the competent collaboration of the Center of Documentation of the Bombing of Guernica, where all these documents have been deposited. Nowadays, this Center has the most important collection of documents about the Bombing of Guernica in the world.
How does this book add to the collection of literature about the Bombing?
As for the content of the book and its novel aspects, I believe that while this is a well-covered topic, most of the most basic and relevant data about the bombing that have been published so far or defended by other authors were not precise, or, in some cases, completely wrong. For example, I have documentation that the order that to lie and say that Guernica had been razed by the withdrawing red troops came from Franco and was issued on April 27. I have also found proof that the order to bomb Guernica came from Franco. I’ve found new documentation about the implication of Göring in the bombing and the role that his particular interests played in this and other bombings. I have described in detail, in a way that has not yet been done, what was the logic behind and the way of carrying out the bombing: the flight phases, and the reason for each of them, their duration and objectives, and I have described the bombing in terms of a terror raid. And I have documented this description.
Furthermore, I have documented technical aspects of the bombing, such as, for example, the number of planes that participated in the attack. I have documented the participation of a greater number of planes and, fundamentally, proven that some parts are false. For the first time, I have contextualized the true dimensions of the bombing of Guernica in this way: 20% of the planes in Franco’s service participated in the bombing. I have also documented the number and tonnage of the bombs dropped, the proportion of explosive and incendiary bombs, and, for the first time, I have documented the flight altitude of the bombers over Guernica.
I have also corrected the percentages of the levels of material destruction that some authors have provided, and I have abundantly documented these new numbers. And, regarding the number of dead, a most important and especially complicated and thorny subject, I have provided new data and, fundamentally, a new approach to the subject. I consider that, based on the documentation we have, the dead numbered more than 2,000. There have been many great falsehood in this matter, which I have also documented. Such is the case of the shelter of Andra Mari, where more than 450 people died (and where traditionally, the death toll was only 45). I have documented the falsehoods this specific act has been subjected to.
For the first time, I have contextualized the bombing of Guernica in the history of terror bombings, and also in the context of the more than 1,100 bombing operations that took place on Basque soil between 1936 and 1937 (in essence, the first war the Luftwaffe fought, once it had been reorganized by Richthofen in the winter of 1936).
On the eightieth anniversary of this brutal act, what is still to be said?
Yes, even thought the topic is an old, archived case, the description of the nature, material reach, dimension, and consequences of the bombing are altogether new and even better documented than in previous descriptions. As I’ve noted before, there were details about this historic event that had not been discovered or properly documented. There undoubtedly still are; no historical event can ever run out of possibilities for scientific research.
We are dealing with a “top down” document, from the point of view of the authors of the attack…what is the most striking about the underlying logic of the attack?
This is the most difficult part of the analysis of the bombing, since it’s necessary to get into the minds of its doers, especially that of Colonel Richthofen, who planned and organized the attack on the ground. The bombing was carried out in several phases. First, a lone Heinkel He51, flying east to west, launched six 10kg bombs in the city center. Later, the three aircraft of von Moreau’s experimental bombing squad attacked the city center and destroyed the water pumping system and, minutes later, the Italian bombers bombed the city center. They all allowed themselves to be seen approaching Guernica and flew at low speed and altitude because the reason behind the first phase of the bombing was to get emergency services to go to the city center, and to get civilians into shelters, where they would later die. In the second phase of the bombing, the ground attack planes circled overhead with machine guns and bombs, creating a perimeter of fire over the town, keeping anyone from escaping Guernica. In the third phase, the three Junkers Ju52 squadrons attacked from north to south (while the alarm systems couldn’t stop the entire neighborhood from approaching), bombing the city center, dropping explosive and incendiary bombs. Finally the ground attack planes again created a ring of fire inside which the victims would die by machine gun, explosions, buried in the debris, or burned.
It was a terror bombing, but it was meant to pass as a strategic bombing. How?
To justify the bombing, Richthofen ensured the with the bombing of the bridge of Guernica, the Basque troops defending the front would be trapped and unable to retreat. This is not true. As we can easily observe on a map of the front, it’s not logical to retreat to Bilbao via Guernica, as it’s a longer distance and would have exposed the southern flank of the Basque defense line. In fact, following the orders of the captain of the joint chiefs, and with an explicit order not to retreat via Guernica, the units withdrew from the Markina and Eibar area westward towards Durango and Zornotza.
In the report Senderos de Memoria (Trails of Memory), published by the Basque Government a couple of years ago, you participated with a Listing of bombings against urban centers and towns, where you spoke of more than two hundred localities that were attacked in broad daylight. Will we ever exactly know the number of victims?
We will never know the exact number of the deceased basically because the Franco régime did everything it could to erase the proof of the atrocities it committed. As I state in the prologue to the List of bombings against urban centers and towns, this is a first approximation. I’m still working on the registry of bombings and I hope to have it finished this year. So far, I’ve catalogued more than 1,100 bombing operations between July 22, 1936 and August 18, 1937, which means thousands of bombings (if we consider that one bombing operation is one or several bombardments over one objective in one war day).
If the planning was careful, the choice of location wasn’t random, either. Why attack Guernica?
There are seven main reasons why Guernica was bombed. Firstly, the town had the appropriate size: it was big enough to be a military target, and small enough to be completely destroyed by the number of planes and the amount and quality of the explosives available. The town was 23km (14mi) from the front line, so it could be occupied just a few days after the attack, before the International Committee of the Red Cross, or the press or other international organizations could report, photograph, or gather any other type of evidence about the bombing. The town was completely defenseless, as it didn’t even have any antiaircraft guns. Most of the town’s buildings were stuck to one another in closed blocks, separated by narrow streets, and had internal structures of wood, which would allow the utility and destructive capacity of the new German incendiary bombs to be checked. Guernica was the head of a district in a time of war, and the front depended on its weekly market and three hospitals. The destruction of those resources would sink the Markina front. Guernica hadn’t been bombed before, and Richthofen needed to experiment and measure his experiments on the ground, but given that most the population centers were being bombed, it was hard to know what effect individual attacks were having on their objectives. Guernica, the seat of the oak tree that symbolizes the representative democracy and the freedoms of the Basques, a place that is venerated by the Basque people, was an ideal target to break the spirit of the Basque Government troops.
It wasn’t the first time Guernica had been attacked for its symbolic value. In 1835, General Baldomero Espartero ordered the oak tree, the meeting house, and the town itself to be burned, and to place a plaque over the ruins that read “Here lay Guernica”.
Another of the highlights of the book is the “denialism” of the Francoist dictatorship. To what point was this revision necessary?
The denial that Guernica had been bombed was an order from Franco. Consequently, all the régime’s media reproduced this version of events: Guernica has been fuel for the flames of the withdrawing reds. But nobody believed it, in part thanks to the work of seven reporters who visited Guernica and wrote about what they saw, and their articles were widely spread in countries with freedom of the press. Franco therefore ordered two reports to be drawn up and distributed abroad, accepting that Guernica had been bombed, but downplaying its size and effects. This order gave rise to a reductionist historiographic current that continues to this day, even in the face of the material evidence and documentation that we have. One example: the datum that 71% of the city was destroyed is still repeated, even though we have concrete, indisputable proof that 85.22% of the buildings were completely destroyed, and only 1% of the buildings were unaffected.
Nowadays, is the bombing still used for propoganda?
Yes. It is still a controversial historical subject, and as such, it is still used as a political weapon. The fact that, after forty years of denial and eighty years since the events, there are still authors who do what they can do downplay the effects of the bombing by referencing this attack in terms of a “myth” or “mere mythology” is terrible. The historiography exists thanks to documented sources, and Guernica should serve to show humanity the horrors of war and, in particular, the effects of terror bombings on a civilian population. The so-called historiographic “revisionism” not only keeps that from happening, but also erases the victims of that historical event from popular memory.
You are the director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Does the bombing generate interest over there?
The bombing of Guernica is one of the most controversial acts in the history of 20th century Europe, and it still piques interest and concern today. When, in February 2003, coinciding with the Second War in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council to justify the aerial bombings over Baghdad to the world, he ordered the reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica to be covered with a blue curtain. The presence of Guernica was uncomfortable. It still hasn’t been put back in its original spot.
Durango was the prologue to Guernica, but Guernica has been the prologue to many other cities around the world so far: Hiroshima, Timbuktu, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria… It seems that mankind doesn’t trip over the same stone only twice. How do you, as a historian and professor of genocide studies, watch this type of events?
With great worry. In my last book, I wrote about this. Historian Rolf-Dieter Müller claimed in his 2008 book that “according to the going concept, the German bombing [of Guernica] constitutes a legitimate military operation”. And he called that fact a “myth”. It’s a strange way of thinking that means the following: it’s legitimate to bomb an urban center that is holding its weekly market into oblivion, with the consequent loss of civilian lives, if what you’re trying to do is block retreating enemy troops. We can only hope that in the UN committees that define war crimes, there are few people who think along that author’s lines.
We don’t know the value of peace until we investigate the effects of war and its material consequences. And it’s necessary to know the details of these effects precisely. It isn’t enough to know what happened in Guernica; only when we discover how a specific person died, someone we can identify as a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, who lost their life during a bombing raid like that and those like it, can we discover the tragic dimension to these events and understand why they should never be repeated, whatever the cause, time in history, or place. Pain is a personal, individual emotion. We should feel in order to learn.
(Periódico Bilbao -Naiara Baza – 2017)