Friday, April 27, 2007

Gernika (Guernica)

Yesterday, April 26, was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the town of Gernika, Spain, in 1937 which was immortalized in Picasso's famous painting, one of the great statements of antiwar art of all time. Though it wasn't a statement against all war as such. At the time it was done, it was a statement against Francisco Franco's forces and against his German and Italian allies who did the actual bombing.

This PBS Web site that focuses on Picasso's famous painting gives a brief summary of the infamous event:

On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities are perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of a little Basque village in northern Spain. Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler's burgeoning war machine, the hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded.
The bombing was not done only by the Germans though. The notorious German Condor Legion joined with the Italian Aviazione Legionaria in the attack. Among other things, it allowed them to test the effect of their current air war technology.

It wasn't the first time air power had been used in war. In the First World War there had even been some primitive instances of dropping bombs from a plane, with minimal effect. But this was the first full-scale assault on a city by aerial bombing. Events since then make it almost impossible to imagine how the prospect of such a thing was viewed then. Air power was even considered by many to make war essentially impossible, because the devastation that countries could cause each other would be so great it would be a huge deterrent. It didn't work out that way.

La memoria de Gernika de Eva Lamarca El País 19/04/2007 recounts the events mainly through interviewing several living survivors of the attack.

See also the then-and-now photos at
La memoria de Gernika. (Photo by Carlos Luján El País 20.04.07)

Luis Iriondo was 14 years old at the time. He recalls hiding in an air-raid shelter. Shelters had been hastily constructed after Franco's forces bombed Durango on March 31. He recalls the first round of attacks, "A los tres minutos, ya no podíamos respirar. Éramos tantos y aquello era tan pequeño, sin ventilación, ni luz? Morir enterrado vivo me aterraba". (For those three minutes, we couldn't even breathe. There were a lot of us, and the space was very small, without ventilation or light. To die buried alive terrified me.")I don't know whether he was consciously using a literary touch in that last sentence with "enterrado...aterraba" but it comes out that way.

Luis talks about his friend Cipriano Arrien, who, like boys will, wanted to see the action. He refused to go to the shelter with Luis. Luis remembers thinking to himself, "¡joer, lo estará viendo todo y yo no podré contarle mañana ni cómo son los aviones!", ("Dang, he'll see everything and I wouldn't even be able to tell you tomorrow what the airplanes are like!") After the attack was over and Luis came out of the shelter, he looked for Cipriano were he had left him; "lo encontro muerto" (he found him dead).

When Luis went to look at his family's house and saw, "Nada. Se quedó sin nada. Sin ropa, sin comida, sin morada." ("Nothing. Nothing was left. No clothes, no food, no home.")A single photograph of himself is all that remained to him from his things of that time.

According to Eva Lamarca's article, 71% of the Gernika's population lost their homes in the attack. When the brutality of the attack became known to the world, the Francoists were worried about public reaction, in particular that of the Catholic Church, which was supported Franco's fascist revolt. So they put out the story that it was actually the "reds" (the defenders of the democratic Republic) who had bombed the town to make it look like the fascists had done it. The cover story wasn'tterribly convincing.

José Ángel Etxaniz, who is part of the Fundación Gernika-Gogoratuz, a group of six (most of whom are historians), explains in the article that the official casualty figures put out by the Republic at the time were 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. Obviously, the fact that death were greater than wounded looks odd. Lamarca quotes another member of the group as saying that the number of death was no more than 150, and also that 99% of the buildings in the town sustained some kind of damage. She quotes Josefina Odriozola as also saying that only 1% of the buildings in town were left undamaged, while the rest were damaged or completely destroyed.

It's a reminder of the destructiveness of air power and the very serious questions about to what extent it should be used. According to the official figures from the Air Force, during the month of March 2007, flew 1,663 "close-air support" missions in Iraq and 1,264 in Afghanistan, at least some of them involving the dropping of 500-lb. and 2,000-lb. bombs. Every one of those bombs is creating a little bit of Gernika.

And yet the air war in both places is virtually unreported in the mainstream press. When the histories of those wars are written, the role of air power will loom much larger than it does in contemporary reporting. The air power true believers will, as always, profess to find brilliant results. But the actual results deserve a hard look from Congress, the press and the public, as well as military analysts.

Jeffrey Record of the Air War College gives us a glimpse of how European military planners viewed air power in the 1930s in his paper
Appeasement Reconsidered: Investigating the Mythology of the 1930s (US Army Strategic Studies Institute) August 2005:

Both governments and publics in Britain and France were gripped by a generic dread of mass air attacks on cities, and governments misread the size and nature of the German Luftwaffe, taking at face value Hitler’s announcement in 1935 that Germany already had air parity with Britain. They saw in war with Germany immediate and massive air attacks on London and Paris. The dread of air attack stemmed from a belief that strategic bombardment was irresistible and that its potential effects could include rapid disintegration of the political and social order. In 1932 British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had famously declared: "There is no power on earth that can protect [its people] from being bombed. . . . The bombers will always get through. The only defense is in offense, which means that you have to kill more women and children than the enemy if you want to save yourselves." Baldwin’s view was certainly the starting point for British and American air power advocates from the early 1920s onward. They believed that air power, not armies and navies, would determine the outcome of future wars, and that the best defense against air attack was a good offense in the form of massive bomber forces. They rejected investment in defenses which (in the days before radar and “pursuit” aircraft that could fly as fast as bombers) they rightly regarded as futile, and they were firmly opposed to diverting air power to assist ground and naval forces.(pp. 30-31; my emphasis)
Tammy Davis Biddle also addresses the view of air power by both military professionals and the public in those days in the U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy, 2nd Edition (2006):

During the interwar years, public views on warfare tended to embody extremes — either a determination to avoid the topic altogether, or a tendency to articulate it in the most apocalyptic terms. Perhaps this should be unsurprising in the aftermath of the unremittingly grim experience of World War I, but its effect was to leave little room for rigorous or considered analysis. Dark forebodings in the realm of popular culture resulted in a flurry of books addressing the apocalyptic side of the spectrum: The Poison War, The Black Death, Menace, Empty Victory, Invasion from the Air, War Upon Women, Chaos, Air Reprisal, and What Happened to the Corbetts. The impact of these was augmented not only by the futurist scenarios being played in the (increasingly popular) cinemas, but also by the ominous and troubling events of the 1930s, including the Japanese attack on Manchuria, the Italian attack on Abyssinia, and the Spanish Civil War.

By this time as well, the ideas of Italian air enthusiast General Giulio Douhet were becoming more widely known in English-speaking countries. Douhet's 1921 book, The Command of the Air, had painted a graphic vision of societal collapse in the face of air attack. Indeed, it was the futurist drama he conveyed rather than the analytical rigor of his ideas that gave Douhet a lasting place in the canon of air warfare. A poet, painter, playwright, and amateur novelist, Douhet brought to bear on his work "the intense modernist fascination with the latest advances in science and technology — with the automobile, with electricity, with gas, and finally with the aeroplane — prevalent in prewar Italian protofascist avantgarde culture." Though both British and American airmen had developed indigenous theories of air warfare that did not depend on Douhet — and though there is no evidence that Douhet was read widely in Britain or the United States before the 1930s — his ideas were cited thereafter and used to support apocalyptic visions of air warfare. His prose seemed to capture an important element of the mood in the West, and it seemed to capture, as well, a kind of archetypal image of the airplane as weapon. (p. 336; my emphasis in bold)
Other Gernika references:

Fundación del Museo de la Paz de Gernika (Gernika Peace Museum): also available in English. The Documentation Center at that site includes this account:

The technical aspects of the bombing of Gernika are still one of the most passionate topics of modern history. The destruction of Gernika was perpetrated by the German Condor Legion and the Italian air force, acting on the commands of Franco’s rebel army. The military tactics applied were so devastating that Gernika has gone down in history as the first experiment in total war.
And they quote Martínez Bande:

The planes took off from the aerodrome at Vitoria, flew out over the sea and then performed a half-turn to follow the Oca valley and attack Guernica from North to South. Apparently there were three types of plane: Heinkel 111s and Junker 52s for bombing purposes, and Heinkel 51s for air combat and machine-gunning. They must have come in two groups working in shifts, and there is general discrepancy as to the numbers of each. We calculated that between 15 and 20 bombers and fighter planes took part in eachwave of bombing. Their numbers were quite sufficient. The tactics employed were to drop ordinary shells first, and then small incendiary cluster bombs, at the same time machine-gunning any villagers who had not yet reached cover - not only in the town itself, but also in its outlying districts and also around the neighbouring parishes.
Gernika El País editorial 27/04/2007. This is about a current controversy involving Gernika. The town is located in the Basque country, which has a history of separatism that is particularly strong among conservative Catholics. Juan José Ibarretxe, the head of the Basque provincial government, has demanded that the government of Spain officially apologize for the bombing as the German government did a decade ago. But, the editorial says, "la Guerra Civil no fue una lucha entre España y Euskadi, en contra de lo que muchos nacionalistas vascos se obstinan en proclamar." (The Civil War was not a fight between Spain and Euskadi [the area's name in the Basque language], despite what many Basque nationalists obstinately proclaim.")

¿Quién tiene que pedir perdón por Gernika? de Pablo Sanz Yagüe El País 27/04/2007, an opinion piece on the same subject.

Gernika pide la paz como "valor supremo" de Alberto Uriona El País 27/04/2007. Alberto Uriona writes, "Gernika se convirtió ayer en un foco mundial de reivindicación de la paz." ("Yesterday, Guernica became a world focus for rededication to peace.")

Gernika, capital mundial de la paz El País 26/04/2007:

Gernika es hoy la capital mundial de la paz. A primera hora de la mañana se han reunido en el Ayuntamiento los alcaldes de varias ciudades que sufrieron bombardeos durante la II Guerra Mundial: Hiroshima (Japón), Hamburgo, Pforzheim y Desdre (Alemania), Volgogrado y Stalingrado (Rusia) y Varsovia (Polonia).

[Guernica today is the world capital of peace. At the first hour of the morning, the mayors of various cities that suffered bombing during the Second World War met in the Ayuntamiento: Hiroshima (Japan), Hamburg, Pforzheim and Dresden (Germany), Volgograd and Stalingrad (Russia) and Warsaw (Poland).]
PSOE e IU desbloquean la Ley de la Memoria Histórica al acordar la ilegitimidad de las sentencias durante el franquismo Cadena Ser 19-04-2007.

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