Apr 262019
 

On this date in 1937, the terror bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War was carried out, at the behest of Francisco Franco’s nationalist government, by its allies, the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria, under the code name Operation Rügen. The town was being used as a communications center behind the front line and was also strategically located. The operation opened the way for Franco’s capture of Bilbao and his victory in northern Spain.

The attack provoked controversy because it involved the deliberate bombing of civilians by a military air force. In fact, vital munitions factories in the town were left untouched. The sole point of the attack was to demoralize Franco’s enemies by killing civilians and destroying their property.  Such actions are now spoken of as “total war” in which there is no distinction drawn between military actions and non-combatant actions. Everything is fair game. By the end of World War II, the Axis powers had suffered the fire-bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These were also acts of total war. It is sometimes suggested that the bombing of Guernica was the beginning act of total war in the 20th century, and, the Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, total war is now a fact of life worldwide. But there is nothing new about total war,

In ancient and medieval times, conquering armies were known to intimidate local populations by killing or enslaving everyone whether they were soldiers or not. Men, women, and children were all fair game. There are also many instances of entire cities committing mass suicide rather than submit to a besieging army. Historically, atrocities much worse than Guernica occurred. What made Guernica do hideous was that it was completely unexpected. It was not a tactic that anyone was anticipating, and, in fact, Franco as well as Germany and Italy initially denied they have any involvement in it because they knew the worldwide perception would be strongly negative.

Even now it is impossible to estimate the number of casualties and the amount of damage to the town because both sides had their reasons for over- or under-reporting. Republicans initially put the death toll at 1,700 while Nationalists estimated about 150 killed.  Nowadays there is still enormous debate, but around 300 is a widely accepted number. Likewise, opposing sides estimated anywhere from 17% to 74% of the town was razed. Some of the confusion arises from what caused the damage – that is, the bombing itself, or bombs plus fires.

The bombing is the subject of a famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso, commissioned by the Spanish Republic. Until Franco’s death in 1975 Picasso’s work (according to the artist’s wishes) could not be displayed in Spain, and so was housed in New York. Now it has its own exhibit space in Madrid, although the town of Guernica would prefer to see it located there.

The bombing was also depicted in a woodcut by the German artist Heinz Kiwitz, who was later killed fighting in the International Brigades, and by René Magritte in the painting Le Drapeau Noir.

The bombing shocked and inspired many other artists, including a sculpture by René Iché, one of the first electroacoustic music pieces by Patrick Ascione, a musical composition by René-Louis Baron and poems by Paul Eluard (Victory of Guernica), and Uys Krige (Nag van die Fascistiese Bomwerpers) (English translation from the Afrikaans: Night of the Fascist Bombers). There is also a short film from 1950 by Alain Resnais titled Guernica.

Basque cuisine is a happy mix of fish and meat, especially lamb, plus vegetables with a distinctive spice palette. Marmitako is a much-loved fish stew, normally made with tuna, but salmon or cod are sometimes substituted.  Here is a video showing a traditional method of cooking. The main thing to note is that the stew is assembled and cooked without the tuna, which is added at the very end and cooked only briefly (enough to cook through and no more). The video is in Spanish, but the gist should be easy enough to grasp.

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