On this day in 1937, Guernica was bombed by the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.
Guernica, located in the now autonomous region of the Basque Country, became a symbol of the Spanish Civil War after falling victim to a sustained and unrelenting aerial bombing campaign from German and Italian airforces, highlighting the ferocity and merciless nature of the conflict. Upon request from the nationalist leadership, the air forces carried out the attack under the code name Operation Rügen, a tactical move in order to sever communications between front line forces and central leadership. The bombing of Guernica has been viewed as an embodiment of the ‘terror bombing’ doctrine of Blitzkreig, targeting civilians in order to effectively break the will of an enemy, making the target more conducive to defeat as was seen in Warsaw 1939 or Rotterdam 1940.
It could be claimed civilians were not to be targeted directly, but the breakdown of production would affect their morale and will to fight. German legal scholars of the 1930s carefully worked out guidelines for what type of bombing was permissible under international law. While direct attacks against civilians were ruled out as “terror bombing”, the concept of attacking vital war industries-and probable heavy civilian casualties and breakdown of civilian morale-was ruled as acceptable
James Corum, American air power historian and counter-insurgency scholar
Despite the existence of some tactical advantage provided in the attack, indeed Guernica stood between Nationalist forces and Bilbao, the event has inspired great criticism with assertions that the advantage afforded by the annihilation of the town was by no means equivalent to the action taken, with civilians targeted in attempts to effectively bomb the city into submission. Such criticism is further highlighted by the choice of market day to carry out the attack, a day which would have heightened the scale of civilian casualties. The bombing was carried out in a series of waves until three quarters of the city’s buildings were said to have been completely destroyed in an early example of carpet bombing. Despite this, arms factories survived, highlighting the implicit motivation of the attack as not merely limited to tactical manoeuvres. Estimation of deaths vary wildly with Basque government reporting 1654 deaths whilst Spanish forces conceded only 126 could be attributed to the Guernica attacks. Historians now agree the figure was likely around 300, with figures over 1700 proving to be propaganda tools to exaggerate the impact of Nationalist ferocities. Franco tried to distance himself from the event following public outcry, claiming the atrocities were a product of fleeing Republican forces.
The events at Guernica inspired many artists observing events in Spain. The most famous of such pieces of work was Pablo Picasso‘s painting ‘Guernica’. The Spanish Republican government had commissioned a piece from him at the Paris International Exhibition and this bombing stimulated further disillusionment from the artist, reflecting his disgust for the conflict.