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Restating the truth about Gernika

IBMT Chair Jim Jump reviews ‘Gernika: Genealogy of a Lie’ by Xabier A Irujo (Sussex Academic Press, 2019). This review was originally published in the IBMT magazine ¡No Pasarán! 2-2020. IBMT members receive three issues of ¡No Pasarán! a year. Options to join or affiliate to the IBMT can be found here.

Astonishingly, the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War remains a crime that is still having to be solved. Immortalised by Picasso’s vast painting, ‘Guernica’, its destruction on market day on 26 April 1937 by Hitler’s Condor Legion has become a symbol of civilian suffering in modern warfare. Witness the now notorious incident in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when a tapestry of the painting was covered up at the UN headquarters in New York while US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a press conference justifying the march to war.


For Condor Legion commander Wolfram von Richthofen, the aerial bombardment of Gernika – and indeed the bombs dropped on other Basque towns and on Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia – was the shock-and-awe of its day, a belated birthday gift to the Führer to demonstrate the power of firebombing to instil terror. As Franco’s rebel in arms General Emilio Mola warned on the day before the attack: ‘Franco is about to deliver a mighty blow against which all resistance is useless. Basques! Surrender now and your lives will be spared.’


Newspapermen rushed to Gernika in the wake of the bombing. Amid the smouldering ruins they found German bomb-parts. Terrified eye- witnesses confirmed how the attack had unfolded. Among the reporters was George Steer, of The Times, whose historic despatch published on 28 April and syndicated around the world, declared:

‘The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge.’


Yet within 24 hours of the atrocity Franco, no doubt sensing the international outrage that would soon be unleashed, denied the bombing and accused the ‘Reds’ of setting the town ablaze. So began what author Xabier Irujo calls a cascade of lies – one that continued throughout the 40 years of dictatorship and even to this day.


There were two categories of lies, says Irujo, who in 2015 delivered the lecture ‘The Terror Bombing of Guernica’ as part the IBMT’s annual Len Crome Memorial Conference in Manchester. First comes the ‘official lie’, starting, in this case, with Franco’s brazen repudiation of responsibility. Next comes the ‘historiographal lie’, when historians repeat and refine miss-truths and when facts are brushed aside as exaggerations or myths.


Francoist historian Ricardo de la Cierva, for example, would claim in 1970 that ‘not even a dozen died’. More recently others, such as Jesús Salas, have massaged the death toll down to 300 or less. Yet George Steer’s fellow- reporter on the scene, Noel Monks of the News Chronicle, counted 600 dead in the aftermath of the bombing, and the Basque government soon listed 1,647 dead. There had been some 10,000 people in the town on the day. In fact, as Irujo makes plain, the final death tally is more than 2,000.


There are no fewer than 29 such lies demolished by Irujo, each with its own concise chapter. They include ‘Franco did not know anything’, ‘It was not a terror bombing’ and ‘It was a strategic bombing whose objective was to cut the withdrawal of the Basque troops’ – lies that are still in circulation in those parts of Spanish society sympathetic to Franco.


‘The bombing of Gernika is the story of the exaltation of a lie,’ the author writes, and he goes on to consider the ‘social psychology’ behind this phenomenon, speculating in Freudian mode that ‘if the perception of reality produces in us sorrow, restlessness, or disgust, we tend to sacrifice the truth’.


As long as the truth is not accepted, the victims of Gernika – and of the entire Spanish Civil War – still cannot properly be laid to rest. Marking last year’s 75th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, German President Walter Steinmeier publicly begged forgiveness for the aerial destruction of the town of Wielun on 1 September 1939, along with the bombardment of Warsaw and other centres of population. Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory immediately observed: ‘Let’s see when Germany does the same for the Spanish victims of the 1936-39 war and dictatorship it helped and consolidated.’



Posted on 24 July 2020.