Guernica: A Warning from History for the ‘Fake News’ Era

The radical Basque separatist organisation, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Homeland and Freedom), is planning to disband soon. As a precursor to this momentous step, ETA has issued an apology to the over 800 people it killed, their families and the many others it wounded during its violent campaign for independence from Spain between 1968 and 2010.

ETA’s statement cites the 26th April 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica (Gernika, in the Basque language) during the Spanish Civil War as a source of its conflict with the Spanish state. ETA says it was part of “the generations that came up after the bombing of Guernica, (who) were the inheritors of that violence and that lament”.

Guernica does not excuse the violence ETA perpetrated many years later. But it is fair to say that the bombing and subsequent decades of repression of Basque autonomy, language and culture sowed the disaffection with Spain that reached its most malevolent extreme in ETA’s terrorism.

The name Guernica resonates far beyond the Basque country too. This is because the brutal assault on it initiated a form of warfare that has blighted humanity ever since – the aerial bombardment of primarily civilian targets. The memory has also endured because of a work of art.

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” is perhaps the definitive painting of the 20th Century and its most powerful expression of the horrors of war. As the far-right descendants of fascism become a significant presence in Europe again, now is a good time to recall more specifically what the painting depicts.

Rather than for military-strategic reasons, Guernica was targeted because of its great cultural significance to the Basque people. The town is the site of the Meeting House and Tree of Gernika. This was where the Basques had traditionally held their community assemblies since ancient times. The attack was an attempt to erase their identity.

The bombing took place at the behest of the fascist General Francisco Franco, the leader of the nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. The Francoist “Falange” was part of the fascist wave that engulfed much of Europe in the 1930s. In Spain, it encompassed elements of the military, religious establishment, royalists and previously existing right-wing political parties. They sought to overthrow the democratically elected left-wing government of Spain, with whom most Basques sided.

Hitler and Mussolini saw Guernica as a trial run for the strategies they went on to use during World War II

Franco called in the powerful air forces of his German Nazi and Italian Fascist allies to carry out the bombardment that destroyed most of Guernica. The local authorities recorded 1654 deaths. The toll of dead and wounded was particularly high because Franco and his allies deliberately chose to conduct the bombing on a market day, when the town centre would be crowded with civilians. The number of fatalities was increased when, as soon as the bombing stopped, Franco sent in ground troops to machine gun the men, women and children seeking to escape the carnage.

In the aftermath, Franco’s fascists started fires to destroy the evidence of what they had done. Nazi troops joined them in removing any incriminating German-marked bomb fragments. Their propaganda outlets then made ludicrous claims about the townspeople and its government defenders having destroyed Guernica themselves.

This early but committed attempt at creating “fake news” was foiled to some extent by the few brave journalists who were able to reach the scene quickly, notably George Lowther Steer of “The Times” and Christopher Holme of Reuters. But exposure in the international press did not stop Franco’s regime from suppressing the story within Spain after their victory in the Civil War. This continued throughout the long years of dictatorship until Franco’s death in 1975.

The evidence indicates that the Fascists’ real intention in Guernica was to terrorise the population into submitting to their violent overthrow of democracy. Such tactics have become distressingly familiar during many other conflicts since.

Certainly, Hitler and Mussolini saw Guernica as a trial run for the strategies they went on to use during World War II. It enabled them to gather military experience and, crucially, to test the response of Europe’s democracies to such an atrocity.

Britain, France and others opted to do nothing under the guise of “non-interference”. Inevitably, the attack on Guernica and Spanish democracy did not remain Spain’s problem alone. The lack of reaction emboldened Hitler to attack other countries.

Guernica and Picasso’s depiction of it are more than an illustration of the horrors of war. The bombing was a portent of the worldwide horrors that followed.  It is also an ongoing warning of where authoritarian, right-wing nationalist politics can lead and the dangers of turning the other cheek.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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