Seventy years ago today, planes from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy made one of history’s more infamous bombing runs — and its first test of the military strategy now known as “shock and awe.” In wave after wave, their low-flying fighters — acting in service of Fascist Gen. Francisco Franco — dropped a cumulative 30 tons of munitions, strafing civilians with machine guns, and setting fire to what remained. By the end of the day, some 2,500 people were dead or injured and three-quarters of the town’s buildings were destroyed, according to the Basque government.
“Guernica, city with 5,000 residents,” wrote the commander of Germany’s Condor Legion in his journal, “has been literally razed to the ground. Bomb craters can be seen in the streets. Simply wonderful.”
The attack, of course, inspired one of Pablo Picasso’s most celebrated and grisly works, a painting, named after the town, that appeared in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. As he worked on the 25-foot mural, he reportedly said, “In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”
But beyond inspiring one of the world’s most famous pieces of art, the bombing of Guernica sparked a new focus on peace in the town. The Gernika Peace Museum, which was created in part to investigate and present the truth of the attacks (they were first attributed by German soldiers to “the Reds”), is now seen as an international leader in conflict resolution and peace studies. Its mission is to remind and inform visitors about the raid 70 years ago, but also to inspire them to reflect on the nature of peace in the world and our struggles with it today.
“I think Guernica is a good example of not forgetting and trying to go further,” said Iratxe Astorkia, the museum’s director.
Today’s anniversary has renewed calls — so far refused — for Picasso’s Guernica to make its first showing in the town that shares its name.