SEVENTY YEARS AGO, on April 26, 1937, at 4:40 in the afternoon when the stone-walled, medieval Basque town of Guernica was packed with peasants, shoppers and refugees for its Monday afternoon market along the riverfront, a church bell rang out. The townspeople had heard the warning before. It meant that enemy planes were approaching.
Since ancient times, Basques had gathered in this town under an oak tree to reaffirm their laws. Even today, the elected head of the Basque government travels to Guernica to take his oath of office under an oak tree, "humble before God, standing on Basque soil, in remembrance of Basque ancestors, under the tree of Guernica ."
This tree, a few thousand residents, the people who had come to the market and thousands of refugees from other parts of the Basque provinces who had fled the ongoing Spanish Civil War were the only targets. Oddly, the oak tree survived.
Because Guernica had no air defenses, dozens of planes from the German and Italian air forces, including the newest experimental warplanes, were free to come in low in daylight, dropping with great accuracy an unusual payload of incendiary and splinter bombs chosen by the Germans for maximum destruction of buildings. People who fled were chased down by planes with heavy-caliber machine guns. The planes came in so low that there are still eyewitnesses who remember seeing the pilots and who note that they looked like Germans.
Three hours later, the planes were gone, the historic town had been reduced to burning rubble and the Basque government estimated that 1,645 civilians were dead out of a population of 7,000. It's hard to know just how accurate that number is. The only ones who had a chance to accurately count the dead were the rebel troops of Francisco Franco — on whose behalf the German and Italian planes had swept in in the first place. They at first denied that the attack had taken place; later, they admitted to only 200 deaths. The records of what they actually found have never been released. But given the intensity of the attack, reports of survivors and the number of missing relatives, the Basque government figure has been recognized as at least being closer to the truth.
Two days after the attack, London Times correspondent George Steer's eyewitness account was published in the London Times and the New York Times, and the world responded with outrage at this new type of warfare — randomly attacking civilians from the air on a large scale. It was widely seen as a crime that should never be allowed to happen again.
It was not the first time civilians had been bombed from the air; not even the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Gen. Emilio Mola of Franco's pro-fascist rebel forces had vowed to destroy the Basque province of Viscaya for its fierce opposition to the insurgency. "Starting with the industries of war," he had said. But instead he started with the rural town of Durango, a town of ancient churches, rambling cobblestone streets and no industries of war. Next was Guernica.
Durango had passed with little notice, but Guernica did not. Pablo Picasso, who had been commissioned by the Spanish government to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, chose Guernica as his subject, and his stark depiction of mayhem and destruction permanently fixed this image of war in Western culture. To many previously apolitical Americans and Britons, it was the bombing of Guernica that convinced them of the brutality of fascism.
Historians argue whether the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" was first used about Guernica or Hiroshima. Steer wrote in the Times: "In the form of its execution and the scale of its destruction the raid is unparalleled in military history." But 70 years after Guernica — after the bombings of Coventry, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hanoi, Hue, Beirut and Baghdad — it has become clear that modern war is fought from the air and that the greatest number of casualties are civilians.
Guernica was destroyed with 1937 state-of-the-art weaponry, the latest in German and Italian attack aircraft. But, of course, those weapons are primitive compared to what was unleashed on Baghdad for "shock and awe" at the start of the Iraq war. Shock and awe had also been the intention of the fascists in Spain. But such attacks on civilians today are met not so much with the outrage of 1937 but with casual television viewing.
On this, the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the little Basque village of Guernica, it would be good to contemplate the direction the world is going in and whether we want to continue or alter the course.