Today we mourn the dead of Guernica, killed in the first air raid which rained murder from the skies on a civilian population during the Spanish civil war. Guernica became a focus for outrage and shock at the way the new power of aerial bombardment could be used to destroy the buildings of towns and kill the men,women and children who lived there. The later barbarisms of the twentieth century were first enacted on that fateful April afternoon seventy one years ago.
I can understand why people were so shocked. The mass slaughter of the First World War had revolted people enough as they saw heavily mechanised death on an industrial scale meted out to young men crouching in muddy trenches. In a throw back to the morality of medieval warfare where knights were meant to help damsels in distress, not rape or murder them, there was still a feeling that at least that barbarism was confined to combatants who had some means of fighting back. The murder from the air at Guernica was meted out to unseen people in their homes, attacking men, women and children indiscriminately. All were defenceless, as the town had no anti aircraft weaponry in place. Waves of Luftwaffe planes flew in to discharge their bomb loads unchallenged. Just in case they were supported by Italian fighter planes.
The Condor Legionâ€™s raid killed many. There have been disputes ever since about just how many, with estimates ranging from 250 to 1500. At the time the perpetrators sought to give a very different impression, and pointed out that Guernica was also a military target as the fascist forces sought to prevent the retreat of the opposing army. The event has been remembered both because at the time world opinion was affronted by such bestiality, and because Picasso produced his famous painting lest we should forget.
I share the feelings that the bombing evoked. It was another lurch to a more brutal age, a celebration of the naked power modern technology can hand to governments, a further decline in the standards of governments handling disagreement and conflict. It did point to the murderous pounding London and other British cities received from the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, and the retaliatory death the Allies dished out to Germans in their cities. Neither long and damaging bombing campaigns against civilian populations and whole cities changed the course of the war. London was not bombed into submission. The Germans were not forced to an early surrender by the ferocity of the later Allied bombing. Wars still required men in arms to hold or seize territory on the ground, fighting village by village, street by street for control.
Bombing munitions factories, armies on the ground, weapons development establishments, bridges and railways to be used by opposing forces may all be necessary as part of traditional armed conflict between men in arms in a modern setting. There are conventions seeking to limit the use of weapons of mass destruction. Guernica and its aftermath has led many to think there should also be a convention against the mass bombing of civilian populations.
I understand why Guernica evokes such strong passion. I myself have never been able to find those passions properly captured by Picassoâ€™s painting. Most people think it a masterpiece. I cannot see it. I would love to be told why it is in a way I can appreciate too.