April 26, 2011

74th anniversary of the destruction of Gernika

Gernika Oak (source)
Gernika is the only town I know in the Basque Country that lacks of an old quarter. Everything, excepting some peripheral buildings, is new, built in the last seventy or so years.

Gernika and not Guernica, mind you, because Gernika is the Basque spelling and also the Spanish spelling Guernica is misleading in English, making people mispronounce Gwarnikah, when it is actually Garnikah - pronunciation is exactly the same in both languages: Basque and Spanish, only spelling changes. 

74 years ago the town of Gernika, the historical capital of Biscay, was totally destroyed by the systematic bombardment by the Nazi Condor Legion, sent to support the fascists in spite of the supposed international embargo to both fighting sides. This fact underlines that United Kingdom (more or less reluctantly seconded by France) supported the Fascist side in the Spanish Civil War, by means of impeding the legitimate government from getting international support (only some lesser, costly and highly conditional Soviet support arrived besides the enthusiastic but ill equipped international brigades), while the Fascists got all the support they wanted and more from Italy and Nazi Germany.

Before the destruction (source)
In fact they were Italian brigades the ones that marched over most of Biscay after German airplanes bombed not just Gernika but also Durango and other localities. In fact it was largely an Italian and German full fledged invasion with the complacency of Great Britain, who forced France to accept this arrangement (and later used it as cannon fodder against Germany in WWII anyhow). 

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25224, Guernica, Ruinen74 years ago, in April 26 1937, at 15:37, sirens scared the town. It was monday, market day. For the first time in history a town was totally razed by an air bombardment. Years later, as other cities like Dresden or Hiroshima were also totally razed in the course of WWII, Gernika would seem by comparison pecata minuta, but in it its day it truly impressed the global collective psyche. It was not so much the few thousand dead (not many compared with the million who died in the whole war) but the fact that a civilian town had been so barbarically razed, looking to cause terror rather than military goals. 

In addition the town, as historical capital of Biscay, held and still holds an oak tree that was symbol of Basque freedoms, under which the Parliament of Biscay had been gathering since memory exists, since at least the 11th century (eventually a building was built by the tree). and where the monarchs of Castile (later Spain) took oath of respecting the Basque self-rule. Then of course the painting by Picasso also helped to emphasize the horror and confusion that such a war crime caused all around.

A few days later the Italian columns took the whole district, marching on an ill defended Bilbao, from where I now write these lines, and from there westwards to Cantabria and eventually Asturias too. Eventually they would take the whole state, ending the Republic and suppressing the long-lived self-rule of Biscay and Gipuzkoa. The scars of this war and the fascist dictatorship that ensued for decades, effectively destroying two generations, still persist. 

Because, Gandhi dixit, violence engenders violence.

The "Guernica" to Gernika (in Gernika)


  1. Unbelievable. I had never seen photos before, and had always imagined it to be a much smaller place. It looks like Dresden after the bombing.

  2. It is (and was) a lot smaller than Dresden (maybe 10,000 people nowadays) but the kind of destruction is the same.

    Nothing except peripheral buildings like (ironically) the weapons industries and the potentially strategical bridge was saved.

    Also in the periphery (the former village of Lumo) was the tree and Parliament House, which also survived. The fascists blamed the retreating republican troops, go figure!

  3. The destruction of Gernika
    was played up by the Left but that proved to be to Hitlers advantage as it made the British think that London would be leveled by the German bombers in a couple of weeks. People were thinking in terms of a Hiroshima level of damage and that made them very wary of starting a war with Germany. (US jornalists were disapointed thaT DIDN'T HAPPEN in 1939 and talked about a Phoney War)

    Nowadays Chamberlain is said to have followed a stupid policy the fact is that a policy which risked war was politically impossible. the people would not have supported it.

  4. Uh? The Brits had radars and German air superiority was not enough for anything. The fact that the Nazis had to resort to early missiles like the V1 (failure) and V2 (too little too late) weapons, clearly indicates that the Luftwaffe was not in any position to defeat the RAF, much less allow for an invasion across the Channel.

    The true objective anyhow of the Battle of Britain was not to bomb the English to submission but to destroy the RAF, which failed thanks mostly to the radar.

    But, what did the massacre of Gernika inaugurate was without doubt an era where whole towns could be destroyed almost overnight by air power, a situation sadly reminding of Swift's dystopia of Laputa (Gulliver's Travels). While it was not so much the Nazis who did it but the Allies in fact, what started in Gernika ended in Nagasaki.

    It should be rather outraging, I'd say, that the Allies took up such a Nazi method of democide and war crimes and ranked it up, first in Europe with the massive bombings of so many cities (Dresden is the most remembered because it was flattened down like Gernika) and then in Japan with the first and only nuclear weapons ever used (at least that we know with any certainty) against civilians.

    The Nazis opened the Gates of Hell in Gernika but then every other political-militar leader went through them eagerly.

  5. You are right, Maju. I would like to think that the USA, having bombed Dresden and Tokyo with conventional weapons, and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons, would stop to ponder what is worthy of our ideals before doing anything else that is similar. Sadly, it is not a sure bet.

  6. I feel absolutely astonished with the image of Gernika after destruction. I have no words to describe it. Well, maybe: it seems extracted from a film.

    The most accepted number of victims is 126, but some claim a number as high as 10.000. Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure.

  7. Britain never faced the full weight of the Luftwaffe and the Germans had the capacity to take out the entire radar system by destroying the masts (it seems they did not understand their significance).

    In any event the "Battle Of Britain' was Hitlers deception operation against Stalin not a genuine effort to crush Britain. In fact during the height of the BoB the British were losing more pilots in raids on the German barges assembling in French ports than over Britain.

    Before the war people had a very exaggerated idea of how effective bombing would be. Politicians, especially Churchill, exaggerated the strength of the Luftwaffe and these two factors really did produce widespread fear of what would happen in another war. And on top of that WW1 had knocked the stuffing out of the British (including the ruling class).

    Mass killing of non combatants though bombing was a new technology so you can't say that the military's historical predecessors would have done any different.

    WW1 ended with an armistice and the willingness to stop the killing proved to be a serious mistake when the Germans started another WW a generation later. Germans didn't start any more after what happened to them in WW2. If that's what it took for the Germans to get the message then it was justified.

    Other wars are not so clear cut admittedly, but combatants who do not present an clearly identifiable target bring destruction on their community (unless they are fighting a totally moral enemy in a literary fairy tale world)

  8. You don't obviously understand anything re. the World Wars - and those who don't understand the past, risk repeating it.

    WWI was an interimperialist war caused by Germany surpassing the UK in GDP (just as China will in relation to the USA by the end of this decade). I would not really blame Germany of WWI: it was a complex multilateral militarist buildup that became the proverbial gunpowder barrel on which everybody is sitting and can explode at any time. Germany did not even have an imperialist plan then: it just supported its ally Austria when it was attacked by Russia, which in turn supported Serbia when it was attacked by Austria, who acted much like the US does in AfPak, forcibly demanding the extradition of a major terrorist.

    One just wonders why did France and Britain intervened instead of mediating and the reason is obvious: they wanted to destroy or otherwise weaken Germany.

    After WWI, Germany was forced to immense and quite unjustified war reparations and other punishments. These reparations essentially assured that Germany was in perpetual debt bondage towards the allies: this obviously favored the rise of Hitler, who unilaterally canceled all those impositions.

    However this is not the true origin of WWII: the real origin was the Nazi plans to merge anticommunism, drang-nach-osten and colonialism in one single invasion of the USSR, which was to become "the India of Germany". This would have placed Germany again ahead of the UK and maybe even of the USA (which then looked to control China and the whole Pacific Ocean basin and therefore to challenge the Japanese version of the Monroe Doctrine: Asia for the Asians... meaning the Japanese).

    In order to prevent that Germany could attack the USSR (which would be no casus belli), the UK and its French cannon fodder declared war to Germany upon the invasion of Poland. The Nazis were then forced to fight first in the West, with relative but not total success. However their mind was all the time in the invasion of the USSR at least up to the A-A (Arkangelsk-Astrakhan) line, which would have guaranteed them a colonial empire able to compete with the whole US-British joint areas of influence.

    They were both interimperialist wars but Germany only had a clear imperialist plan in WWII, not in WWI, when it rather depended on bilateral agreements, specially with Austria and the Ottoman Empire, but also with other countries, to supply its economic needs.

    There's no German specific guilt in these two wars. One can blame them (but also most other Europeans) for the Holocaust of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and revolutionaries... but the wars were as much fault of Germany and Japan as they were of Britain and the USA (and others). Blaming Germany for the wars is simply put stupid, one sided and arrogant. And excusing on that imaginary blame unjustifiable war crimes such as the flattening of Dresden or the nuclear massacres of Japan is just another form of Nazism: Anglosaxon pseudo-democratic Nazism.

  9. To say that Germany's growing GDP caused the war is a truism, a circular argument. Germany may, or may not, had aggressive intentions but once Germany became an economic powerhouse they were regarded with suspicion by Britain and France, especially after the Russians were temporarily removed from the equation by the 1905 revolution.

    You should read a Der Spiegel article called 'Chinamarica against the world'
    "China is talking down the dollar to serve its own interests. When the dollar depreciates against the euro and the yen, the yuan declines as well, because the Chinese currency is pegged to the dollar. And the declining yuan helps boost Chinese exports to Europe and elsewhere in Asia.""

    If Germany had done what a few far sighted generals suggested and attacked France in 1905 (when Russia was in chaos and Britain had a tiny army) they could have won a decisive victory. So it turns out that the lesson of history is as a well known principle of strategy puts it: 'concentrate force against weakness'.

    By waiting the Germans lost their chance and the encirclement by a recovered Russia allied with France and Britain meant that Germany needed a war for military reasons not economic. The timing of the war was determined by their ship building program and the widening of the Kiel ship canal for big ships. It was predictable that the Germany would start the war in 1914. Is that in hindsight? No, Fisher the half Malaysian head of the British navy predicted the timing before hand Here

  10. Germany once cultivated a lot British friendship (not French though, as issues like Alsace and then also Morocco stayed in between). Britain and Prussia had long been allies and this continued with Bismark, who sought to isolate France.

    But when Germany asked the UK to form an economical bloc, London (enjoying a huge colonial empire as only advantage) snubbed them and sought the French alliance. This was critical blow to the potential of the Berlin-London cooperation and joint hegemony.

    And we cannot blame Germany for this: it was Britain's classical strategy of continental balance which caused this. Continental balance and splendid isolation were the pillars of British policy in Europe. We can describe this strategy as calculated thalassocracy but specially as pitting European powers against each other for the benefit of Britain. When France was the largest power, the UK sought to isolate an weaken it; when it was Germany, London sought the French alliance against Berlin, etc. Their only goal: staying themselves as leaders without much direct effort, using others as useful fools, as cannon fodder.

    In any case there was no German aggression in WWI: it was an explosive situation of inter-imperialist competition red-white hot and it was triggered by what would be considered today as a terrorist attack and an issue of alleged protection of terrorists by Serbia (Serbia would claim sovereignty and even human rights maybe, etc.) All were equally aggressors and victims, one could easily say.

    "If Germany had done what a few far sighted generals suggested and attacked France in 1905 (when Russia was in chaos and Britain had a tiny army) they could have won a decisive victory. So it turns out that the lesson of history is as a well known principle of strategy puts it: 'concentrate force against weakness'".

    I do not think that Germany wanted to attack France: Germany had already defeated France in 1871 and occupied part of it for many years, annexing the German-speaking border areas. What else could Germany gain from attacking France? Even in WWII, when it effectively conquered it in full, Germany did not want from France anything but neutrality and Alsace-Lorraine. Not even Hitler wanted to conquer France actually: just to stop being bothered by them.

    What do you do with a conquered country? It is a problem, not any asset.

    What you want is friendly free countries, unless you are willing to pay the economical, moral and political cost of endless wars. Because conquest is just the beginning of the war.

    And wars are costly: they do not just destroy lives, they also destroy liberty.

    "... a recovered Russia allied with France"...

    Technically Russia was a German ally, mind you. However the Germans plaid it a bit wrong when they favored Austria over Russia a bit in the Balcans.

    In any case, Germany could not win by attacking, nor wanted war. It just wanted to prevent a war, specially a two-fronts war.

    If they would have attacked France, as you suggest, they would have been pushed to war with the UK and lost equally. War was always a bad option for Germany.

    However one can imagine they could have cultivated the French a bit more. This is probably a weakness inherited from the pro-British Bismarkian system of alliances. In the end, it was the Brits who did that.

    So Germany's error (if any) was not to realize that their main real (even if hidden) enemy was Britain and act consequently by isolating them (instead of isolating France).

    Actually a bit of that happened with the early ECM (proto-EU) but with the entrance of Britain it was dismantled, because the last thing Britain wants (at least traditionally) is a European confederation. It will rather become a serf of Washington instead.

  11. Whatever the case, what the fuck! You are first blaming Germany of aggression and then say they should have attacked earlier.

    The latter really gives me the reason in the sense that it was something at least partly thrown onto Germany and not sought by them.

    But it also underlines your fascist view of the World: where everything is ok as long as it serves some goal, goal that I cannot discern clearly but that it seems to equate with imperialist nationalist instincts (as their logic is surely flawed).

    Does the goal justify the means? Does imposing a military occupation (instead of negotiating a peace) to Japan justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

    Most would say no... fascists would say yest because they have predatory instinct and love to jump to the jugular of their foes and prey: kill them before they can get up, right?

    I have my reasons to think that people who think that way are not properly human, at least not human in the way I understand humanity.

  12. Britain had subsidized Prussia but once Bismark turned Prussia into a potential European hegemon. After 1905 the other countries took fright and banded together even though they had been deadly rivals not long before. In the same way the Germans took fright at the inexorably strengthening alliance between France Russia and Britain. Bismark's Russian alliance was a dead letter long before it officially lapsed. (in WW1 Italy fought against a country it was ostensibly allied before the war)

    The Germans were seeking to isolate France and Morocco (the First Moroccan Crisis occurred in 1905) was an attempt to do that but the Germans found that Britain was no longer willing to stand aside and let them humiliate France.

    Now Germany was only a contender for hegemony because it had a large population and a dynamic economy so in a sense it is correct to say that the economic success of Germany caused WW1 But countries who become economically powerful also increase their military potential and cannot avoid becoming a threat to their neighbors ("The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep").

    As it happens the British politician who was keenest for an alliance with Germany was also the one keenest on the british empire forming a protectionist economic bloc ("Imperial Preference") namely: Joseph Chamberlain.

    I don't think that anyone ought to be aggressive (I am a very timid person), I do believe that it is best to see the world as it is and in the real world it often pays to be aggressive. If you doubt that what about the conquistadors or the settlers in North America, the USA is a very good example; it's built on taking land away from other people.

    I think the Europeans do not go in for conquest any more because that kind of expansion is driven by demographic dynamism.

    As for fascism, well Ernst Nolte said it best "Capitalism is indeed the soil of fascism, but the plant only grows to imposing strength if an exorbitant dose of Marxist fertilizer is added to the soil".

  13. "Europeans" (European powers) do go out in conquest (see Libya, Ivory Coast) but mostly they do not because they have become vassals of the USA, so they go under its leadership to Afghanistan, Iraq and other colonial ventures (Haiti, etc.)

    What happens is that direct colonial control is acknowledged as not stable and too costly and hence undesirable in most cases. Also that nuclear weapons make war a much more risky enterprise than used to be: Germany survived two defeats, today not even victory can grant survival.

  14. Leo en tu perfil que eres vasco asi que supongo que entenderás perfectamente aunque escriba en español. Soy Nerim de Cajon secreto, de donde sacaste una de las fotos de Gernika. Como habrás podido leer en el blog, mi amatxu era de Gernika y vivió junto a sus hermanos y padres el bombardeo, y lo que escribi en el blog, es lo que guardo en el recuerdo de todo lo que me contaron mis antecesores de lo que sucedió ese espantoso día.

    Gracias por visitar mi blog.

    Un abrazo

  15. Mila esker nirea bisitatzeagatik. Muchas gracias por visitar el mío, Nerim.


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