On Tuesday, 5 April, during his speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski compared the effects of the war in his country to the bombing of Guernica (Vizcaya) in April 1937. It was not a fortunate comparison. The collateral damage of aerial bombardment – which always occurs at all times – has nothing to do with the outright killing of civilians in a territory dominated by a military force, in this case the Russian army.
Zelenski’s allusion shows, above all, the survival of narratives based on propaganda and disinformation, which in the Spanish case was present from the first months of the civil war. The mediocrity of many authors, who make up for a lack of research by repeating old errors, is behind fallacies such as the alleged massacre in the Badajoz bullring or the naval bombardment of civilians fleeing from Malaga. There are even recent inventions, such as the case of the “Stuka experiment” on the Castellón front.
Some clichés have been maintained far beyond what is reasonable and events of limited importance are highlighted, forgetting others that are more relevant. The German-Italian bombing of Guernica, for example, has been the subject of great attention since it took place in April 1937, to the extent that Pablo Picasso named the painting of the Civil War that the Republican government had commissioned from him after the town in Biscay, but the account of what happened was long plagued by falsehoods and exaggerations on both sides.
Guernica in 1937
That account has now been largely demystified and there is virtual consensus that the death toll was under 200 (126 according to Jesús Salas Larrazábal, although the first to publish a true figure was Vicente Talón in 1970). On the other hand, very few have heard of the massacre perpetrated by militiamen in Guadalajara prison on 6 December 1936, where 282 right-wing prisoners were killed in a matter of hours. Or the murder on 12 August 1936, in the Pozo del Tío Raimundo (Madrid), of 193 prisoners who had been taken by train from Jaén, among them Bishop Manuel Basulto, who died pardoning his murderers. The latter, from the CNT, killed their victims with machine guns, in front of an infamous mob of two thousand people who watched the “show”. The same can be said of the murder of 156 prisoners on the prison ship Alfonso Pérez (Santander, 27 December 1936), or of the Republican bombing of Cabra (Córdoba), which on 7 November 1938 caused 109 civilian deaths, almost as many as in Guernica a year and a half earlier. The greatest genocide of the war – more than five thousand murders in Paracuellos del Jarama (Madrid) in November 1936 – is ignored by many, despite its obvious parallels with the current massacres in Ukraine, specifically in Bucha.
Some British authors – who enjoy undeserved exposure thanks to the global spread of the English language – make up for their lack of research by repeating false clichés that are more than 80 years old, in line with the BBC’s usual sloppiness. In 2004 a certain Francis Corby – of the Imperial War Museum, no less – described what happened in Guernica as follows
For more than three hours, Heinkel He 111 bombers, accompanied by fighters strafing the ground, dropped 45,000 kilos of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on Guernica, systematically reducing it to rubble. More than 1,600 civilians were killed, a third of the population, and almost 900 were wounded.
The paragraph is worthy of the Guinness Book of Records: not a single one of the facts is true. It ignores the involvement of Italian bombers; the most used planes were Junkers 52 trimotors, a civilian passenger transport aircraft capable of dropping bombs; the dozens of aircraft involved could not bomb for more than three hours – not even half an hour; the casualties were less than a tenth and the bombing did not destroy 70 per cent of the buildings, but less than half of them. It was the subsequent fires that destroyed much of the village, not the direct action of the bombs. The translation is also flawed: “high explosive” bombs are in our language “bombas rompedoras”, not “bombas de alta carga explosiva”.
Things have not changed much. The film Gernika, directed by Koldo Serra in 2016, is a sum of nonsense. After the fallacy of considering the government of the Popular Front a democracy, the film shows a war situation that is alien to the real one. It features a caricature of the Chief of Staff of the Condor Legion -Von Richthofen-; it includes gala balls -in black tie! for the correspondents in Bilbao in April 1937; it invents a Soviet-Communist Czech in Guernica; multi-engine horizontal bombing planes pass overhead, when the horizontal bombing planes of the Condor Legion were supposed to drop their bombs at an altitude of over a thousand metres, so that the insurance tape could be unrolled; the telephone conferences with New York are instantaneous! and the action culminates in a shoddy video-game aesthetic. It is difficult to explain such nonsense, although an excess of Chacoli (traditional liquor distilled in the basque region) cannot be ruled out.
What happened was manipulated from the first moments by both sides. The first to do so was the British journalist George L. Steer, a correspondent for the Times of London, who in 1938 published The Tree of Guernika, a highly sectarian and error-ridden account. He began by saying that the bombing took place on a market day, as if it were a normal day in a quiet village, when the front was some 15 km away, getting closer, and the military command had forbidden the arrival of people with goods for the market.
Soldiers of the Nationalist side removing debris in Guernica
The Popular Front government published a death toll of 1,645, more than ten times higher than the real figure. The 126 dead, on the other hand, were not direct victims of the bombs, but the result of the collapse of two poorly constructed shelters: the Calzada and the Santa María shelters. Finally, the village was located next to a bridge – the Rentería bridge – which was the last bridge before the sea and the obligatory crossing point for the heavy and motorised equipment of the retreating troops. It was the aircraft’s poor aim that caused most of the bombs to fall on the town, which incidentally was home to three weapons factories: Unceta (Astra handguns), Talleres de Guernica (aviation bombs, fuses and warheads for artillery and anti-submarine depth charges) and Beistegui (machine guns).
On the other side, and concerned about maintaining the support of German aviation, which he considered essential, Franco supported blaming the destruction of the Biscayan town on the actions of sappers, which was untrue. Many years passed before this lie began to be rectified. In July 1949 an article in the magazine Ejército (no. 114, pages 35 to 44) -written shortly before his death by General José Martínez Esparza, a witness to the occupation of the town- already admitted that the air force had acted, but the unofficial rectification came in 1971, in the monograph Vizcaya by the Military Historical Service, based on truthful information. A year earlier, in September 1970, the magazine Ejército (no. 368, page 74) had already published a laudatory review of the book Arde Guernica by Vicente Talón, which began as follows: “On 26 April 1937 the town of Guernica was destroyed by the planes of the Condor Legion”. The opposing side – not to mention some pseudo-historians – took longer to rectify the initial falsehoods, both those of Basque nationalists and those of the insolvent George Steer. As late as 1984 I heard a Basque nationalist, in Guernica itself, speak of 4,000 dead.
Some of the basic facts were ignored or manipulated. Steer, for example, did not cite the involvement of Italian aircraft. The conservative journalist wanted to encourage British rearmament in the face of the threat that Nazi Germany was beginning to pose, and limited the responsibility for what happened to German aircraft, whose might could be used against Britain, in which he was right.
The most prominent myth was the assumption that the bombing was intended to damage a symbol of Basque self-government, since Guernica was the Casa de Juntas, where the kings of Castile historically swore the Biscayan charters. As the building was on the outskirts of the town, it was not damaged and the head of the Northern Army, General Emilio Mola, ordered it to be protected. The first to do so were the Tetuan Regulars, who were soon replaced by a company of Requetés from Navarre, under the command of Captain Jaime del Burgo.
Of course, the forces that occupied the town did not kill a single civilian. On learning of the effects of the bombing, General Franco forbade Italian and German aircraft from carrying out similar actions. Ukraine, therefore, is nothing like Guernica.