Although it does not have the same emotional impact upon modern Americans as the attack upon Pearl Harbor, today is nevertheless also a “day of infamy” in the grand scheme of world history.
It was on 26 April 1937 that Hitler’s Luftwaffe was first unleashed upon an unarmed civilian target. Beginning in the late afternoon, when the town would be at the peak of its business day, the small Basque town of Guernica was pounded by bombs and rent by machine gun fire for nearly three hours in an attack that came with absolutely no warning.
Ostensibly intended to aid the fascist cause of General Francisco Franco’s armed rebellion against Spain’s elected government, the bombing of Guernica in reality was simply an excuse to put into action theories of aerial warfare against cities. The town of Guernica had declared itself neutral in the Spanish Civil War, and it was a rather minor town that had no strategic or tactical significance to the war. But, because it had been relatively unscathed by the war up to that point, it made an ideal laboratory for determining the effectiveness of aerial bombardment. Guernica was destroyed not because there was legitimate, proximate military motive for doing so, but because the hideous experiment could be “hidden” in the cloak of war.
Guernica was almost completely destroyed by the prolonged attack and between a third to a half of its citizens were killed. Guernica immediately became a symbol of the horror of modern warfare (has warfare ever been anything but horrible?)
Pablo Picasso recorded his impression of the monstrous event in his monumental painting Guernica. The painting uses a monochromatic palette of blacks and greys to depict the stark shattering of daily life at Guernica. A horse is neighing in terror, a bull is painfully contorted, and dismembered bodies cover the foreground as a lightbulb shines nakedly over the carnage. One detail from the huge painting, Picasso’s rendering of a terrified woman throwing her hands in the air in pointless supplication, has itself become an iconic image of antiwar sentiment. The precise meaning of the painting’s contrasting images has been debated extensively ever since the painting was unveiled at the Paris exhibition of 1937; Picasso himself was notably silent on the subject, and he never offered any detailed explanation. Perhaps that is just as well, looking at the painting, the meaning of the whole piece is quite apparent.
Within a few weeks after the destruction of Guernica, there were massive protests from around the world, and there were calls for an international ban of aerial bombardment of civilian targets. However, the gruesome experiment by Hitler’s Luftwaffe had proven too successful: aerial bombardment was a highly effective means of destroying cities. By 1942, every major combatant nation in World War II had adopted some measure of the tactics which levelled Guernica. By the end of the war, millions of civilians had died, which made the slaughter at Guernica seem trivial in comparison. Were it not for Picasso’s artistic tribute, we might forget Guernica all together. But we should not. We must not.
There are no small atrocities.
Jamie Rawson Flower Mound, Texas
If you go on with this nuclear arms race,
all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.
— Winston Churchill