A town in northern Spain with a primarily Basque population, where, on April 26th, 1937, the German Luftwaffe commited the greatest atrocity of the Spanish Civil War, a horrific air raid on the city of little military value that killed hundreds of civilians.

Using a combination of incendiary bombs and high explosives, the Germans set the town ablaze, destroying all but a few factories that were thought to be of interest to Franco (despite theories that Hitler was to blame for the slaughter, most historians agree that Franco was in fact culpable). Germans also machine gunned helpless civilians as the fled the town.

Although, mild by today's standards of the horrors of modern war, in a world still unready for World War II, it was a horrible shock. More than five percent of the town's populace was killed by the attack, a figure that is astronomical by most comparisons.

Later, Pablo Picasso painted a work in black and white, representing the horrors of the bombing, entitled Guernica. The painting became as much a part of the anti-war sentiment as the dove, and is recognized by some as Picasso's masterpiece. Hidden in the work are serveral figures, including skulls and a bulls head.
What I like best about this painting is a story I've heard about it. So the story goes, when the Nazis marched on Paris, Picasso was there. The painting had been sent to New York, and it's an incredible piece, it made waves. So, the Nazis asked Picasso if he was responsible for it. And, he responded, "No. You are."

Whether it's true or not, It's a good story. If you are ever in Madrid, I highly recommend going to the Sofia Reina and seeing the painting. Although Picasso had wanted it to hang in the Prado, where it is now has given it space along side a nice collection of Picasso's pre-sketches. It is truly amazing.

Guernica (or Gernika in the Basque language) is a small town in Spain, about 30 km from Bilbao. In 1999 it had a population of around 15,600 people. It is mostly famous because it was bombed in 1937 and because of the painting Picasso made of that occurrence. However, because Guernica is very old there is much more to tell about this town.

The area around Guernica has been inhabited since 15,000 BC. There have been Roman settlements in the neighbourhood, but as the Basques are a very old people they were no doubt already there when the Romans came. Guernica itself was founded on 28 April 1366 by one Count Tello. Up until the 20th century Guernica was mainly a market town, where peasants from the surrounding country came to sell their wares.

As said before, the Basques are an ancient people who have had their own laws for centuries. By ancient tradition, they held assemblies under a tree, usually an oak, to discuss matters of law. The meeting oak in Guernica was a special one. Local assemblies from other towns used to send representatives to sessions at Guernica, where 14 men would be chosen to rule until the next meeting.

When Ferdinand of Castile became king of Spain, in exchange for the fighting the Basques had done for him, he promised to respect the ancient laws or fueros. The fueros, the codified legal customs of the Basques, are as essential to the Basque identity as their language. Over the centuries it has occurred many times that the Basques have agreed to let their country be part of a larger kingdom, as long as they could continue to rule themselves by means of the fueros. Once the Basques had agreed to live under the monarchs of Castile, each new king was obliged to come to Guernica, to stand under the Guernica Tree and pledge continuing support to the fueros.

When the Guernica Tree died in 1860 (it was 300 years old then) it was immediately replaced by a new one. On 7 October 1936, a Basque Government was installed. Its leader Aguirre took his oath under the Guernica Tree.

Mainly because of the Meeting Oak, Guernica had a special significance for the Basques. When Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola had trouble taking the Basque provinces during the Spanish Civil War, they decided to attack Guernica to break Basque morale. On Monday 26 April 1937, at 4.40 pm when the town was busy with people visiting the market, the town was bombed with splinter and incendiary bombs. When the attack ended at 7.45 pm, the shrapnel and flames had killed approximately 1645 people (in a town with a population of ca. 6000). Three days later Franco's troops occupied the town. Although all parties have later denied having had anything to do with it, the bombing was most probably a joint action by Franco, Mola, the Germans and the Italians. This atrocity inspired Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. This painting, called 'Guernica', is now world famous and can be seen in Madrid.

Miraculously, the Guernica Tree survived the bombing, as well as the Meeting House next to it. They can still be visited. In the 1940's Guernica was rebuilt with the brick architecture used in that time, along the old medieval street plan. Some people who can remember the town from before 1937 say the streets used to be straighter then, that the street plan was changed a bit to make it seem more medieval and to make up for the disappearance of the old buildings.

Today Gernika-Lumo is known as the 'city of peace'. It has hosted the Preliminary Congress of the World Association of Martyr Cities. The full congress was held later in Madrid, bringing together representatives of cities all over the world. Since then, Gernika-Lumo has been a member of this association. As part of the "Symbol for Peace" movement, Guernica has twinned with several towns, including Berga (Catalonia - 1986), Pforzheim (Germany - 1988) and Boise (Idaho, USA - 1993). The twinning agreements include co-operation in the fields of culture, education and industry.

Visitors to Guernica can find many monuments, including the Tree of course, but also a Gothic church from 1418 and a convent from 1422. There is also a Peace Museum, a museum of the history of Guernica and its significance for the Basques.


Sources: www.gernika-lumo.net and The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, a truly excellent book on the history and culture of the Basque people.

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