Raids on Guernica

Raids on Guernica made civilians the targets of military assaults in the Spanish Civil War, indicating Francisco Franco’s ties to other fascist governments.

Summary of Event

Probably the most notorious event linked with war to precede Hitler’s “final solution,” the bombing of a completely civilian target in the Basque area of Spain—the town of Guernica—revealed to the world the tactics of Spain’s General Francisco Franco and his ability to enlist the aid of fascist dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. [kw]Raids on Guernica (Apr. 26, 1937)
[kw]Guernica, Raids on (Apr. 26, 1937)
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Guernica
Guernica, bombing raids
[g]Spain;Apr. 26, 1937: Raids on Guernica[09450]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 26, 1937: Raids on Guernica[09450]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr. 26, 1937: Raids on Guernica[09450]
Franco, Francisco
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Spanish Civil War
Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;Spanish Civil War

By April, 1937, the civil war in Spain between Republicans and Nationalist troops fighting under Franco had been raging for some months. Many Republicans fled to France to live and carry out raids across the border. Ill equipped, they depended on the hospitality of and news carried by peasants in the Basque region of Spain, including Guernica.

The Republican forces had also received much-needed assistance from the American volunteer fighters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, although that brigade failed in its objectives and was ultimately disbanded without having contributed to the war in a palpable way. Nevertheless, writers and authors began to take notice of this war, most notably Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and several short stories. These works were precursors to reactions to the bombing of Guernica, which created the largest artistic protest since the introduction of the use of mustard gas in World War I.

A number of studies have shed light on the genesis of the bombing raid on Guernica. One actor in this drama who has often been ignored is Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Apparently, Mussolini had been in constant contact with Franco about the “Basque problem.” With intelligence assistance from Franco’s troops, Mussolini had singled out the town of Guernica as a target whose destruction would send a message to the provinces. Having chosen Guernica as a likely target, Mussolini met on several occasions with Hitler. Hitler’s role in the bombing went far beyond his action in dispatching the German bombers that attacked Guernica. All three dictators knew that Guernica constituted a civilian target. Only with Mussolini’s discussion with Hitler was the bombing of Guernica finalized as part of Hitler’s plans to “impress” the world with the extent of Germany’s military might. Hitler’s easy agreement to bomb civilians in another country served to prefigure future German actions during World War II.

The attack on Guernica surprised many contemporary observers because Germany had largely left Spain to its own struggles in its civil war. Although Franco and Hitler shared similar right-wing philosophies, they were not on particularly friendly terms with each other. Mussolini and Hitler had developed far more amicable relations, however, and that is why Mussolini’s actions as a go-between were so important to carrying out the bombing raid on Guernica.

Early on the morning of April 26, 1937, while it was still dark, the people of Guernica were awakened by the unfamiliar sound of waves of high-flying German bombers. No fighter planes accompanied these bombers because no resistance was expected. The bombers soon released their payloads of solid and shrapnel bombs over the town. When they landed, the solid bombs obliterated entire buildings and started fires throughout the town. The shrapnel bombs split apart on impact, spraying fragmented pieces across a wide area.

As more people were roused from sleep or interrupted in their chores by German planes and the sound of falling bombs, they rushed into the streets, where most were cut down by pieces of shrapnel bombs. Unsure of what was happening, many people who lived on nearby farms made the mistake of running to Guernica in a vain attempt to rescue relatives and friends. Some survivors later spoke of climbing into their root cellars until they could hear nothing overhead; a few managed to escape into the countryside and found shelter in areas less devastated by the bombing. Reports about how long the bombing lasted differ, but some scholars have estimated that the attack itself may have lasted little more than an hour. A tremendous number of bombs were dropped in that time, destroying people, houses, churches, and a hospital.

Other Basque villages tried to assist the survivors of Guernica, sharing the few medical supplies they had, and additional assistance came from France. The destruction was so complete that at the conclusion of World War II, some eight years later, the town of Guernica had not been rebuilt.


Despite this attempt to halt their efforts, the Republicans continued to conduct even more raids from across the French border against Nationalist targets. Although most Basque residents stopped taking up arms against Franco, they provided secret assistance to the rebels. Franco had proved that he could call on Germany’s powerful military resources with the intercession of the Italian government, but the destruction of Guernica was not truly a triumph for the leadership of Spain, Italy, or Germany.

The bombing of civilians spoke volumes about Franco’s character and encouraged a growing distrust of Hitler and his motives—a conviction that was reinforced during the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Artists throughout the world responded to the horror of the bombing. Pablo Picasso Picasso, Pablo created his powerful and enduring antiwar painting titled Guernica, Guernica (Picasso) and Paul Éluard Éluard, Paul was inspired to write his famous poem “La Liberté,” “Liberté, La” (Éluard)[Liberté, La] copies of which were later dropped in bundles across war-torn France by the RAF in 1940. It has been estimated that some twenty thousand poems were written by five thousand poets in response to the Spanish Civil War, and many of these poems were written about Guernica. Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Guernica
Guernica, bombing raids

Further Reading

  • Alpert, Michael. A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Well-researched analysis of all the international elements involved in the Spanish Civil War. Chapter 10 discusses the events at Guernica. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • MacDonald, Nancy. Homage to the Spanish Exiles: Voices from the Spanish Civil War. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1987. Discusses the value of the work of the Basque rebels and those exiled to France during the war.
  • Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. New York: E. P. Dutton, 2002. Follows the literal and figurative journey of the painting since its creation to present an examination of art’s importance to human lives.
  • North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The Crime of Guernica. New York: Author, 1937. One of the first published reactions of North Americans (particularly U.S. citizens) to the bombings.
  • Oppler, Ellen C., ed. Picasso’s Guernica: Illustrations, Introductory Essay, Documents, Poetry, Criticism, Analysis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Collection of materials presents scholarly discussion of the political motives behind the raids on Guernica and the artistic impulse these actions unleashed.
  • Pérez, Janet, and Wendell Aycock, eds. The Spanish Civil War in Literature. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1990. Collection of essays discussing literary reactions to the Spanish Civil War, including the bombing of Guernica.
  • Thomas, Gordon. The Day Guernica Died. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975. Presents a blow-by-blow account of the atrocities at Guernica.
  • Thomas, Gordon, and Max Morgan Witts. Guernica, the Crucible of World War II. 1975. Reprint. Chelsea, Mich.: Scarborough House, 1991. Discusses how Guernica prefigured further atrocities and military campaigns during World War II and the relationships among Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler.

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Picasso Exhibits Guernica