A Different Guernica

Pablo Picasso: Guernica, oil on canvas, May 1–June 4, 1937
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid/© 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso: Guernica, oil on canvas, May 1–June 4, 1937

In Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre, the historian Xabier Irujo reveals the hitherto unknown fact that the destruction of the historic Basque town of Guernica was planned by Nazi minister Hermann Göring as a gift for Hitler’s birthday, April 20. Guernica, the parliamentary seat of Biscay province, had not as yet been dragged into the Spanish civil war and was without defenses. Logistical problems delayed Göring’s master plan. As a result, Hitler’s birthday treat had to be postponed until April 26.

Besides celebrating the Führer’s birthday, the attack on Guernica served as a tactical military and aeronautical experiment to test the Luftwaffe’s ability to annihilate an entire city and crush the morale of its people. The Condor Legion’s chief of staff, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, painstakingly devised the operation to maximize human casualties, and above all deaths. A brief initial bombing at 4:30 PM drove much of the population into air-raid shelters. When Guernica’s citizens emerged from these shelters to rescue the wounded, a second, longer wave of bombing began, trapping them in the town center from which there was no escape. Low-flying planes strafed the streets with machine-gun fire. Those who had managed to survive were incinerated by the flames or asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen. Three hours of coordinated air strikes leveled the city and killed over 1,500 civilians. In his war diary, Richthofen described the operation as “absolutely fabulous!…a complete technical success.” The Führer was so thrilled that, two years later, he ordered Richthofen to employ the same bombing techniques, on an infinitely greater scale, to lay waste to Warsaw, thereby setting off World War II.

The morning after the bombing, Radio Bilbao broadcast a statement by the Basque president José Antonio Aguirre breaking the news to the world that Guernica had been annihilated by the Luftwaffe. The Basque and Spanish communities in Paris went into immediate action. When the poet Juan Larrea, the director of information at the Spanish embassy, heard the news from the Basque artist José Maria Ucelay outside the Champs-Elysées metro station, he jumped into a cab and drove to the Café de Flore where Picasso hung out.1

Four months earlier, the artist had been commissioned to paint a mural for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the upcoming Paris World’s Fair (L’Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne). As the most ardent promoter of Spain’s pavilion, Larrea, who had been instrumental in having Picasso appointed director of the Prado, realized that the obliteration of Guernica would provide the artist with the very subject he had been seeking. When Picasso claimed to have no idea what a bombed town looked…

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