80 years on from the Guernica bombing and Spain is still struggling to honour historical memory

The morning of April 26, 1937 dawned like any other in Guernica, northern Spain. It was market day, and as the sun rose, 10,000 locals, refugees and peasants came to gather in the traditional Basque town’s centre.

80 years on from the Guernica bombing and Spain is still struggling to honour historical memory
The ruins of Guernica, shortly after the bombing in 1937. Photo: AFP archive

The Conversation

But this was not the typical day of trading that they may have expected. The country was in the midst of civil war and by 4.30pm chaos had descended.

For more than three hours, in support of the insurgent Francoist cause, the Nazi Condor Legion and fascist Italian Legionary Air Force dropped 31 tons of munitions onto Guernica. The aerial bombing made ruins of 85.22 percent of the buildings. And, though the figure is now disputed, the Basque government said it killed 1,654 people and wounded a further 889.

The ruins of Guernica, shortly after the bombing in 1937. Photo: AFP archive

In 1936, a failed coup by a group of fascist military generals against the legitimate Spanish Republican government had triggered what would become a bloody three-year civil war in Spain, leading to 36 years of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. By the time of the attack, Guernica was host to Republican civilian refugees, and a provisional war hospital had been set up. But neither made it a key military target – so why the bombing?

Guernica, the symbol

The town was not a major centre like Madrid or Barcelona. But after a defeat in Guadalajara while trying to take Madrid, the insurgent Francoists learnt the importance of modest but symbolically powerful victories. Since the nearby city of Bilbao was still resisting their attacks, these fascists saw in Guernica a guaranteed victory.

In similar fashion, Nazi Germany never perceived Spain as a strategic ally, and was not particularly interested in the Spanish war. Instead, it used it as a field in which to experiment with new strategies before World War II. The Nazis justified the Guernica attack as one of strategic importance in the support of the francoist advance on Bilbao. But the truth is that as the bombing came to an end, the Rentería Bridge, the strategic main access route to the town, remained untouched.

For the Francoists, Guernica was a symbol of Basque resistance and a plurinational Spain threatening their project of a totalitarian regime. As General Emilio Mola, in charge of the insurgent military campaign in the north, would say:

“It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do”.

For each party involved in the attack, Guernica was symbolic. But what they couldn’t expect was that it would come to represent far more than just what happened on 26 April, 1937.

Guernica memorialised

The Paris World Fair, due to open in May 1937, was the perfect pretext for the legitimate Republican government to tell the world of the horrors of the undemocratic fascist uprising in Spain, and the growing power of fascism in Europe. Spanish authorities commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural portraying the situation. He accepted, but warned he might not be able to fulfil the assignment.

His canvas was blank until the bombing of Guernica. Then, in little more than a month, the piece – a striking depiction of the fascist attack on the town – was ready.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is now on show in Madrid's Reina Sofia. Photo: AFP

It was more than just a symbol of the horrors of war in Spain: from World War II until the present day, Picasso’s Guernica has become a reminder of the atrocities of all global wars, which has made it an inconvenient masterpiece for those trying to ignore the past or justify it, when it has no justification.

Forgetting history

To commemorate the painting’s 80th year, Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, has organised a temporary exhibition, which quickly garnered criticism from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory for its lack of historical context.

It presents a thorough evolution of Picasso’s personal aesthetic, but in a shockingly ahistorical fashion. The word “Francoism” does not appear once, and there seems to be a reluctance to use terms such as “civil war” or “fascism”. It is said that the Condor Legion bombed the town but the role Franco and the insurgents played remains unexplained. Exhibition curators stated that “the political context is not as present as one would expect but many have already done so and this is not going to disappear”.

However, this lack of contextual memory may lead to an unhistorical interpretation of the world. Spain is still struggling to apply legislation on historical memory passed in 2007, aimed at recognising the rights of the victims of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship.

The law enables families to apply to restore the honour of anyone convicted of a political crime during Franco’s rule. It also requires that symbols including plaques, street names and statues, honouring Franco and his regime are removed. However, a UN report has found that this rule has been deprived of funding since 2012, and in some places ignored altogether.

Spain turning its back on history is already having dreadful consequences, giving clear proof of how alive “sociological Francoism” is – even now that Spain is a democratic state, Francoist social practices are still around. It is not a crime to be a Franco apologist but mocking Franco or the fascist symbols can be. The real terrorism, the policy of terror that the Franco regime practised, is still unpunished, and Francoism is continuing to victimise people in present-day Spain.

80 years on from the Guernica bombing, Spain should be using this anniversary to remember its past and honour the victims of war. Now both painting and town should more than ever stand for the fundamental importance of human rights, and against repression. The symbolic value of these places of memory cannot be ignored any longer.

By Federico López-Terra, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies, Swansea University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

READ ALSO: Fascist salutes as Franco minister is buried in Spain

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Will Spain have a sixth coronavirus wave?

While Covid infections are rising across Europe, Spain has managed to keep cases and hospitalisations low so far this autumn. But there are already signs things may be changing. 

people walk without masks on ramblas barcelona during covid times
Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave but will there be a sixth wave? Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Coronavirus cases have been rising quickly across Europe since October but not so in Spain, which has maintained one of the lowest infection, hospitalisation and death rates on the continent. 

According to prestigious medical publication The Lancet, Spain could well be on the verge of reaching herd immunity, a statement the country’s Health Minister tends to agree with.  

READ ALSO: Has Spain almost reached herd immunity?

Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks. 

Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place. 

READ MORE: What Covid-19 restrictions are in place in Spain’s regions in November?

And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus. 

On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.

From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.

A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds. 

Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020. 

With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?

According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.

The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year. 

The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths. 

Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims. 

If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states

It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths. 

two elderly women in san sebastian during covid times
The vaccination rate among over 70s in Spain is almost 100 percent. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases. 

“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España

“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40. 

The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.

Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated. 

“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a  “critical point of regrowth”  and that it has once again become the “epicentre”  of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.

Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?

Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.

The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent.