It was 4.40 pm on market day in the pleasant Basque town of Guernica. As the locals went quietly about their shopping, chatting with friends or watching the arrival of animals to the market, they had no idea of the horror that was about to be unleashed. Though Spain was caught in the midst of a bitter Civil War (1936-1939), Guernica had been pretty much untouched by the fighting, mainly because it had no resident armed forces, no military value and no means of protecting itself. That meant nothing to the German Condor Legion, Nazi allies of the Spanish Fascists, rebels who had launched a coup d’etat against the democratically elected government.
That day, Monday April 26 1937, the Condor Legion unloaded the world’s first large-scale bombardment from the air. There had been fears of attack from the sky even back in the First World War, when terrified Londoners had feared that the Germans might drop bombs from their airships. That came to nothing, so when the bombardment began on that April afternoon, it was an attack that the world had never seen before, as shocking as Hiroshima.
Many people have heard of the attack of Guenica but it is worth pointing out that the Condor Legion did not just arrive, drop its bombs, and then leave. The bombardment lasted for three hours, and remember, this was an attack against innocent civilians. Mark Kurlansky describes the scene in The Basque History of the World:
The bombers dropped an unusual payload, splinter and incendiary bombs, a cocktail of shrapnel and flame … As people fled, the fighters came in low and chased them down with heavy-caliber machine guns.
The attack launched a huge outbreak of terror and disgust, but it also had an impact on artists and writers. One of them was the young English poet John Betjeman (1906-1984). A witty poet with a deft and memorable turn of phrase, Betjeman was already on his way to becoming one of Britain’s best-loved authors. When I was a child, most families had a copy of his selected poems somewhere on the shelf. Later he would become an esteemed broadcaster, whose mellifuous commentary on our Victorian past would be delivered in a distinctive avuncular style.
As a child of wealth and privilege, Betjeman must have felt very detached from the reality of events at Guernica, because it inspired one of his most famous poems, Slough (1937) in which he bemoans the spread of soulless suburban sprawl:
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!
Even today, many people love quoting those verses, and it always elicits a chuckle. However, I wonder how many would enjoy it if they knew what had inspired it. The poem seems a particularly callous reaction to the bombardment (and it gets worse as it goes on). In Betjeman’s defence, they didn’t have wall-to-wall press coverage, graphic newspaper images or rolling TV news at the time. No one would write a poem like that about the conflict in Syria today, for example.
Before commerical flights, Spain was also much further away from Britain than it is now. The very next year, prime minister Neville Chamberlain could talk about the conflict in Czechoslovakia as
a quarrel in a far-away country of whom we know nothing.
If the Basque Country seemed far away to Betjeman, it certainly did not to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The massacre inspired one of his greatest works, and possibly the finest painting of the twentieth century: Guernica. You can see it today in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the city where the young Picasso studied art.
The painting has a room all of its own in the museum. It is also accompanied by various photos showing the construction of the artwork. While Betjeman was making cheap jokes about suburbia, Picasso was entering the heart of darkness, channelling his rage into a stark monochrome cry of despair.
The work captures the real-life events, for example the domestic animals caught up in the slaughter in the midst of market day. However, note also Picasso’s genius in avoiding pinning his painting solely on one event. There are no flags, no soldiers in recognisable uniforms, no swastikas or other symbols. The painting is named Guernica but it is about all war, and thus has the universality of great art.
My favourite story about this painting comes from the Second World War (I quote from memory here because I don’t have my original source in front of me). During their occupation of Paris, a German officer came to Picasso’s studio. Looking up at the painting of Guernica, the Nazi asked “Did you do this?”. To which Picasso replied, “No. You did.”