Gernika 07/70

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The small but infamous town of Gernika in Northern Spain, in the Basque country, has the sad task of remembering some even sadder events that took place seventy years ago today. 70 years in 2007 – hence ‘07/70’ as the motive for this year’s memorial acts.

The bombing of Gernika was an aerial attack on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War by planes of the German ‘Legion Condor’ and the subordinate Italian ‘Aviazione Legionaria’. Both air force units had been invited by Spain’s infamous General Franco. The air raid was called ‘Operation Rügen’ and resulted in widespread destruction and civilian deaths in the town held by the Republican side. The town, once the ancient capital of the Basques, at the time had a nominal population of around 5,000 and is thought to have also sheltered numerous refugees fleeing into this Republican safe haven. Also the raid was held on a Monday, which happened to be the market day in this small town. Over 1,600 civilians perished in this, the world’s first sustained aerial bombardment of a civilian population, with 889 wounded, according to official Basque government figures released at the time.

But whilst the images of Gernika’s destruction are etched indelibly into the world’s consciousness – and in the minds of a rapidly dwindling number of survivors – the 70th anniversary is causing barely a ripple in Spain itself. Little seems planned to mark the event on a national level, and no major Spanish politicians are expected to attend a church service, a concert and the wreath-laying ceremony for the dead in Gernika’s town cemetery.

Since 1983, Gernika is officially called Gernika-Lumo, perhaps to help ease the historic burden. Today Gernika-Lumo with some 16,000 inhabitants wants to see itself as a Capital of Peace. In 1988, the Basque artists Eduardo Chillida inaugurated his monumental sculpture ‘Gure Aitaren Etxea’ (‘The House of the Father’) in Gernika-Lumo, and in 1990, the sculpture ‘Large Figure in a Shelter’ by British artist Henry Moore was positioned next to it. Sometimes art may help heal the wounds of memory where political realities fall short.

Today, it is not war planes of the ‘Legion Condor’ that fly the skies over present day’s Gernika-Lumo but civil A320 Airbuses of ‘Air Berlin’ that bring German as well as tourists from other nations to the Museo Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao where, peace or no peace, the Pais Vasco is still waiting for Picasso’s famous ‘Guernica’ painting to finally come home to the land of the Basques.

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