In July 1936, a civil war began in Spain when a group who called themselves the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, used force to overturn the left-wing government of the Spanish republic. Like Hitler, Franco admired Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and the dictatorship Franco sought to create in Spain was modeled in part on Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Only a few nations took sides in the conflict: the Soviet Union’s Communist government backed the Republicans, while Italy and Germany supported Franco’s Nationalists. Although most nations did not take sides, some of their citizens did. Nearly 3,000 Americans, known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, joined about 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries to serve in international fighting units that supported democracy.
Franco’s forces did receive military help from Germany and Italy, which both sent army and air-force units. For Hitler, in particular, the war offered a chance both to attack a government allied with communism and to try out new ways of fighting that would prove nearly overwhelming in future conflicts. One such new technique was the bombing of civilians and cities in attacks designed to bring terror, which is what happened in the Spanish town of Guernica.
British journalist George Steer broke the news of a large-scale attack on civilians in the London Times and the New York Times on April 27, 1937.
Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques [an ethnic minority in Spain] and the center of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types . . . did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields . . .
At 2 A.M. today when I visited the town, the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris. . . .
In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the [battle] lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.
The newspaper story raised disturbing questions about Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and its motives for attacking unarmed civilians. At the time, no outsider, including Steer, was aware that the bombing had been planned by a German officer—Wolfram von Richthofen—who would later devise the air attacks that set off World War II. At first Richthofen vehemently denied that German airmen had even been involved in the bombing. But there were too many witnesses to the attack who recognized the bombers as belonging to the German air force to continue making that claim for long, so his story changed. He acknowledged Germany’s involvement in the attack but insisted that the strike was accidental. At the same time, he secretly boasted to his superiors in Berlin that “the concentrated attack on Guernica was the greatest success.” He and his superiors saw the assault in Spain as an opportunity to try out a new military tactic—the blanket bombing of civilians to demoralize the enemy.
To the Germans’ dismay, Steer’s story was reprinted in newspapers everywhere. The New York Times wrote an editorial condemning the “wholesale arson and mass murder, committed by Rebel airplanes of the German type.” Several hundred prominent Americans published an “Appeal to the Conscience of the World” in response to the bombings. And on May 1, more than a million French protesters flooded the streets of Paris to voice their outrage.
Artist Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard who was living in Paris at the time, was stunned not only by Steer’s account but also by the photographs that accompanied the story. Appalled, the artist began work on a painting that would become his most powerful political statement. He called it Guernica.