The Bombing of Guernica and the Civil War in Barcelona
Despite Picasso's manifest concern with the Spanish Civil War, most critics agree that he had not decided to make it the subject of his mural for the Spanish Pavilion until the Nazi bombing of the ancient Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, at 4:30 in the afternoon. The world was shocked. Guernica had no strategic importance at all: it simply served as a testing ground for fascist war planes.
For centuries, Guernica had been the symbolic center of the Basque nation, the place where the medieval common laws (called fueros ) that had governed the four Basque provinces were read out from under a tree that became invested with deep cultural meaning. Now, refugees from the fighting in nearby towns had swelled the population of Guernica from its normal seven thousand to ten thousand.
It was a Monday market day when the Nazi planes flew over. Junker 52S's followed Heinkel 111's every twenty minutes for over three hours, bombing and machine-gunning civilians until some 1,600 people lay dead, with more than 800 wounded. The strafing by up to two hundred planes went on and on in a show of military overkill that has since become commonplace. G.L. Steer, an eyewitness, described the horrors of that day in the Times of London:
[The planes] flew at six hundred feet, slowly and steadily shedding their tubes of silver, which settled upon those houses that still stood in pools of intolerable heat; then slipped and dribbled from floor to floor. Gernika was compact as peat to serve as fuel for the German planes. Nobody now bothered to save relatives or possessions; between bombardments they walked out of Gernika in front of the stifling smoke and sat in bewildered hundreds on the roads to Bermeo and Mugika. Mercifully, the fighters had gone. They no longer glanced down to mutilate the population in movement and chase them across the open fields. The people were worn out by noise, heat, and terror; they lay about like dirty bundles of washing, mindless, sprawling, and immobile.
Meanwhile, by late April, civil strife was sweeping Barcelona. The scene must have had a familiar ring to Picasso, who, according to art historian Herschel Chipp, was following the news from Spain in the Parisian newspapers Ce soir and Figaro . His mother and his sister and her family had already been affected by the war when a convent near their home burned during the first days of fighting in the summer of 1936. The widow of a middle-class doctor, Picasso's sister may have worried about what would happen in the city as the CNT, in the eleven
months from July 1936 to May 1937, proceeded to carry out the revolution of which they had always dreamed.
Nominal power remained with the city and provincial government in the Plaza of Saint James. But as we have seen, it was the CNT who led the working class in neutralizing the army during the military insurrection in July. Under confederation leadership, factories were collectivized, though they frequently remained under the management of the old owners; it was, after all, in everyone's interest for the factories to run smoothly. Despite growing shortages of material, the plants operated well. Nevertheless, republicans, Communists, and Socialists all blamed the CNT for concentrating on making a revolution in Barcelona rather than on winning the war against the fascists in Spain.
The liberal democracies of the United States, France, and Great Britain had effectively quarantined the Spanish Republic out of the misguided view that an arms embargo would shorten the war. Whereas the fascist governments were giving massive aid to Franco's side, the Soviet Union provided only limited help to the Republic; still, being the only major outside source of military support, it exercised considerable power over the government in Madrid. According to Stalin as well as the Spanish republicans and Socialists, defeating the fascists depended on the continued support of the Spanish middle classes, and that required restoring private property that had been collectivized and preventing future appropriation of such property. Pursuing this policy entailed crushing the CNT.
In an atmosphere of mutual antagonism and impending doom, on April 25, the day before Guernica was bombed, a leader of the Stalinist United Socialist Parties of Catalunya (PSUC), Roldán Cortada, was gunned down at Mollís de Llobregat near Barcelona. Public opinion blamed the CNT. Cortada's funeral became a civic ritual, an occasion for a massive show of force by liberals and Communists. Then, on April 26 and 27, a great fear swept the CNT's ranks: the government, it was rumored, planned to disarm the popular militias and consolidate power in the hands of the police and the Republican army. The barricades, which had come down when the city was secured in the summer of 1936, went up again in Barcelona on April 28, two days after Guernica was bombed.
To show their outrage at the bombing of Guernica and at so-called French neutrality, one million Parisians marched on May Day. Barcelona's mayor, however, announced that there would be no May Day celebrations in that city. Since 1890 the workers had used May Day as
their preeminent street spectacle, and in 1931, just after the Second Republic was proclaimed, there had been a massive May Day demonstration in nearby Badalona. The reporter for the Diluvio explained at the time: "Today's festival is significant not only for workers. . . . Today's festival is the people's affirmation of its support for the republican cause, a test of the fervor with which it has embraced [the Republic], and a formidable and unequivocal demonstration of the knowledge of what it will take to defend it and what it will take to consolidate it." Six years later, the banning of May Day presaged trouble.