- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

GUERNICA, Spain — Itziar Arzanegi can still hear the roar of the German warplane overhead, and see the old woman shaking her fists at the foreigners destroying her town. She remembers the look of horror on the woman’s face as the plane swooped low, opened fire and cut her down.

It has been 70 years since German and Italian fighter planes backing the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War leveled this historic Basque town on April 26, 1937.

Myths and misinformation have shrouded the bombing from the outset, starting with the death toll, which historians have been gradually revising downward for decades. But Guernica has come to be seen as a foretaste of the aerial blitzes of World War II, immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” one of the most powerful paintings of the 20th century.

But while the images of destruction are etched indelibly in the world’s consciousness — and in the minds of a dwindling number of survivors — the 70th anniversary caused barely a ripple in Spain. This is symptomatic of a country that has never come to grips with its Civil War past. Spain has become a cultural and economic powerhouse in recent years, but critics say its success has been built over the ruins of its greatest disaster.

“In Spain, we have changed on the outside — we’ve built new highways, shopping centers and successful multinational companies — but to change people’s mentality on the inside has proven much more difficult,” said Emilio Silva, president of an organization that leads efforts to exhume the bodies of civilians killed by Franco’s forces in the 1936-39 war. Half a million people are thought to have died in that conflict.

Mr. Silva said many in the generation that lived through the war and Franco’s victory learned that the best way to survive under the dictatorship was not to talk about it. Those who oversaw the country’s transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975 thought reconciliation meant burying the past.

But the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the war generation are starting to demand more openness, he said, adding: “A country without memory has no meaning at all.”

Survivors of the Guernica bombing, their faces lined by age, say forgetting has never been an option for them. Mrs. Arzanegi was just 11 years old when the bombs started to fall. She fled to a pine grove on a hill above town and watched the inferno below. She and other villagers hid in the brush as the planes screamed overhead, until one woman could contain her anger no longer. She jumped out and started to scream at the sky, just as a plane was coming into view.

“There are many things we live through in our lives, and some of the details we forget, but that bombardment I cannot forget, not even for a single day,” said Mrs. Arzanegi. “As long as I live, the sight of that plane dropping down and machine-gunning that woman will be with me. It was so cruel, so unimaginable.”

Only about 200 survivors are known to be alive today, according to Remembering Guernica, a nongovernmental peace group based in the town. But the stories they tell of that day in their childhood are captivating and terrifying in their detail.

Childhood memories

Luis Iriondo, 84, says he was separated from his family and hid in a bomb shelter in the center of town.

“There was no light, no ventilation, and there were so many people pressed together that it was impossible to breathe. I was frightened that a bomb would hit us and I would be buried alive,” he said. In the end, he decided to take his chances on the streets: “Better to be machine-gunned than buried alive.”

Pedro Balino was at the train station with a friend when he heard the sirens wail and saw the first plane fly overhead. The two fled to the hills above town and watched the bombing from there. When it was over, he came down to find his family.

“After the bombing we came down from the hills, and at the entrance to Guernica we found eight or 10 guys who were dead or dying. One was missing his face, the other had no arm,” said Mr. Balino. “Some of them I knew. They were young people, maybe 15 or 16 years old.”

Why was a small, nonmilitary town picked for destruction?

The most popular theory is that it was sacred to the Basques, who had rejected Franco’s overtures to join him and whose independent streak was detested by the Spanish general. Here Spanish kings would travel to stand under an oak tree and vow to respect an ancient code giving the Basques special rights.

The tree was not targeted and stood in one of the few places in town that survived the bombing. It finally succumbed to disease in 2005, replaced by a sapling from the original tree’s acorn that stands today.

Today Guernica is a town of 15,000 nestled in a lush valley at the southern tip of an estuary that opens into the Bay of Biscay.

Franco denied that any German or Italian planes were in Spain at the time of the attack, and claimed the Basques destroyed the town themselves. When his troops took the town a few days after the bombing, they immediately set out to conceal all traces of the air attack, removing bullets and the casings of the incendiary and fragmentation bombs.

The town was rebuilt as quickly as possible — with drab new buildings rising on the ruins of the old. Residents say public works projects frequently uncover bones. Though thousands of witnesses saw the attack, the dictator took his denial of responsibility with him to the grave.

But there were myths on all sides, said Jose Angel Etxaniz, a historian connected with the town’s museum who has spent nearly 20 years studying the bombardment. Chief among the myths was the belief that Guernica was the first and deadliest air assault on a civilian population in the Spanish Civil War.

On both counts, it was not.

Documenting deaths

After Adolf Hitler’s Condor Division planes and Italian allies unleashed their payloads, reducing the town of mostly wooden houses to smoldering embers, the fleeing Basque government announced that 1,245 persons had died, and that more than 800 had been injured.

But those numbers were mere guesswork. In the world’s collective consciousness, Guernica became synonymous with the tens of thousands killed in subsequent bombings elsewhere.

The attack began when a single plane appeared on the horizon at about 3:30 p.m. and dropped six bombs. In the 10 to 12 minutes before the first wave of bombers arrived, many of the 8,000 to 10,000 people in town at the time managed to flee into fields or bomb shelters.

Mr. Etxaniz said his team has meticulously pored over church and cemetery records, and have been able to document 120 deaths from the bombing.

Nor was it the first time modern weapons were used against a civilian population: German planes had carried out a similar assault against the Basque town of Durango three weeks earlier, killing 300 persons.

But Guernica captured attention because of dramatic dispatches from foreign correspondents, chief among them George Steer of the London Times, who wrote of walls of flames visible for miles around.

“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,” he reported.

It was these accounts in the foreign press that caught the attention of Picasso, who was living in Paris at the time, Mr. Etxaniz said. Otherwise, the artist might well have picked a different subject to paint.

Many think Guernica was a dry run for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II two years later. Soon a world that had never known urban savagery from the air would witness the horror falling on London, Warsaw, Berlin, Hiroshima.

Yet Guernica, whatever its final death toll, retains the power to shock, and its survivors say they hope their ordeal can still serve to warn the world away from war. Many have been active in opposing Spanish involvement in Iraq, and speaking out against other conflicts.

“What are the lessons of Guernica?” asked Mr. Balino, now 86, hunching his shoulders and resting an elbow on his knee as he considered the question. “Only that it should never happen again,” he said. “That it should never be allowed to happen again.”

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