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Remember Gernika – but don’t forget Chaouen

The 75th anniversary of the bombing of the Basque town is a reminder of the carnage of the Spanish Civil War. But the Gernika bombing wasn’t the first of its kind.


Picasso's 'Gernika', perhaps the most celebrated work of art that examines war. But the civilians of many other towns were bombed in the first half of the 20th century with equally - or more - devastating consequences.

The last few weeks have seen commemorations, mainly in the Basque Country, of the 75th anniversary of the bombing by German and Italian warplanes of the historic town of Gernika at the behest of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Around 4.30 in the afternoon of April 26, 1937, a joint squadron of 23 German and Italian planes appeared in the skies over the historic, and undefended, Basque town. Over the next five hours they dropped a total of 22 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices that burned for days, destroying 70 percent of the town, and killing and wounding at least 1,600 people, around a third of the population.

Gernika remains a powerful symbol of the atrocity of war, and of the cruelty of General Franco, and is rightly remembered. At the time, it shocked people in Britain, France, and the United States, confirming their worst fears about the militaristic regimes in Berlin and Rome, as well as hinting at what awaited Spain when Franco won.

But Gernika is linked to another victim of savagery that took place more than a decade before: Chaouen, a small Moroccan city in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, around 20 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast, and a popular stopover for tourists.

Like Gernika, it is an ancient town, and like Gernika, of deep cultural significance. In the 1920s, Chaouen had roughly the same population as Gernika – about 6,000.

In 1925, Chaouen was reduced to rubble by an aerial bombardment carried out in the full knowledge that the site had no military value. There were no Moroccan soldiers there, but the city was the centre of an uprising against Spanish rule.

Spain responded to the uprising in Morocco with a military campaign during which General Franco learned many important lessons about the importance of breaking the will of the enemy’s civilian population, although it was not Spaniards who destroyed Chaouen, but American volunteers serving in the French Flying Corps.

The value of life

We might ask ourselves why we choose to remember Gernika over Chaouen. Some writers and historians, among them Sven Lindqvist in his excellent A History of Bombing, have put forward a compelling argument that exposes assumptions established over centuries of European colonial conquest that the lives of Arabs, Africans, Asians, and native Americans — whether combatants or civilians — are less “valuable” than those of white westerners: following this line of reasoning, it might convincingly be argued that the British and US electorates don’t want their armed forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq because of the tens of thousands of civilians they have killed there over the last decade, but because their own soldiers are dying, and to no discernable advantage.

It was the same story in Vietnam. Back in 1937, the British, French, and US governments expressed their outrage that an undefended, non-strategic, civilian centre had been subjected to sustained aerial bombardment. But as we know, Gernika was not the first city to be targeted in this way. What’s more, the British had used impromptu bombers in Egypt, Northwest India, and the Sudan; they had bombed Constantinople in 1917, Afghan villages in 1919, and did so again a year later in Somalia. In 1925, the French put down a revolt in Syria by bombarding Damascus, using aircraft, artillery, and tanks. Then, from 1926 to 1928, United States Marines utilized air power to force a regime change in Nicaragua. Even during World War I, the British, French, and Germans had attempted bombing raids against each other’s cities.

Sadly, the concept of bombing civilian centres cannot be attributed to Hitler or Franco, and it should be remembered that there had been no public outcry in Europe and the United States about the widespread practice, despite being relatively well reported, before Gernika. Furthermore, seen in the context of what Britain, France, and the United States had already been doing for more than a decade in their colonies, their response to Gernika might be dismissed by some as sanctimonious humbug, doubly hypocritical in light of their refusal to support the Spanish Republic. At this point, we might also usefully put the US outrage at Japan’s bombing of Shanghai in 1932 and 1937 in context by remembering its firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II, and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in total killing more than one million civilians.

One country that can’t be accused of handwringing over Gernika and Chaouen, is of course Spain. While the German Parliament apologized in 1991 for an event that took place before any of its members were born, the Spanish state has yet to say sorry for what it did in 1925 and 1937.

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Published: May 3 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Remember Gernika – but don’t forget Chaouen”

  1. En el bombardeo de Guernica murieron entre 120 y 300 personas, 126 en los más recientes estudios.

    Guernica, capital cultural e histórica vasca, tenía antes del ataque una población de unas 5.000 personas, a las que habría que añadir un gran número de tropas, que se retiraban para preparar la defensa de Bilbao, y refugiados que huían del avance de las tropas franquistas. En ese momento no tenía ningún tipo de defensa antiaérea, aunque sí tenía tres fábricas de armas, una de ellas de bombas de aviación.

    “Gernika remains a powerful symbol of the atrocity of war, and of the cruelty of General Franco, and is rightly remembered.”

    La represión de posguerra se ha presentado insistentemente como un crimen contra la humanidad, un “holocausto” o “genocidio” comparable al practicado por los nacionalsocialistas durante la II Guerra Mundial. Se dan para él cifras entre cien mil y doscientas mil y más víctimas. Sobre todo ello cabe hacer algunas observaciones:
    a) Tales cargos son mantenidos ante todo por grupos stalinistas, marxistas o simpatizantes, y separatistas. Importa especificarlo porque la tendencia de todos ellos a exagerar o mentir sin rebozo, está perfectamente acreditada, y por tanto no pueden tomarse sus afirmaciones sin una fuerte reserva crítica.
    b) Casi toda la represión de posguerra se hizo mediante juicios, por lo que existe amplia documentación en los archivos, aunque, curiosamente, no ha sido investigada de modo exhaustivo. Las cifras más realistas de ejecutados oscilan entre veintitrés y treinta mil, según han documentado Ramón Salas y A.D. Martín Rubio, cifra alta, pero muy baja tanto en relación con la población española como con los seguidores del Frente Popular, lo que excluye por completo la noción de genocidio u holocausto.
    c) Aunque suele enaltecerse a los ejecutados como víctimas por motivos políticos, la mayoría fue procesada por delitos graves, a menudo atroces. Ello fue posible porque los jefes rojos huyeron a tiempo, abandonando a su suerte a miles de sicarios y chekistas, gran parte de los cuales cayó en manos de sus enemigos. Este dato incuestionable suele oscurecerse afirmando que los tribunales no ofrecían garantías. Sin duda eran menos garantistas que los actuales, pero lo eran más que los franceses o italianos de la posguerra mundial y mucho más que los tribunales “populares” del bando izquierdista-separatista durante la Guerra Civil.
    d) Debe entenderse esta represión en el contexto de las guerras revolucionarias del siglo XX en Europa, como ha estudiado Stanley Payne*, y entre las cuales fue muy inferior a la aplicada por los regímenes socialistas. Dado el sesgo comunista de la revolución en España, si esta hubiera vencido habría aplicado la represión propia de los gobiernos marxistas. Y las persecuciones entre las izquierdas dejan suponer lo que habría esperado a las derechas si hubieran perdido la guerra.
    e) Tampoco fue una represión más dura que otras registradas en Europa occidental. Fue comparativamente mayor en Finlandia en 1918, por ejemplo; y en España tuvo la particularidad de hacerse mediante tribunales, al contrario que en Francia o Italia al final de la II Guerra Mundial, que allí también fue civil — mucho menos intensa que la española– donde hubo pocos juicios y muchos asesinatos, un mínimo de 10.000, probablemente muchas más.
    f) La represión de posguerra, por tanto, debe entenderse en el contexto de una guerra revolucionaria como otras de Europa, sin ser particularmente dura y sí más legalista que casi todas las demás.

    g) Menos del 1% de los condenados a muerte después de la guerra fue efectivamente ejecutado.


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