RSS Feed Gernika - The Immortal Town

Wall Mosaic in Gernika Gernika (Guernica in Castillan Spanish), is situated in the north of Spain, about 30 kilometres to the east of Bilbao. It is a small market town which, although having a prominent role in the development of Basque cultue, is fairly unremarkable. The town, however, has been immortalised by Picasso's horrific depiction of the bombing of the city during the Spanish Civil War.

History of the City

It is believed that Gernika was founded in 1366 in a strategic position close to the estuary of the Mundaka river. Over time, Gernika became an important town for the Basque culture. It was the seat of parliament for the province of Biscay; where meetings would be held under large trees.

By 1512 the oak in Gernika has become the symbol of the indpendence and the democratic ideals of the whole of the Basque country.


The bombing of Gernika occured on April 26th 1937, which was a monday, traditionally the busy market day in the town. The attack was carried out by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe, with support from Mussolini's Italian air legion.

The raid, which lasted over three hours, saw the planes dump over one hundred thousand pounds of explosives on the town. People trying to escape the bombing on foot were gunned down by the planes, with the attackers aiming to cause as much damage as possible.

The Germans, under the Nazi dictatorship, were supporting the Spanish nationalists, led by General Franco. Both initially denied knowledge of the raid, before claiming later that they had intended only to bomb a bridge over the Mundaka river. However, the Condor Legion was made up of Germany's finest pilots; and the length of the bombing made the denials impossible to believe

The bombing destroyed 70% of Gernika. A third of the town's 5,000 residents were either killed or injured, and the city was engulfed by raging fires for three days after the attack.

Importance & Short Term Impact

Historic Oak Tree, Gernika It is difficult to overstate the importance and impact of the bombing of Gernika. The most immediate effect was the impact that the bombing has on the Spanish Civil War. The Basque country had been a Republican stronghold; but the brutality of the bombing destroyed the morale of the Basques. They realised they had no chance against an opponent with such aerial strength, and such disregard for humanity. In June 1937, the Basque capital Bilbao fell to Franco's Nationalists.

The Basque region was one of the key industrial centres in Spain which, afterbthe fall of Bilbao, was in Franco's hands. This is seen by many historians as a pivotal moment in the Spanish Civil War. The Nazi state's clear backing of Franco gave the Nationalists a huge material advantage over the Republicans, who were backed by the Soviet Union, but with little material support.

With the Nationalists eventually winning the Civil War, Spain became a fascist state for the next 35 years. The regions, Catalonia and the Basque Country in particular, were persecuted for their role in the Civil War. The state tried to eradicate the regional langauges, as well as many of the unique cultural aspects of the regions.

Second World War

The bombing of Gernika can also be related to events that took place in the Second World War. Many historians believe that the bombing was carried out by the Luftwaffe as a test to see if they could successfully implement Blitzkrieg tactics.

Germany used the tactic many times throughout the Second World War, carpet bombing several British towns (most notably London and Coventry). Furthermore, Britain responded with a similar attack on Dresden.

This new kind of attack has no military reasoning. It was not designed to take out airfields, bridges, barracks or other targets seen as legitimate in war. The attacks were designed to kill civilians, with the aim of destroying the morale of a region or nation. Gernika (along with bombing of Madrid during the Civil War) was the first time that this kind of attack had been carried out with the destructive force of aeroplanes.

Long Term Impact & Gernika Today

The bombing of Gernika has understandably had a lasting impact, not just for the Basques, but for the world. Picasso's Gernika painting, which was commissioned by the Republican government in 1937, has immortalised the destruction of the town.

The graphic painting shows the immense suffering of people and animals, as well as the destruction of buildings that the bombings caused. The painting is currenrtly in Madrid, but there is a replica tiled wall in the city of Gernika itself.

Over time Gernika has been extensively rebuilt and is now a thriving town with a focus on the service industry. It retains a keen sense of its importance in the long history of the Basque country, and also in the modern history of Europe. In recent years, the town of Gernika has become a symbol for peace. The peace museum in the town explains the role that Gernika has represented through history.

Discover more about Gernika and the rest of the Basque Country on our Bilbao to San Sebastian or Basque Coast cycling holidays.