Gernika - A History of the Immortal Town

Gernika (also known as Guernica), is situated in the north of Spain, about 25 miles to the east of Bilbao. It's a small market town which, although having a prominent role in the development of Basque culture, is not overly remarkable on the surface. The town, however, hides a rich history; most notably its bombing during the Spanish Civil War, an event which formed the basis of Pablo Picasso's most iconic work.

In this short article we will give a brief introduction to the history of Gernika. We will see why and how it was destroyed, in an event that really captured the public imagination and encouraged Picasso to immortalize the town.

Gernika mural of the Picasso Painting

The Origins of Gernika

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.

Basque messengers would climb to the top of surrounding hills and blow their horns to summon meetings of all the local elders. They would meet under a symbolic tree to discuss political, economic and religious policies. Due to the remoteness of the region, the Basques retained considerable autonomy from the Spanish crown, something which has allowed many of their peculiar customs and traditions to survive until today.

By 1512 one oak tree in Gernika in particular, had become the symbol of the independence and the democratic ideals of the whole of the Basque country. It and its ancestors would remain so for the following centuries.

Gernika Oak Tree

Gernika's oak tree was the location of the Basque parliament

The Spanish Civil War

It was partly for this symbolic reason that Gernika was chosen as the site to be heavily bombed during the Spanish Civil War. Many Basques, particularly around Gernika and Bilbao had strongly opposed the fascist dictatorship of General Franco, who had conducted an illegal coup to seize power in Spain.

The backlash against Franco's coup resulted in the Civil War, which was fought from 1936-1939. And during this time, Franco had made alliances with some other rather unsavoury characters - including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

The fascist alliance had made good progress in the early years of the war, but the Basque Country, along with other areas such as Catalonia and Valencia, proved to be a real thorn in their side. The resistance movements there, who had some support from the Soviet Union, represented a real threat to his power. And Franco, like most fascist dictators, was not adverse to taking the most belligerent course of action.

Bombing of Gernika

The decision was made to launch an offensive that would not only kill some of the resistance leaders, but would also crush the spirits of the Basque people.

On April 26th 1937 an attack was carried out by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe, with support from Mussolini's Italian air legion. They conducted an air raid that lasted for over three hours and saw the planes dump over one hundred thousand pounds of explosives on the town. Historians have cited it as the first example of carpet bombing in history.

The offensive was planned with ruthless precision. It was carried out on a Monday, which was market day in Gernika. It was by far the busiest day in the town, with people coming in from neighbouring villages to buy their weekly goods.

The initial first wave of the raid was deliberately quite mild. The fascist attackers wanted the Basque residents to run and hide in nearby buildings, which they did. Subsequent waves then looked to destroy all buildings in the town, trapping and suffocating those inside. Meanwhile people trying to flee by foot were gunned down by the machine guns on the planes.

It was a devastating attack, which deliberately targetted civilians. Franco and Hitler both denied that this was their intention, and claimed they were merely bombing strategic bridges and armament factories. But the Condor Legion was made up of Germany's finest pilots; and the length of the bombing made it pretty much impossible to believe that their carpet bombing strategy was not deliberate.

The bombing destroyed seventy percent of Gernika. One 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.

Gernika Ruins

Gernika was left destroyed by the bombing

Importance & Short Term Impact

It is difficult to overstate the importance and impact of the bombing of Gernika. In the short term, it influenced the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. The Basque country had been a Republican stronghold; but the brutality of the bombing did destroy the morale of the Basques, as had been the intention.

They realised they had little chance against an opponent with such aerial strength, and such disregard for humanity. And a couple of months later, in June 1937, the Basque capital Bilbao fell to Franco's Nationalists.

The Basque region was one of the key industrial centres in Spain, and it falling into fascist hands simply gave them access to even more raw materials, armaments and finance. 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 received only luke warm support from their supposed European allies.

Franco's nationalists eventually won the Civil War, establishing Spain as a fascist state for the next 35 years. The regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country, in particular, were persecuted for their role in the Civil War. The state tried to eradicate the regional languages, 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. Gernika was effectively a training exercise for the Condor legion - and the success of the operation would have steeled Hitler's belief that he had a formidable and intelligent fighting machine at his disposal.

Germany subsequently used the tactic many times throughout the Second World War, carpet bombing several British towns (most notably London and Coventry). Britain itself, then responded with similar attacks, most notably on Dresden. The indiscriminate killing of civilians and destruction of buildings in aerial raids had quickly become normalized - something which greatly increased the horrors of war.

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 currently displayed at the Reina Sofia museum 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 both on manufacturing and the service industry. It retains a keen sense of its importance thanks to its role, not only in the history of the Basque country, but also in the history of modern Europe. In recent years, the town of Gernika has become a symbol for peace. And today there is an international peace museum in the town.

Modern Gernika is certainly worth a visit, as well as great history, it has an excellent food scene, and is also on the edge of the very picturesque Urdaibai Estuary - a UNESCO listed Biosphere.

Modern Gernika

Gernika today has been rebuilt with many historic monuments carefully reconstructed

Visiting Gernika

You can visit Gernika and discover more about it and the rest of the Basque Country on our Bilbao to San Sebastian and Basque Coast cycling holidays. Check out the information below for more details.

Or return to our History section to read more stories about the places that we visit on our holidays.

Basque Coast Beach
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Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: €1,760 EUR
*Bike Hire Included

Monte Igeldo - San Sebastian
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Self-Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: from €1,570 EUR
*Bike Hire Included