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The Legacy of Guernica

Matthew Liggio, May 28, 2014

It was unusually mild for mid-March, and the cafes and sidewalks were rapidly filling up with residents eager to take in the late morning sunshine. In the city center, the customarily dense architecture and narrow streets momentarily gave way to an open-air plaza, meticulously fitted into the urban landscape. Small trees, shrubs and a vibrant lawn crisscrossed with sidewalk gave it the feel of a city park. Across the square was a group of three elderly men on a park bench who laughed and talked among themselves. I approached with slight apprehension, not entirely sure if they'd be receptive to my inquiries.

"Hola! Me llamo Mateo," I began. I asked if they remembered the bombing and the Civil War, this time through my professor, who translated for me.

"No, I do not remember it personally, but I was told stories by my parents," answered the first man. He added, "A lot of tourists who come here are curious, and have questions about that."

Without a word one of the men rose from the bench and walked off into town, leaving me to wonder if my question had made him uncomfortable, or if he was simply tired of hearing it. The second man mentioned that, due to lack of funds, the city had taken decades to rebuild, though little evidence of the destruction exists today.

In the heart of Basque Country, the town of Guernica lies among the rolling hills of northern Spain. The drive from San Sebastián had taken just an hour, though this sleepy town differed sharply from the parts of Spain I had seen so far. Gone was the grandiose cityscape and vibrant atmosphere I had experienced in Barcelona. There, one could spend month after month exploring the city, and still there would be new places to see. Guernica offers very few attractions for tourists who come to visit, although the Peace Museum is a notable exception. In this modest institution, visitors can reflect on the town's tragic past and take solace in the hope for a brighter future.

Guernica is best known for being the target of one of the first large-scale aerial bombardments in modern history, during the Spanish Civil War. The bombing was authorized by then-Spanish General [and later dictator] Francisco Franco, but was carried out by his German allies. On April 25, 1937, the modern and well-equipped Luftwaffe spent three hours pummeling Guernica, until 85 percent of the town lay in ruins. The attack shocked the world, and foreshadowed the horrific reality of modern warfare that would soon be on display across Europe. At that time, Guernica was 20 kilometers east of the battlefront, and being used to ferry Republican troops and supplies up to the fighting. But there was another, more sinister motive for the attack. For centuries this area had been a center for Basque nationalism, a sentiment that Franco was eager to quash in his pursuit of a unified Spain.

"The bombing of Guernica was meant to instill terror, and to break the will of the population to resist," explained our Peace Museum tour guide.

I was eager to see for myself what I could learn about Guernica's notorious past, by exploring the city. For a city of 10,000, the layout is surprisingly intimate, with no two points more than a 15 to 20 minute walk from one another. My friend Evan and I made the short hike from the Peace Museum to another of Guernica's attractions: an oversized ceramic replica of Pablo Picasso's Guernica. Completed shortly after the attack on the city, the painting captures the surrealistic nightmare that befell Guernica in 1937, and has since become one of Picasso's most famous works. Although many Spanish cities, including Barcelona and Madrid, were bombed during the Civil War, Guernica received widespread attention, thanks in large part to Picasso's painting.

Next we headed for a bridge at the edge of town. I'd learned earlier in the day that this had been the primary target for German bombers, and I wondered if there was anything to see. To my slight disappointment, the bridge turned out to be an innocuous-looking structure, without so much as a sign to indicate its significance. As I looked down into the calm stream flowing beneath, I had a hard time believing that one day not so long ago high-explosive munitions poured down onto this very spot.

I found Guernica to be a beautiful town, humble and with a style completely its own. Walking through the streets that afternoon, I suddenly heard a voice cry out, "Hola, chicos!"

Evan and I stopped to look around for a moment before finally noticing a couple of faces staring down at us from the second-story window of an elementary school. We replied with smiles and waves of our own. Nevertheless, I sensed a peculiar disquiet more than once during that day—a sense that unresolved trauma lay hidden by 75 years of reconstruction and faded memory.

Many Spaniards have difficulty openly discussing the experience of the Civil War, and the dictatorship of Franco. Nick Lloyd is a British historian who gives tours of Civil War sites in Barcelona, and is all too familiar with the uncomfortable legacy of the conflict.

"I think that it's actually easier for me as a Brit to do these tours," he told me. "For people whose parents or grandparents faced persecution, it can be a difficult issue to approach objectively."

During the transition to democracy, after Franco's death in 1975, a Spanish court granted legal immunity to those who had been involved in human rights abuses during the Franco era.

"Not one person has ever had to stand trial for the crimes committed during that time," Lloyd pointed out. For some, this means that the fate of loved ones will never be known, and many others will simply have to forgive or forget the injustices of the past. I asked Lloyd if he thought it would be beneficial for Spain to begin discussing and examining its past.

"Absolutely," he said. "I think that would be a big step in the right direction."

Matthew Liggio is a recent graduate in history of Central Connecticut State University.

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