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  • James Houser

April 26, 1937 - The Bombing of Guernica

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 26, 1937. A squadron of German and Italian planes armed with 22 tons of bombs descend on the town of Guernica, Spain. By the end of the day, Guernica has ceased to exist. The bombing attracts world attention as modern air power reveals its darkest face, and the horror of terror bombing becomes the subject of one of Pablo Picasso’s most well-known paintings.

“Air power.” The very phrase is common in modern military thinking, but that was not always the case. World War I had seen aircraft employed in reconnaissance, ground attack, and to fight other aircraft, but to many people on both sides these missions seemed to be the limit of what “air power” could accomplish. In the 1920s, multiple theories of future air operations bounced around military circles. The situation was not just theoretical; the 1920s were a period of tight budgets and low interest in military strength worldwide, so any funds given to creating a powerful air force would be funds denied to the armies and navies of the world powers. The question “What purpose will aircraft serve in modern war?” became a budgetary question as well.

The strongest global voice of “air power” was Italian officer Giulio Douhet. In 1922, he published the controversial book “The Command of the Air.” Douhet argued that air power was completely revolutionary and would change the face of warfare, and that command of the air would be vital to the winning of future wars. His most worrisome views, however, concerned bombing. Douhet was convinced that aerial bombardment could not only destroy military forces, but also government, industry and infrastructure – and most critically, civilian morale. Douhet not only suggested but outright argued that the civilian population should be a primary target of aerial bombing as a way of destroying their morale and weakening the enemy’s commitment to the war. This method of war would make ground attack almost obsolete.

Douhet’s apocalyptic theories were bracing to, and repudiated by, military establishments committed to laws of war and conventional battle. The U.S. Army’s Billy Mitchell was a believer in Douhet, mainly because he saw the potential threat of a hostile air power, and was so strident and confrontational in his advocacy of the air force that he was court-martialed. Douhet found few other disciples, but one proved especially important.

Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen had been a German pilot in World War I and was the cousin of the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Wolfram von Richthofen was an early reader of Douhet’s “Command of the Air” and became convinced of the need for a powerful bomber force. After the Great War Richthofen studied aeronautical engineering and served as German liaison in Rome, where he met Douhet and studied the Italian Air Force. When Hitler took power in 1933, Richthofen was one of the founding officers of the Luftwaffe – the new German Air Force. He became a senior Luftwaffe general, committed to the war-winning power of bomber aircraft.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out between the far-right Nationalist faction led by General Francisco Franco and a coalition of liberal and socialist groups known as the Republicans. 1936 was a tense year in general for Europe due to the delicate political balance, and left-wing and right-wing governments both sought to influence the outcome of the Civil War. Germany and Italy ended up supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union supported the Republicans. Idealistic volunteers from across the world went to Spain to support the Republicans, including a cadre of Americans that formed the so-called Abraham Lincoln Brigade; this group included Ernest Hemingway.

German support for the Spanish Nationalists included a Luftwaffe contingent, mainly consisting of bombers, known as the “Condor Legion.” Richthofen requested and received assignment to this unit, where he commanded the main bomber squadron. Richthofen volunteered not only to advance his career, but to provide proof of his bombing theories. Hitler sent the Condor Legion to Spain both to support the Nationalists and to provide field-testing for German aircraft and tactics.

In February 1937, the isolated region of Vizcaya in northern Spain became the center of a new Nationalist and Italian offensive. The Basque population in Vizcaya were aligned with the Republicans and offered strong resistance to Franco’s advance. The Basques had no air force, and the Condor Legion’s air force soon joined the attacking Nationalists to defeat the Republicans in this mountainous terrain. Under Franco’s orders, Richthofen directed major attacks on the towns of Ochandiano and Durango throughout March and April, which killed around 250 civilians and immolated a church with all its clergy. The Republicans were soon falling back, and their line of retreat ran through a small town called Guernica.

On April 26, Richthofen led his bombers in a multi-wave attack on the unarmed town of Guernica. The targets were bridges and roads in the suburbs of the town; if they were destroyed, it would slow the retreating Republicans and keep them from escaping the Nationalist forces. 21 German and three Italian planes descended on the small mountain town. The Italian pilots were explicitly ordered not to bomb the town, but the Germans hammered any structure that remained standing. Wave after wave of bombers pummeled Guernica, strafing the streets and smashing buildings to pieces. The whole town was soon aflame and tossed by high explosives.

Almost 75% of Guernica was destroyed in the German bombing, and as many as 1500 civilians may have died on that day. Franco’s troops easily took it in a few days. The whole incident would have been little-known, just another atrocity in a war full of atrocities, if not for the reporting of George Steer, a journalist for Britain’s The Times who was on site in the province. His article “The Tragedy of Guernica” was soon plastered across Western headlines, causing outrage and public condemnation in Britain, France, and America.

Guernica was the world’s first example of real terror bombing. It became not only a source of emotion and public condemnation in the 1930s, but for multiple Spanish people served as a symbol of the destruction and catastrophe brought on by the Spanish Civil War. French sculptor Rene Iche created a violent sculpture named “Guernica” to symbolize the violence, but the most famous depiction came from a guest in France.

The Spanish Republicans had commissioned famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso to create a work for an international exhibition. Picasso, living in Paris, was uninterested in modern politics and uninspired to create a “political” work until he heard of the bombing attack. Later in 1937, he painted his famous “Guernica,” one of the most famous pieces of anti-war art ever created. Picasso depicted shock, horror, and the clash of imagery and color in the disfigurement of bodies and the agonized expressions of the victims. The harsh, angular structure of the figures cries to the onlooker that their pain is universal and immediate.

Guernica was only the most famous of multiple bombing attacks that the Condor Legion and other air forces carried out during the Spanish Civil War. In many of these attacks, civilian casualties were both expected and allowed for – in some cases, they were even the point. Giulio Douhet’s theories were put into terrible action at Guernica and elsewhere, and it seemed like they were coming true. The bombing of Guernica and the other attacks of the Spanish Civil War convinced the German Luftwaffe officers of the Condor Legion that terror bombing was a valid military tool, and that the civilian population would from now on be a valid target in warfare.

The lessons of Guernica would have a grave effect on German war policy. In the blitzkriegs of 1939 and 1940, the Luftwaffe – with Richthofen as one of its top generals – would carry out terror bombings of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and most famously the Blitz in Great Britain. In almost all these cases, the actual military or strategic impact of the bombing was secondary to the effect of terrorism and intimidation against the civilian population. Hitler ordered the destruction of Rotterdam only after the Netherlands initially refused to surrender; after the bombing, they laid down their arms.

The problem, though, was that terror bombing had just as much chance of hardening a nation’s will to resist as it did of forcing them to surrender. The Germans learned this when British patriotism and will to resist only grew during the Blitz. The Allies learned the same thing when they attempted to apply Douhet’s “terror bombing” to Germany later in World War II; though they caused huge destruction to German cities and killed hundreds of thousands, the German will did not break and they did not overthrow Hitler. Douhet was right that “command of the air” would be a critical factor in future wars, but was completely wrong that “terror bombing” of the civilian population could win a war without real ground combat.

This was the true tragedy and irony of Guernica. The horror of Picasso’s painting would be repeated across Europe and Asia for the next decade, with no real impact on the morale of its victims. At the end of the day, “terror bombing” would prove to be completely counterproductive as a military tactic. The true use of strategic air power would reveal itself in concentrated destruction of enemy industry, refineries, and military installations – not in the cowing of the civilian population.

It can be debated whether the atomic bomb, a weapon that Giulio Douhet could not have imagined, has changed the truth of his theories. Considering that we’ve continued to fight countless wars since 1945, it would seem that Douhet’s terror bombing theory still has not come true. Ask the citizens of Baghdad.

During the German occupation of Paris, Pablo Picasso continued to live and work in the city, though his ideas on art were rejected by the Nazis and he was often harassed by the Gestapo. During one search of his apartment, a German officer saw a reproduction of his painting “Guernica” and asked if he had done that.

“No,” said Picasso. “You did.”

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