A version of this article appeared in the Gernika 80 Then & Now – 80 Years of Basque-Irish anti-fascist struggles magazine, published in April of this year, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika.
“Did you do this?” This is the question a Nazi officer is supposed to have asked Pablo Picasso in occupied Paris during the war, regarding Picasso’s famous Guernica. Picasso supposedly replied “no, you did.”
Readers of literature on the Spanish Civil War will know something about the carnage that inspired Picasso’s painting, and who was responsible for it. But the event it depicts, and its authors, may not be as widely known as such people might imagine.
Visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s, where Guernica was on display, social scientist and political activist Vicenç Navarro noticed that the accompanying description of the painting contained no reference to the Spanish Civil War, nor to the Nazi and Italian fascist forces that carried out the bombing. For many, Picasso’s painting stands out a sublime representation of the horrors of war, but no war in particular.
Picasso himself, however, as noted by Navarro, was painting for a particular time, a fact reflected in his broader political commitments: Manuel Azaña, Prime Minister of the Second Spanish Republic, named him director of the Prado Museum in 1936 following Franco’s putsch, and Picasso paid for the museum’s artworks to be transported to Valencia and later to Geneva. He refused to allow Guernica to be moved to Spain until the dictatorship had fallen and democracy was restored, but died before Franco did.
Even when its original context has been forgotten, Guernica carries a powerful symbolic weight. When Colin Powell visited the United Nations to present the case for war in Iraq, the tapestry reproduction of Guernica was covered up. As the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mordantly noted, ‘Mr Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses’.
The memory of the bombing of Guernica, captured in Picasso’s painting, the “rain of fire, shrapnel, and death”, in the words of one of the survivors, still has the capacity to prick consciences as to the human cost of war. Nonetheless, the mechanised slaughter, the raining of ‘fire, shrapnel and death’ on civilian populations, in the decades that followed the bombing of Gernika, became standard operating procedure, conducted by forces in the habit of identifying Nazism as the ultimate evil. When high altitude bombs were dropped on civilian populations in Baghdad or Fallujah or Gaza, the perpetrators cast themselves as the righteous defenders of a civilisation facing a threat from the latest incarnation of Hitler.
In the Spanish State, there are many who refuse to countenance the commemoration of these atrocities, and how they have shaped the present. The transition back to formal democratic rule, from the dictatorship established through the bombing of Gernika and countless other atrocities, did not involve any process of making amends or coming to terms with the destruction and repression that had been wrought. What prevailed, instead, was a so-called ‘pact of forgetting’, according to which the ruling elites of the dictatorship held the upper hand in shaping what would be acceptable under ‘democracy’, with many of the repressive institutional elements of the dictatorship kept in place. Those who had suffered the repression were expected to forget about the crimes committed against them and their families.
Neither the scale of the Francoist repression nor the collaboration with Nazism and Italian fascism have been taken seriously by the current rulers of the Spanish State, not least because it was Franco and his dictatorship that laid the basis for their rule, even if it does occasionally classify enemies as ‘Nazis’ for such offences as protesting eviction from their homes. At best, there is an equivalence established between those who fought to defend democracy and those who fought to demolish it. To illustrate: on 12th October 2004, the then Socialist Party Defence Minister in the Spanish State, José Bono, staged an Armed Forces parade, for the day known as ‘Spanishness Day’ –Dia de la Hispanidad. There was participation from both ex-soldiers who had remained loyal to the legally constituted Republic, and from a veteran who had fought in the Blue Division, that is, who had gone off to fight for Hitler on the Russian front.
José Bono said at the time that “What happened has been written about, but from my ideological position of struggle against Franco, which is on record, I say that there is greater strength in the symbolism of an embrace between two Spanish men, whatever their biography, than in the seed of hatred of those whose finger hurts from pointing it at their opponent”. Pointing the finger at Nazi collaborators, by the lights of the Socialist Party grandee, amounted to planting the seed of hatred perhaps in the same way that Picasso displayed hatred towards the Nazi officer.
Bono was speaking as member of a government that had withdrawn Spanish troops from the war following an election earlier that year. The direct political heirs of those who gave the orders to bomb Gernika, members of the Francoist Partido Popular, foremost among them the then Prime Minister José María Aznar, had lost. Aznar had given enthusiastic support to the invasion of Iraq, despite overwhelming public opposition to Spain’s participation in the war. Not surprisingly, the public was more attuned to the consequences of war than those pushing for it.
Aznar had cast the so-called War On Terror as a conflict between the West and the Muslim world, with the latter poised to recover Andalusia. “No Muslim ever apologised to me for Andalusia”, Aznar later remarked haltingly to an English-speaking audience, referring to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. The fact it had been his chosen side that had carried out the ethnic cleansing did not, of course, trouble him.
Aznar’s party, re-elected last year to the central government with 33% of the vote, has refused to show any kind of condemnation, let alone remorse, for atrocities either during the Civil War or in the decades of dictatorship that followed it. In 2010, the municipal government of the Partido Popular in Madrid vehemently refused the removal of headstones commemorating the ‘German Aviators’ of the Condor Legion who ‘died for God and for Spain ¡Presentes!’. A spokesperson for the municipal government in Madrid argued that “the dead must be allowed to rest in peace”, and that the wartime bravery of the Blue Division -Spanish troops who fought alongside the Nazis needed to be recognised.
No such peaceful rest can be admitted, from the same quarters, however, for the estimated 150,000 victims of the dictatorship who lie unidentified in mass graves across the Spanish State. Such is the fate of those who were viewed through the lens of prevailing Spanish nationalism as the arrayed forces of ‘anti-Spain’: among them republicans, socialists, Basque and Catalan nationalists.
Nor, for that matter, can Gernika be left in peace, given its symbolic importance both to the Basque Country and to the wider world. In 2014, the Museum for Peace in Gernika awarded its Prize for Peace and Reconciliation to Arnaldo Otegi, the Secretary-General of Sortu (then imprisoned by the Spanish State for ‘glorifying terrorism’) and to Jesús Eguiguren, the President of the PSE-EE (affiliate of the PSOE in the Basque Country), for their participation in peace negotiations. Otegi and Eguiguren received the award along with the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento Sem Terra). In response, the National Court in Madrid heard a prosecution case brought against for the mayor of Gernika by a civil society association with close links to the Partido Popular. The allegation was that the award, for which the mayor was responsible, amounted to a ‘glorification of terrorism’.
There is a savage irony in a political regime, established through high altitude bombing, mass civilian slaughter and brutal repression and torture, becoming concerned with the ‘glorification of terrorism’ in the town where its murderous feats gained global notoriety. It is also important to recall, in this regard, that during the repression in the Basque Country following the fascist putsch of 1936, 29 elected mayors were executed by Francoist forces, and that the mayor of Gernika was in this case under investigation from a judicial organ, the National Court, established by Francoists in order to exercise jurisdiction throughout the whole of the Spanish State.
For the Spanish nationalist forces controlling the state, people seeking independence for the Basque Country have long constituted an enemy within, subjected to political repression, vilification, and torture. Each and every political enemy -Basque or not- is routinely presented by ruling politicians and media outlets as either in cahoots with ETA, or the same thing as ETA. This is reflected in the reasoning of the National Court. It has maintained in its sentencing that ETA is not simply an armed paramilitary organisation, but a broad array of cultural, social and political organisations. As philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez points out, ‘even if these organisations were to condemn ETA and to pronounce every curse from every holy book upon them, they would still not cease ‘being ETA’’.
Former Amaiur deputy in the Spanish Congress, Sabino Cuadra, says that the attitude of the ruling powers in Madrid to ETA’s cessation of activities is that ‘rather than a peace and democratic normalisation based on dialogue, negotiation and agreement, they seek to impose another peace, like the one in 1936, that speaks only of the victors and the vanquished’. It is ‘a false peace that our people rejects’.
The intransigent contempt -at best- demonstrated by the Partido Popular and the Spanish right towards the campaign for Basque independence cannot be separated from the history of brutal repression most vividly captured in the memory of Gernika. Nor can it be separated from its reactionary and anti-democratic character of its social and economic policies and its approach to the rule of law more generally. Jaume Asens and Gerardo Pissarello characterise the Partido Popular approach to the law as:
‘The law that criminalises whoever raises her voice. The one that expels the indignados from public squares, that treats striking workers as ‘rats’ and evictees as ‘Nazis’. And alongside it, the penal law of one’s friends. The law that is placed in the service of power and that looks the other way whenever there is tax fraud, the one that pardons big bankers and promotes or absolves police violence. This is nothing original. The punitive violence of the State has always found its enemies. And when it hasn’t, it has invented them. The inquisition persecuted peasants driven from their lands by accusing them of being witches. The propertied classes persecuted workers by accusing them of being degenerates, scum, vagrants. Seen in a historical dimension, names such as perro-flautas or ‘terrorists’ are often variations of a long-standing hatred. A hatred that implicitly carries demophobia, the classist (and even racist) hatred that the powerful feel towards those who might endanger their privileges.’
The full force of this law has been brought to bear on people fleeing their countries of origin in the same way as hundreds of thousands once fled Spain fearing persecution and death. In October 2015, 15 West African migrants died as they tried to swim to the Tarajal beach in Ceuta, Spain’s outpost in North Africa. Spain’s Civil Guard fired 145 rubber bullets at them, and later claimed this was justified on account of the “attitude” of the swimmers. The action was deemed lawful by the courts. Prisoners in the country’s Foreigner Internment Centres have staged revolts against the brutal treatment received at the hands of the authorities. At the end of one revolt, in October 2016, in which prisoners agreed to come down from the roof on the word that there would be no reprisals, a prisoner told a newspaper that “we came down off the roof and they gave us a tremendous beating. I have huge pain in my sides. Some of us are barely able to breathe. We have bruises everywhere”.
Spain presents itself to the world as an outward-looking democracy. Its ruling political party is in the same parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael in the European Parliament, an expression of a common outlook that can be traced back to the era of Blueshirts setting off to aid Franco in crushing the Republic. Though the Partido Popular is at one with other ‘moderate’ forces in the European Union in pronouncing on the dangers of ‘populism’, its roots in 20th century anti-democratic revanchism, and its fidelity to those roots, cannot be ignored.
But the Spanish State, with its history of anti-democratic repression on one hand and subterranean struggles for democratic equality and solidarity on the other, is only one part of the picture. It is important to recall that whereas the indiscriminate bombing of places in such places as Bilbao, Durango and Gernika during the Spanish Civil War appeared to the wider world as exceptional and unprecedented brutal events. That is how they still appear in our imagination. However, the percentage of civilians killed in wars in the 21st century is far higher. What is more, these bombing massacres are carried out by regimes that present themselves as democratic whilst systematically undermining the material basis for genuine democratic equality. They frequently justify these atrocities in terms of protecting against the threat from new kinds of fascism. Faced with this, and the brutal indifference and contempt that greets people fleeing war zones in search of a better life, perhaps the best question to ask is: did we do this? Assuming, of course, that we do not wish to be like the Nazi perusing Picasso’s studio.