What Was the Bombing of Guernica?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2019
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The bombing of Guernica was an infamous military attack which occurred during the Spanish Civil War. Many people today use Guernica as a symbol of wartime atrocity and the cost of war, because hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in the vicious attack. The bombing also rang alarm bells throughout Europe because it involved the German government, which was theoretically barred from participating in military activity by terms of the treaty which ended the First World War.

Guernica is at the cultural heart of Basque country, a region which extends across Northern Spain and parts of Southern France. During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the city was largely uninvolved in the war, although Basque troops certainly were housed nearby, along with the Republican forces which were trying to wrest control of Spain from Franco and his Nationalist troops.

The city became a military target because the Nationalists saw it as a staging point for an invasion of the neighboring city of Bilbao. They undoubtedly also wanted to gain control of Guernica as a dominating tactic, because striking at the heart of Basque culture would have undermined morale among the Basques. In April 1937, the Spanish government worked with German and Italian military representatives to coordinate an airstrike on the town which was designed to obliterate it.


The bombing of Guernica occurred on a Monday, the traditional market day, and historians believe that this day was probably deliberately selected to maximize casualties. Multiple waves of planes were involved in the bombing of Guernica, carpeting with the city with bombs and mowing down civilians who attempted to flee. At the end of the bombing, almost the entire city was destroyed, and an untold number of dead were buried in the rubble; estimates vary from 300 to 1,500 dead, making it hard to get an accurate picture of the death toll.

In took several days for the news about the bombing of Guernica to reach the outside world, and when it did, the world was collectively horrified and concerned. Germany was not supposed to have an air force, let alone a military, and the clear evidence of German involvement in the bombing suggested that the German government was planning something. The bombing of Guernica also represented one of the first airstrikes involving mass civilian casualties in history, dismaying witnesses and commentators alike with the brutality of the militaries involved.

The bombing of Guernica was immortalized in the famous Picasso painting “Guernica,” which has been widely reproduced all over the world. In 1999, the German government formally apologized to the Basque people for their involvement in the bombing, expressing regret for what was essentially a test run of the newly formed Luftwaffe.


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