In a Fight Over Syria, Echoes of Spain’s Civil War and the Battle for Truth in Guernica

Before assuming that Syrian rebels faked a chemical attack, remember that Spanish fascists once called the terror bombing of Guernica a false flag.

The ancient Basque village of Guernica is shown after an unprovoked attack by German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937, in which 1,700 of the 5,000 inhabitants were killed. (AP Photo)
The ancient Basque village of Guernica is shown after an unprovoked attack by German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937, in which 1,700 of the 5,000 inhabitants were killed. (AP Photo) Photo: Associated Press

If you listen closely to the angry war of words over whether or not the Syrian government used poison gas in its final assault on the town of Douma, it is possible to detect echoes of a similarly heated dispute that took place during another civil war, eight decades ago.

In the days after the firebombing of the undefended Basque town of Guernica, on April 26, 1937, Spain’s embattled government drew attention to what was then an unprecedented atrocity, the result of more than three hours of airstrikes carried out by a fleet of bombers dispatched by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in support of their fascist ally, Gen. Francisco Franco.

Within 24 hours, as the blogger Joey Ayoub noted in a discussion of Syria last week, spokespersons for Franco’s rebel junta offered an alternative explanation. Guernica, the fascists said, had not been bombed at all, but set on fire by their retreating enemies as part of a plot to garner international sympathy.

The story of how Franco’s press officers tried to plant doubts about who was to blame for the annihilation of Guernica — a test run for the terror bombing of civilian cities across Europe in the years that followed — has clear resonance today, as Syrian and Russian officials work to enshroud last month’s suspected chemical attack in Douma in a haze of uncertainty. A central part of the Syrian and Russian effort has been to prevent independent reporting at the site of the suspected attack, and present the public instead with reports from state-run news organizations and the testimony of witnesses who speak in the intimidating presence of government officials.

The first reports on the destruction of Guernica, by contrast, were filed by four foreign correspondents who visited the town while it was still on fire and spent hours interviewing witnesses and evaluating the physical evidence. Those reports stunned the global public, particularly a dispatch from the Times of London correspondent George Steer, which was reprinted on the front page of the New York Times on April 28, 1937.

“In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history,” Steer wrote. “Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces.”

Although Steer’s report, which inspired Pablo Picasso to begin work on his painting about the massacre, was entirely accurate, Franco’s press office immediately offered a counternarrative, claiming in a statement headlined “Lies, Lies, Lies,” that the Basque president, José Antonio Aguirre, was attempting to blame the fascist air force for fires set by his own troops.

A Spanish civil guard with an automatic weapon stands guard over Picasso's 1937 "Guernica," a depiction of the Spanish Civil War, during a viewing by journalists and critics in Madrid, Spain on Oct. 23, 1981.  After years of negotiation and political disputes, the Picasso masterpiece had recently arrived on Spanish soil for the first time.  (AP Photo/Ive)

When it was first displayed in Madrid in 1981, Picasso’s painting “Guernica” was protected by armed Civil Guard officers.

Associated Press

Three days after the attack, when Guernica fell into fascist hands, William Carney, a New York Times correspondent working from behind fascist lines whose dispatches were subject to censorship, reported that “controversy continued to rage over whether the virtual destruction of the ancient Basque capital was done by German bombers flying for General Francisco Franco or by Anarchists.”

“The Insurgents accuse the retreating enemy of having dynamited and fired Guernica before abandoning it,” Carney reported.

The correspondent then quoted from a fascist radio broadcast played on loudspeakers across the territory then under Franco’s control: “Prisoners we took yesterday and the day before will testify that they saw Guernica set afire upon being evacuated. Just as soon as we can we shall take foreign journalists to see the ruins of the town.”

Carney’s dispatch was followed by an unsigned report summarizing the reaction from a newspaper attached to the Nazi foreign ministry in Berlin, which characterized “as pure lies reports that German planes participated in the bombing of Guernica.” The Nazi paper also added a dose of what we now call whataboutism, reminding the world “and particularly Britain, that aerial bombing has been freely resorted to in northern India and Aden.”

“The so-called Red Basque organizations around Bilbao,” the German paper said, should be “blamed for having spread false reports to enlist foreign sympathy.”

Carney’s report ran in the April 30, 1937, New York Times alongside a new — and contrasting — dispatch from Steer, who reported from behind government lines in Bilbao that incendiary bombs with German markings, like those he had seen in Guernica, had been used again in the town of Galdácano.

The new German tactic of firebombing Basque towns to terrorize the civilian population, Steer added, was accompanied by “another effort — an effort to modify the evil effect that it is bound to have on foreign opinion. This is the dissemination of false news.”

Eight days after the attack, when fascist forces occupying Guernica had removed evidence of German munitions and filled in craters, foreign journalists were taken on a guided press tour of the town. Like some Western reporters taken to Douma last month under Russian military escort, many of the reporters who visited Guernica with Spanish fascists in 1937 duly filed reports casting the cause of its destruction as a possibly unsolvable mystery.

A Times of London correspondent embedded with fascist forces, James Holburn, reported after the fascist-led tour of Guernica that he had been unable to find the expected signs of heavy bombardment there and blamed fire for most of the damage. What Holburn seemed unaware of was that, as his colleague Steer had already reported, the German and Italian pilots who destroyed the town had dropped a large number of incendiary bombs — several of which, bearing German markings, had failed to explode and were seen by Steer and three other reporters in Guernica on the night of the attack. (Holburn later admitted that much of the information in his report that casted doubt on the physical evidence of bombing had been provided by the chair of a commission of civil engineers, appointed by Franco to run a sham investigation into the causes of the destruction in Guernica.)

When Holburn’s report was reprinted in the New York Times on May 5, 1937, it was accompanied by another piece that was headlined, “Bombing Evidence Lacking,” and was written by Carney, who a few days earlier had written the story that uncritically repeated fascist claims about the Guernica bombings. Carney’s new article was filed from Guernica, which he had finally reached. “This writer found most of the destruction here could have been the result of fires and dynamitings, as the Nationalists claim,” Carney wrote, “because the roofless shells of many buildings are still standing and huge shells dropped from plains [sic] do not hollow out buildings, leaving the four walls standing.”

In a remarkable exchange of contrasting views, the Holburn and Carney reports were immediately followed in the May 5, 1937, New York Times by a blunt rebuttal of fascist propaganda written by Steer, who had filed the first story from Guernica that documented the fascist bombings. “The statement issued by Nationalist [Rebel] headquarters that Guernica was destroyed by ‘Red incendiaries’ is false,” Steer began. After citing the witness testimony of a Catholic priest, Steer turned to an account of “the direct evidence that Guernica was destroyed by aerial bombardment” based on what he saw there in person, just hours after the attack.

“Trees were snapped off, or their foliage had been torn away by bomb splinters,” Steer wrote. “I collected several of these bomb splinters. They are exactly the same metal as the bombs lately used by the Rebels’ German aviation on the front line. Of incendiary bombs a journalist colleague with me picked up three, all German, made in 1936. One has been sent to London by the British consul.”

Although Franco’s press officers kept up their insistence that Guernica had been torched by the Basques, rather than, as is now known, Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion, by the time the fascist allies took decisive control of northern Spain in the summer of 1937, it became increasingly difficult to keep up the fiction.

Virginia Cowles, an American reporter for London’s Sunday Times, recalled in her memoir that she had been taken to Guernica in August of that year by a volunteer press officer, a fascist millionaire named Ignacio Rosalles.

“We arrived in Guernica to find it a lonely chaos of timber and brick, like an ancient civilization in process of being excavated,” Cowles wrote later.

There were only three of four people in the streets. One old man was standing inside an apartment house that had four sides to it but an interior that was only a sea of bricks. It was his job to clear away the debris which seemed a life’s work, for with each brick he threw over his shoulder, he stopped and mopped his forehead. Accompanied by Rosalles I went up to him and asked if he had been in the town during the destruction. He nodded his head and, when I asked what had happened, waved his arms up in the air and declared that the sky had been black with planes — “Aviones.” he said: “Italianos y Alemanes.” Roselles was astonished.

“Guernica was burned,” he contradicted heatedly. The old man, however, stuck to his point, insisting that after a four-hour bombardment there was little left to burn. Rosalles moved me away. “He’s a Red,” he explained indignantly.

After their visit to Guernica, Cowles recalled, Rosalles told a staff officer for the commander of Franco’s Northern Army that the town’s inhabitants “tried to tell us it was bombed, not burnt.”

The tall staff officer stunned Rosalles by replying: “But, of course, it was bombed. We bombed it and bombed it and bombed it, and bueno, why not?”

Top photo: The undefended Basque town of Guernica was in ruins after an unprovoked attack by German and Italian bombers on April 26, 1937.

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