On April 26th, 1937, in a horrifying precursor to London, Dresden and Hiroshima, a German Luftwaffe squadron known as the ‘Condor Legion’ attacked Guernica with bombs, incendiary devices and machine-gun fire. Noel Monks, a correspondent for the “London Daily Express”, reported:
“We were about eighteen miles east of Guernica when Anton … started shouting. He pointed wildly ahead, and my heart shot into my mouth, when I looked. Over the top of some small hills appeared a flock of planes….
We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest… ‘What I happened, Father?’ I asked…. He just pointed to the flames [and] whispered: ‘Aviones … bombas’ … mucho, mucho.’ …
I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.
…The only things left standing were a church [and] a sacred Tree, symbol of the Basque people.”
The ‘sacred Tree’ was … the oak where the Basque people traditionally renewed their liberties, but by 1939 all liberty in Spain would be crushed beneath the iron glove of fascism. Today nothing remains of the ‘beautiful idea’ [anarchism] but the massacre at Guernica did lead to the creation of one of the most important artworks in human history.
The Spanish Republic had already commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a mural size painting for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, but after hearing about the terrible events in the Basque Country he deserted his original idea and on May 1, 1937, he began work on ‘Guernica‘. The painting that he produced is so haunting that it has the power to put even latter-day tyrants to shame. On February 5th, 2003, a large blue curtain was used to cover up the tapestry copy of Guernica which hangs in the entrance to the United Nation’s Security Council room. This was done so that Picasso’s famous image was not be visible to cameras when Colin Powell gave a press conference to try and justify the forthcoming war with Iraq. Australian MP, Laurie Brereton, said in an interview after Powell’s speech:
There is a profound symbolism in pulling a shroud over this great work of art … We may well live in the age of the so-called `smart bomb,’ but the horror on the ground will be just the same as that visited upon the villagers of Guernica …. Innocent Iraqis — men, women and children — will pay a terrible price. And it won’t be possible to pull a curtain over that.
Today our televisions bring us daily ‘Guernicas’ from around the world. *
We watch people die in full HD, 3D, LCD, blazing Technicolor during the lunchtime news and yet we still manage to force our pre-washed, vacuum sealed salads (or Big – fat -Macs if you’re that way inclined) down our throats. How have we become so desensitized to such vicious acts of inhumanity? Is it easier, as Paul Kingsnorth acutely observes, to watch the daily suffering of others if we see our – oh so civilised… -selves as somehow standing above and beyond the shit and the blood and the pain and the loss and the helplessness and the humiliation that one human being can inflict on another?
The truth, of course, is that the more civilised we become – the greater we ‘progress’ – the more destruction we seem to reap. During World War I the civilian death rate was in the region of 10%, in World War II it was 50%, and during the Iraq and Afghan ‘conflicts’ civilian deaths reached a staggering 90%. When Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western Civilisation he replied:
“I think it would be a good idea.”