Remembering Guernica, resisting war

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

Seventy-five years ago, the Spanish town of Guernica was bombed into rubble. The brutal act propelled one of the world's greatest artists into a three-week painting frenzy. Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" starkly depicts the horrors of war, etched into the faces of the people and the animals on the 20-by-30-foot canvas. It would not prove to be the worst attack during the Spanish Civil War, but it became the most famous, through the power of art. The impact of the thousands of bombs dropped on Guernica, of the aircraft machine guns strafing civilians trying to flee the inferno, is still felt to this day -- by the elderly survivors, who will eagerly share their vivid memories, as well as by Guernica's youth, who are struggling to forge a future for their town out of its painful history.

The German Luftwaffe's Condor Legion did the bombing at the request of Gen. Francisco Franco, who led a military rebellion against Spain's democratically elected government. Franco enlisted the help of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who were eager to practice modern techniques of warfare on the defenceless citizens of Spain. The bombing of Guernica was the first complete destruction by aerial bombardment of a civilian city in European history. While homes and shops were destroyed, several arms-manufacturing facilities, along with a key bridge and the rail line, were left intact.

Spry and alert at 89, Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea sat down with me in the offices of Gernika Gogoratuz, which means "Remembering Gernika" in the Basque language. Basque is an ancient language and is central to the fierce independence of Basque-speaking people, who have lived for millennia in the region that straddles the border of Spain and France.

Luis was 14 and working as an assistant at a local bank when Guernica was bombed. It was market day, so the town was full, the market square packed with people and animals. The bombing started at 4:30 p.m. on April 26, 1937. Luis recalled: "It went on and on for three and a half hours. When the bombing ended, I left the shelter and I saw all of the town burning. Everything was on fire."

Luis and others fled uphill to the nearby village of Lumo, where, as night fell, they saw their hometown burning, saw their homes collapse in the flames. They were given space to sleep in a barn. Luis continued: "I don't remember if it was at midnight or at another time, as I did not own a watch at the time. I heard someone calling me. ... In the background, you could see Guernica on fire, and thanks to the light of the fire, I realized that it was my mother. She had found my other three siblings. I was the last one to be found." Luis and his family were war refugees for many years, eventually returning to Guernica, where he still lives and works -- as did Picasso in Paris -- as a painter.

Luis took me to his studio, its walls covered with paintings. Most prominent was the one he painted of that moment in Lumo when his mother found him. I asked him how he felt at that moment. His eyes welled. He apologized and said he couldn't speak of it. Just blocks away stands one of the arms factories that avoided destruction. It was the plant where chemical weapons and pistols were made. It is called the Astra building. While Astra has moved away, the weapons company maintains its connection to the town by naming is various automatic weapons the "Guernica," designed "by warriors, for warriors."

Several years ago, young people occupied the vacant plant, demanding it be turned into a cultural centre. Oier Plaza is a young activist from Guernica who told me, "At first the police threw us out, and then we occupied it again, and finally, the town hall bought the building, then we started this process to recover the building and to create the Astra project."

The aim of the Astra project is to convert this weapons plant into a cultural centre with classes in art, video and other media production. "We have to look to the past to understand the present, to create a better future, and I think Astra is part of that process. It is the past, it is the present, and it is the future of this town."

From Picasso's Guernica to Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea's self-portrait with his mother, to the efforts of Oier Plaza and his young friends, the power of art to turn swords into plowshares, to resist war, is perennially renewed.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.