Guernica – The Symbol of Democracy

Why was Guernica considered a special place? Guernica had long been the center, historically and spiritually, of the Basques in Spain. Guernica had also been known around the world as a town steeped in the tradition of harmonious politics. In addition to those reasons, the bombing and destruction Guernica received during Spain’s Civil War seemed doubly horrifying because of its peaceful history and became even more special as a symbol of democracy.

The Basques have existed in the western end of the Pyrenees before early records were kept. They are a very religious people and have a strong Roman Catholic faith. The Basques believed in agricultural self-suffiency, devotion to the Church and political independence. “Autonomy seemed only right to most Basques. Since records began, their three mountainous provinces of Northern Spain had been the home of a distinct, recognizable culture, and their language, its origins unknown, were understood by few outsiders.”

Since the Basques had such fierce religious and political beliefs, they were allowed for centuries by the various governments of Spain to govern themselves by their own local laws. It was a centuries-old tradition that every two years, assemblies of all men older than 21 met under an oak tree in Guernica. The Spanish monarch, or a representative of the monarch, then “customarily swore to observe Basque local rights.” Executive councils were then elected by the Basques to serve for the next two years.

Guernica was important to the Basques because of its political heritage as well as being its religious and spiritual center for the Basque people. “Both the oak tree and the city of Guernica acquired a sanctity for the Basques, suggesting a transference to political life of an ancient worship of the oak.” The Casa de Juntas, the Basque Parliament House, contained the archives and historical records of the Basque people. The famous oak tree stood just west of the Parliament House. An 18th century Frenchman, Jean Jacques Rousseau, described the residents of Guernica as being “the happiest people in the world, regulating their affairs by a body of peasants under an oak, and always conducting themselves wisely.” The Basques were proud of their heritage and their continuous struggle for autonomy throughout the centuries and they were also proud of the fame that Guernica had gained in their history. “Guernica was their sentimental capital, symbol of their independence, source of their inspiration.”

The Basques had sided with the Republican government in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War because they had been granted independence as a Basque nation. Franco’s Nationalists wanted a completely unified Spain which was against the Basques’ centuries-old political beliefs. Most of the battles over control of Spain’s government was around Madrid until March of 1937. The residents of Guernica weren’t very worried about the war. They were relieved it was being fought so far away and they felt “protected by the three battalions of Basque troops based in town.” Some people worried about the growing armaments factories but most of the people in Guernica agreed that that was a small price to pay for their independence.

In spite of the Nonintervention Pact that forbade the 27 countries that signed it from interfering in the Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini unofficially and secretly sent 5,000 troops of the elite Condor Legion to Spain to aid the Nationalists. The Germans, especially Hermann Goering, were happy that “Spain gave me an opportunity to try out my young air force…and for personnel to gather experience” in the bigger war the Germans knew would come in their own plan for conquering the world.

The fight, aided by the German forces, quickly moved from Madrid through the north of Spain. The Condor Legion’s commander, General Hugo Sperrle, convinced Franco to lead a Nationalist offensive north through the Vizcaya province which included the town of Guernica.

As the combined German and Nationalist forces slowly made their way towards Guernica, thousands of refugees, fleeing the aerial bombs and ground troops, poured into the city. The residents were sure that Guernica would be spared of any violence because it was “world renowned as the capital of a region that had practiced a form of democracy, under which all men were accorded respect and dignity…” They also believed that Guernica, with its symbolic oak tree, would be respected for its history and customs by the enemy even if the town was conquered.

However, the residents didn’t know the importance that the Germans and Nationalists placed on Guernica. “From the point of view of Hermann Goering and the Condor officials, as revealed in 1946 at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Guernica offered excellent laboratory conditions for the testing of both explosive and incendiary bombing methods.” The Nationalists thought that the Basques had betrayed their cause and the Nationalists knew that to hurt or damage Guernica would hurt and damage the Basques.

Monday, April 26, 1937 was a normal Monday in Guernica. It was market day and farmers were selling produce and crafts in the main square. The residents of Guernica went about their normal daily activities even though the front lines were only 30 kilometers away. At 4:30 p.m., German Heinkel airplanes were spotted flying towards Guernica and the bells of the Santa Maria Church began ringing air-raid warnings.

At 4:40 p.m., Heinkels 111 dropped bombs and machine gunned the streets. Junker 52s dropped Incendiary bombs and high explosives every 20 minutes until 7:45 p.m. People were killed and wounded in the streets and were machine-gunned down while trying to escape from Guernica. The middle of the town was destroyed and left burning. Out of Guernica’s population of 7,000, 889 were wounded and 1,654 people were killed.

That deplorable act of violence against a town and people who had such a long history of firm beliefs in democracy and freedom incensed people all over the world. Guernica “became the byword of victimization through senseless destruction.” For Picasso, the famous artist, the Spanish Civil War and the bombing of Guernica “generated a patriotism and a humanitarium outrage expressed in his series of etchings, The Dream and the Lie of Franco, and in Guernica, the mural allegory portraying the bombing.” And “in the consciousness of every Spaniard, Guernica represented the very spirit of their ancient pride and freedom. In sum, the murderous incident was pregnant with historical and human meaning.”

Though Guernica was almost completely destroyed, the spirit of the Basque residents wasn’t. Guernica now has a thriving population and the town shows little signs of the bombing. Even the Parliament House and the oak tree survived. As it always has in the past, Guernica continues to stand and shine as the special symbol of democracy.


Arnheim, Rudolf. “Picasso’s Guernica the Genesis of a Painting”. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

Jackson, Gabriel. “A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War”. New York: The John Day Company, 1974

“Picasso” Encyclopedia Americana. 22 vols. International ed. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, Inc., 1981

Thomas, Gordan and Max Morgan Witts. “Guernica the Crucible of World War II”. New York: Stein and Day, 1975

Thomas, Hugh. “The Spanish Civil War”. 1st ed. Harper Colophon Books. New York: Harper and Row, 1963

Written by Jeneane Behme for my English 101 class, taught by Ms. Grace Scholt, Mott Community College, Flint, MI March, 1985

Teacher’s Comments: An excellent paper. Well-organized and obviously highly detailed. You used quoted material very well. A+

picasso guernica-full

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

During World War II, a German officer visited Pablo Picasso’s studio and saw a sketch of Guernica, Picasso’s graphic painting of the Nazi’s horrific devastation of the Spanish town. “Did you do this? the officer asked, obviously disgusted. “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”  Reader’s Digest, April 1993

Please click on the picture of “Guernica” to better view the much larger image of Picasso’s graphic, violent, horrifying representation of the terrible devastation of what happened to the special town.


4 thoughts on “Guernica – The Symbol of Democracy

    1. You’re very welcome! I had never heard of either Picasso’s mural, Guernica, or about the plight of that Basque town in World War II either until my college English class. But I quickly became incensed and very moved about that town’s terrible ordeal and then moved even more by the stark horror of Picasso’s mural too. Thank you so much for liking my post, sweetie!


  1. Hi Karen,

    This is Aysen from Klein Sun Gallery. I am trying to send you an email but I couldn’t find your contact information. Do you have an email I can reach out to?

    Thank you!


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