Conspiracy of Silence

Utter the word, ‘Guernica’ and it will probably be familiar to most people, if only as the title of one of Picasso’s more famous paintings. Many will also be aware that the painting was Picasso’s response to an atrocity of the Spanish Civil War. On 26th April 1937, the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe together with planes from the Italian air force bombed the Basque city of Guernica for over two hours, killing an estimated 1,600 people. It was market day and so the town centre was crowded. The attack took place at the invitation of Franco’s nationalist forces, and served as an opportunity for the Nazis to put into practice their theory of blitzkrieg. It is often considered to be the first occasion on which the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population was carried out as an act of war. It was not the first.

Just over two months earlier, nationalist forces under General Queipo de Llano, and including Franco’s much (and rightly) feared Moroccan Brigade, were advancing on Malaga. The city was already crowded with refugees from Ronda, Cadiz, the Gibraltar region, and all the coastal towns west of Malaga; about 100,000 people in all according to the most reliable estimates. With nationalist forces in Marbella, the flight of the civilian population of Malaga began on 6th February, on the only road available, the coastal road (it was too basic to be considered a highway) to Almeria, the next large city some 200km away. Estimates of the numbers involved vary from 60,000 to 200,000 people. Bearing in mind the number of refugees already in the city and adding the resident population at that time of some 300,000, and even the higher estimate, though more likely, may understate the true size of the refugee column of women, children and old people; all,of course, were civilians. Their sense of panic was increased by the fact that Queipo de Llano had been using propaganda broadcasts to intimidate the local population, and leaflet drops from aircraft were also used on the column.

The more affluent (or enterprising) set off by car but soon had to abandon the vehicles when they were unable to refuel them. Young children and the elderly were carried by mules so far as possible, but the great majority travelled on foot. The road they took was still the coastal road in use when I first came to this area in 1983, and so I know just how narrow, winding and exposed it was with many steep ascents and descents along the way. Progress would have been slow. The refugees were reduced to eating the sugar cane which was the predominant crop of this region; many soon succumbed to a combination of exhaustion and hunger and died by the roadside. However, worse was to come. Three ships of the Spanish navy, under nationalist control arrived close inshore and began shelling the column, soon to be joined by Italian fighter planes strafing the column from above.

Offshore were warships of both the British and German navies, attending in the role of observers on behalf of the “Non-Intervention Committee” of European nations. The British studiedly looked the other way; the Germans, it is said, joined in the shelling. The coast road was left littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. Estimates give the total number of dead as being between 5,000 and 15,000 people - women, children, old people, and all, bear in mind, civilians.

So why was it Guernica that was remembered and not the Malaga/Almeria road? The sad truth is that it was in no one’s interests to remember it. The Republican forces in Malaga (Communists, anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and others) had been at each other’s throats on doctrinal matters rather than uniting in a common effort to stop the Nationalist advance or to protect their civilian population. The Republican high command feared a catastrophic loss of morale if news got out (and anyway, they had their own shame; they have decided not to reinforce the forces in Malaga). The Nationalists had no wish to make known what they were doing. The international community would have had to confront the shame of having at the very least turned their backs on the victims, and in some part had colluded in the massacre. The local population along the route feared for its own survival, and so it too had done nothing to help. The only help came from a Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune; Google his name for one cheering facet to the whole business.

Finally, these things are coming into the open with a growing movement here in 21st century Spain for the recovery of historic memory. Hence Baltazar Garzon’s investigation, and hence, too, the efforts of the old franquistas to silence him. On the 14th February this year the people of Motril, a town more or less midway between Malaga and Almeria, unveiled a commemorative plaque. The photo is taken from www.alifa.org/blog, on the website of Alifa TV.

The other photo is from La Desbanda website: http://ladesbanda.lespana.es/lahuida.html

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