October 5, 2015
Monastery de Zenarruza to Gernika: 10 miles
Feeling fully restored after an evening at the monastery, the hike to Gernika was pretty and relaxing.
Gernika is a small, quiet town with a significant past, and this might be a good time to share a little of what we’ve learned about Spanish history.
I can tell you this much: it’s complicated. I won’t go into it too much, but the Spanish people have at times experienced immense suffering. Here are a few highlights: the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, then there was the terror of the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted for over 300 years. In the 1930’s, the country was torn apart by civil war and then suffered for over three decades under Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship. And I’m leaving out lots of details from the centuries in between, of wars and cruel kings and convoluted politics and so on.
What makes things more complex is the fact that Spain is made up of various regions that have very diverse cultures and unique languages. The Basque Country, which was an autonomous region for hundreds of years before being annexed by Spain and France, has its own language, which many locals speak in addition to Spanish. We also saw this when visiting Barcelona, in the region of Catalonia, where the natives speak both Spanish and Catalan.
I should add that this two-language thing has been an interesting challenge for Dale and I as we travel through this area: town names are sometimes given in Basque and sometimes in Castilian Spanish and sometimes in both languages. It makes things extra confusing for those of us non-natives dependent upon maps and street signs as we move through the region. In this post I’m showing respect for the locals that have been so good to us by using the Basque spelling for the town of Gernika, versus the more commonly used Spanish spelling, Guernica.
But back to history. The Basques fiercely opposed Franco’s rebel troops, and he finally became fed up with them and decided to take extreme measures to punish the region. He requested the assistance of his more powerful and well-equipped ally, Germany, and on April 26, 1937, the German air force continuously bombed Gernika for about three hours and then strafed the streets with gunfire to kill survivors attempting to flee the city. It was an attack on a defenseless civilian population and killed hundreds of civilians, and the town was almost completely destroyed. Germany initially denied involvement in the destruction but eventually acknowledged that they had participated, but they stated their intent was to destroy bridges to prevent fleeing Republican troops from escaping. In reality, no bridges (or factories or other strategic targets) were damaged in the bombings, and it came after the war ended that Gernika was an opportunity for the German airfare to practice and perfect its techniques before unleashing them on the rest of Europe. They knew that civilians would die; in fact, that was an integral part of the plan. For Franco, it was an opportunity to destroy a town of powerful cultural and historical significance to the Basque people, and Gernika’s destruction broke Basque resistance; soon after the bombing, the region fell into Franco’s hands.
This intentional targeting of a civilian population was considered by many to be an act of terrorism, and it caused a huge public outcry, bringing international attention to the Spanish Civil War. It also inspired one of the most significant paintings of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica, which Dale and I were lucky enough to see at the Reina Sofia Museum with our friend Tamara when we were in Madrid.
The painting offers a powerful image of suffering and has become an iconic anti-war symbol.
Franco ultimately won the Spanish Civil War, and afterward he chose to persecute those regions with minority cultures, such as those of the Basque Country and Catalonia, and it was forbidden to speak any language other than Spanish.
When Franco died in 1975, the country transitioned back to a democracy, and cultural and language rights to the individual regions of Spain were restored, but the Basque region continues to argue for its right to be an independent country. There has been a strong liberation movement here for years that continues to this day. It has at times erupted into violence. The ETA, an organization originally founded in 1959 to promote Basque culture, gradually evolved into a paramilitary group that since 1968 has been held responsible for hundreds of killings and kidnappings and was considered a terrorist organization by Spain and other European countries. It was disbanded through a ceasefire in 2012. Multiple members of the group are still imprisoned in Spain, France, and other countries, and we saw posters all over the region calling for the release of what locals consider to be political prisoners.
The Basque Country isn’t the only other region pushing for independence; Catalonia and several other regions are as well, and the Spanish government has been forced to give some concessions to these regions. The issue is incredibly complex. There are lots of interesting articles online, so feel free to Google the subject of Basque and Catalan independence to learn more.
Since we were just staying there for the night, we didn’t spend much time in the city, but as a result of the bombing there isn’t a lot of the old city left, and Gernika has a very modern feel. But it’s still an important city to the Basque region and an enduring symbol of how devastating war can be.