The bombing of Gernika during what is sometimes termed “The Spanish Anti-Fascist War” and more often “The Spanish Civil War”1 was commemorated in Dublin by a weekend of events organised by the Gernika 80 — then and now committee. The event featured a launch of a commemorative pamphlet, including talks by Spanish Civil War historian Enda McGarry and by Irish socialist, republican and civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey; a ska music event; talks and a planting of a “Gernika Tree” at Glasnevin cemetery.2
The pamphlet was on sale for €5 a copy in the large function room of the historic Wynne’s Hotel where the well-attended launch was held. The pamphlet has articles by Richard McAleavey, Enda McGarry, Stewart Reddin, Brian Hanley, Aoife Frances, Sam McGrath, Fin Dwyer, and Goiuri Alberdi.
Enda McGarry was first to speak and in a clear voice, with only an occasional glance at his notes, began by giving the background to the Gernika bombing – the military rebellion against the elected government of the Popular Front and the military campaigns that followed. General Mola was in charge of the fascist forces’ “Northern Front” while battles were taking place elsewhere, including in the suburbs of Madrid.
McGarry outlined the waves of air attack on 26th April 1937, the dropping of incendiary bombs and the strafing of running men, women and children by fighter planes and gave details of some of the horror experienced in the town. The bombing was one of the first aerial bombings of civilian population centres and Gernika, of particular historic-cultural importance to Basques, was hit on a market day. It had no anti-aircraft defences, not surprisingly, since it contained no features of significant military interest.
Going on to describe the lies told by the fascist leaders, McGarry related how in turn the communists, anarchists and Basque nationalists had been blamed for burning the town. Subsequently, apologists had tried to excuse the action by claiming that the Renteria bridge had been the target, in order to cut off the Basque nationalists’ retreat or lines of reinforcement from the northern Basque Country (i.e within the French state).
The speaker pointed out that this line of argument is still being peddled by some, including a fairly recent historian. Demolishing this falsehood by analysing the planes that were used, Heinkels, a Dornier, Junkers 52 bombers, Italian SM 79s and Messershmidt 109, along with the bombs and armament, McGarry showed how this could not be consistent with a bombing run to destroy a bridge. At Burgos airfield sat a number of planes that would have been ideal for destroying the bridge – Stukas, the most advanced dive bomber in general production of the time. They did not use them because neither was the Bridge the target nor pin-point bombing required – what those planning the attack wished to do was to carpet-bomb the area with high-explosive and incendiaries, then machine-gun civilians fleeing the bombing.
Ultimately, the historian continued, of course Generals Franco, Mola and other fascist military leaders were responsible. However McGarry believed that the Spanish fascist leaders, needing to crush Basque resistance but keep the conservative Catholic Carlist troops (from Navarra) and other right-wing Basques on board, would have been unlikely to agree to the destruction of Gernika (a holy historic place to the Carlists as well as to the Basque Nationalists). Oberstleutnant Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen was the commanding officer of the Condor Legion, Nazi Germany’s “loan” of airforce to the Spanish fascist forces – he, along with others including commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Herman Göring, wanted to use the Spanish conflict as a testing ground for warfare from the air and the tactic of terror-bombing a civilian population, which they later employed at Warsaw, Stalingrad and other cities.
The talk ended to strong applause and the chairperson of the meeting introduced Bernadette McAliskey, a long-time socialist and Irish Republican, campaigner for civil rights and in support of migrants.
The chairperson could also have alluded to her survival of an assassination attempt by Loyalist paramilitaries the “Ulster Freedom Fighters”, in which she was shot 14 times and her husband shot too, and that she had before that twice been elected a Member of the British Parliament. Of course McAliskey herself might have requested the omission of those details.
McAliskey began by praising the inclusiveness of the pamphlet, which has contributions from many different writers. She then moved on to expounding what kind of people are fascists, a term she believed too widely applied, and what kind of people fascism serves. In a rather long discourse, entirely without notes, the speaker went on to analyse what Republicanism is, rejecting a definition which said the basic unit of a Republic is the State, insisting instead along with Thomas Paine that the basic unit is the individual. Believing otherwise, she declared, makes one a nationalist rather than a Republican, á la Gerry Adams.
At times one could be forgiven for assuming that McAliskey thought she was addressing liberals, saying for example that “we don’t think enough about what goes on in other countries”, or “we don’t think about what is happening to certain groups”, such as migrants, Travellers – those considered “non-people”; or when she declared that she had no understanding of what was going on in Syria because neither her background nor experience could help her to understand it. McAliskey seemed unconscious that this is a line which was also commonly disseminated in Britain about the war in the Six Counties.
But then, McAliskey would switch without warning, as in her mischievous assertion that one should deal with liberals by throwing them in at the deep end: “they either learn to swim or they no longer give you any trouble.” Or when later, she pointed out that those in power never give up their weapons, and that one day we might present ourselves to our exploiters and insist that they step aside, as “there are more of us than there are of you”, to which they will reply: “Maybe so, but we have the weapons.”
When Bernadette McAliskey finished her talk, to sustained applause and cheers, the chairperson invited questions, of which there were three and a comment. The first question was whether McAliskey thought Gerry Adams was a psychopath, to which she discoursed on the question of insanity and on the number of lies that were told by politicians such as Gerry Adams. One of the big lies was that the IRA had forced the British to the negotiating table, which McAliskey emphatically denied was true, insisting that the reality was that the IRA went to the negotiating table because they could fight no longer, the rate of attrition was too great.
The next question, by a woman who announced that she had a USA background, in the context of her declaring that racism is about white supremacy, was about how to make the Irish aware of their role in this supremacy. Bernadette said it was an important question and that the process by which the oppressed can become the oppressors was one observed on a number of occasions in history.
This reporter thought that the questioner’s statement about the nature of racism being white supremacy might also have been questioned, a proposition disproved for example by the experience of the Armenians under the Turks, Jews and Slavs under Nazism, the Irish in Britain or at home under British rule, Irish Travellers in Irish society, etc.
The last question enquired what Bernadette would say to Basques, as some had said to the questioner, that the Irish were “lucky to have a peace process”, given that we were now approaching the second decade after the Good Friday Agreement. McAliskey replied that Ireland did not have a peace process but rather a pacification process, and that the ‘new dispensation’ divided up the Six Counties between political parties along sectarian lines, with cuts to services being imposed by those in power and substantial unemployment and unfair treatment of the “other minorities”: migrants, Travellers …. And that jails in the Six Counties today contain “about as many political prisoners as they did when the Good Friday Agreement was signed but the prisoners with less politics than had their fathers.”
1Neither term sitting well with probably most Catalans and Basques, who do not consider themselves Spanish, having a different cultural identity, most aspects of which were suppressed by the victors of the War, the General Franco dictatorship regime but had been suppressed by others before them too.
2Gernika’s historic importance to the Basques before the bombing was based on the fact that Basque nobles met there to discuss their administration of Basque lands and it was there that a Spanish King had stood, under the ancient Basque oak tree, Gernikako Arbola, the “Gernika Tree”, promising to respect their rights to rule within their territory.