Gernika Club, Picasso’s painting and Spain’s flawed reckoning with its traumatic past

“Franco burned Gernika… but Franco, for me, was Spain’s saviour from everything.”

Rafael Madariaga is talking about the bombing of the northern Spanish town of Gernika on April 26, 1937, during the country’s Civil War. Carried out by the air forces of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini at the behest of Spain’s dictator, General Francisco Franco, it was one of the first aerial bombings of a civilian population — and it inspired one of the world’s most famous paintings: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Madariaga is a survivor of the bombing and his memories of the day are crystal clear, 87 years on. He remembers the flames from the town’s ruins illuminating the surrounding mountains and the anxious wait he experienced as a seven-year-old who did not know whether his father and brother had made it. “We lost everything we had,” Madariaga, 95, says.

Franco’s Nationalist troops occupied Gernika three days later. Soon, the whole of Spain was in the grip of a dictatorship that would last until Franco’s death in 1975. The country is still grappling with its legacy today.

The bombing of Gernika on 26 April 1937 (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Madariaga went on to become president and manager of the town’s semi-professional football team, now known as Gernika Club (Gernika is the town’s official Basque language name, which we will be using throughout this article).

Now playing in Spain’s fourth tier, their history reflects the contrasting, conflicting narratives the country has struggled with since the Civil War — a period that takes in official lies, silence and a desire to recover lost memory.

Located 13 miles to the north east of Bilbao, Gernika is a town that was symbolic long before it was bombed. It is part of the Basque Country, a region of northern Spain and across the border in France that shares linguistic, historical and cultural ties — today it is estimated that nearly a million people speak the Basque language, Euskara.

Kings of Spain used to travel to Gernika to promise to respect the rights of the Basque people and Lehendakaris (presidents of the Basque government) are sworn in beneath the Tree of Gernika, an oak tree whose oldest predecessor was planted in the 14th century and which features on the Gernika Club badge. The tree and the town’s Assembly House (Casa de Juntas) where it stands were among the few things not destroyed by the bombing in 1937.

When Athletic Bilbao won the Copa del Rey earlier this month, they took the cup to the Casa de Juntas. There was another link to the town — beaten finalists Real Mallorca are managed by the Mexican Javier Aguirre, nicknamed ‘El Vasco’ (the Basque), whose mother emigrated from Gernika.

The bombing brought Gernika to international attention. In 1936, the Nationalist general Franco staged a military uprising against the country’s republican government and his troops took control of parts of Spain. When the Republicans held firm in several areas, it led to a bloody conflict in which around 500,000 people died.

The Basque Country became a key target for the Nationalists. Backed by Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion and fascist Italy’s Aviazione Legionaria, they threatened to destroy the province of Biscay in which Gernika is located if the population did not submit to their troops. On March 31, 1937, the Italians bombed the nearby town of Durango, killing more than 200 people.

Then came Gernika.

A scene after the bombing at Gernika (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On Monday, April 26 — market day in the town — Hitler and Mussolini’s planes attacked. According to the Gernika Peace Museum, at least 31 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the town and more than 85 per cent of its buildings were totally destroyed. The Basque government recorded 1,654 deaths, a number disputed by Franco’s dictatorship.

Many outside Spain first learned of the bombing through the reports of the South African-born British journalist George Steer. Writing for The Times of London, his eyewitness account of the attack’s aftermath remains as shocking as it was nearly 90 years ago.

“At 2am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a terrible sight, flaming from end to end,” Steer wrote. “The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night, houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.”

Steer recounted how the bombing had lasted “precisely three hours and a quarter” and detailed how German fighter planes had “plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in fields”. He rejected the idea that Gernika had been a strategic target, pointing out how an arms factory and two military barracks had remained untouched.

“The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race,” he wrote.

Franco refused to take responsibility for the attack, instead accusing Basque republicans — or “the reds” — of setting fire to the town. The truth was in Steer’s reports, reproduced in other newspapers including The New York Times.

Franco and Hitler, pictured in 1940 (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, Spanish football was largely put on hold from 1936 to 1939.

Gernika Club were founded in 1922 as the Sociedad Deportiva Guernica Club (Guernica Club Sporting Society). They played in Biscay’s regional leagues but folded in 1934 due to financial problems. There was still an appetite for football in the town, however, given the success of three Gernika-born players in Spain’s Primera Division — Athletic’s Rafael Iriondo, Candido ‘Makala’ Gardoy of Espanol (now known by their Catalan name, Espanyol) and Real Madrid’s Gotzon Arzanegui.

That led to the re-establishment of the club by a group of fans, including a former director, in 1942. Their new statutes included an article that read, “the Society declares itself unaffiliated to all political ideas, completely prohibiting any discussions related to this”. Anyone who broke this rule would be “expelled from the building by a member of the director’s board”.

But the spectre of the bombing loomed large. Franco’s government set up a department called ‘Regiones Devastadas’ after the Civil War to rebuild Gernika and other towns that had been ruined during the conflict (Franco would later be named an ‘adoptive son’ of Gernika). The club received funds from the department to build a stadium and used rubble from the bombing to fill in the ground at their new location towards the north of the town, the Campo de Zubikoa. During times of heavy rain, that rubble would be exposed.

There was another way in which politics still played a role. “When the club began again in the 1940s, practically all the directors were people who had been from the Nationalists’ side,” says Segundo Oar-Arteta, a historian of Gernika Club. “To be mayor, to be a councillor, to be the director of a bank, you needed to be a person who had won the war. And the directors of Gernika Club were also like that.”

In 1955, the club faced going under again after being evicted from their Zubikoa ground by a jewellery and silverware company which argued it was entitled to the land. They were saved when a shop owner, Luciano Cearsolo, told the board it could not shut down the club. He set up a new committee which successfully lobbied the council for a new ground — but was blocked from becoming president. He was a known Basque nationalist and a former lieutenant in the Basque army, who had fought against Franco’s troops in the Civil War.

Madariaga, 95, holding a photo of his family’s old shop (The Athletic)

Madariaga took charge instead and would serve as president — aside from a brief spell as manager — until 1972, close to the end of Franco’s reign. He remembers some players singing banned Gudari (Basque soldier) songs but says he spoke “nothing” of politics.

The club did embark on a tour of Germany, in which they visited another bombed city in Pforzheim, but Madariaga says this was not of a political nature. According to the former president, it came about after a German team visited Gernika, having played against neighbouring club Bermeo.

At home, Gernika Club flitted between Biscay’s regional leagues and lifted the region’s Copa Vizcaya at Athletic Bilbao’s old San Mames stadium in 1958. According to Jose Mari Gorrono, the town’s current mayor from the independent Guztiontzako Herria party (‘The town for everyone’ in Euskara), some fans wore the club’s badges as an indirect symbol of resistance against Franco’s regime when he was growing up.

But the silence around the bombing affected the club in the same way as any of Gernika’s inhabitants.

“My father was a survivor of the bombing — he couldn’t speak about that. If he spoke about that, they would arrest him,” says Anton Gandarias Astelarra, the secretary of Gernika Club. “When we (the club) went away to games against other teams, we couldn’t talk about this.”

The silence around the bombing contrasted with its coverage in the outside world — especially when it came to Picasso’s painting.

Living in Paris when the Civil War broke out, Picasso had been asked to produce a work for the Spanish tent at the 1937 International Exposition in the French capital. When the Malaga-born artist read Steer’s reports in the French press, he found his subject.

The result was a stark anti-war painting called Guernica. Painted in black and white to evoke the newspapers where Picasso learned of the bombing, it shows a woman crying out as she holds her dead child, a horse rearing its head and a bull — a symbol of Spain — among other images. A fallen soldier clutches a shattered sword with a flower growing out of it while a fire rages.

A view of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (Diego Radames/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“It was a scream for the horrors that had befallen the home city of the Basques,” says Gijs van Hensbergen, an art historian and author of Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. “It’s a chaotic, brutal scene, which art historians and myself have tried to unpick and understand — but it had a huge effect on other artists as well, they felt the power. And it still has that incredible power today.”

Guernica has never been displayed in the town it takes its name from, although it is still very present. Prints appear in the mayor’s office, restaurants and shops across the town. A mosaic form near the Casa de Juntas carries the Basque caption ‘Guernica Gernikara’ — Guernica to Gernika — reflecting calls for it to be transported here. Gernika Club hand out prints of Picasso’s masterpiece to each new club they visit and in 2022 released a commemorative shirt for their centenary with the painting on the front.

“I can’t think of any other town or city in the world that is most automatically associated with one artwork — and the most famous artwork of the 20th century,” Van Hensbergen says.

Picasso insisted Guernica should not be displayed in his native Spain until democracy was restored. In 1981, the Spanish government finally secured its return, six years after Franco’s death. On seeing it in Madrid, the Basque-born communist Dolores Ibarruri, more commonly known as La Pasionaria (‘The Passionflower’) said: “The Civil War has finished.”

Spain’s transition to democracy was defined by a so-called ‘Pact of Forgetting’ in which politicians on the left and right agreed not to prosecute atrocities committed during the Civil War. It helped the country move beyond the conflict in the short term, but in the long term led to deep trauma.

Franco’s remains were only removed from the grand Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) cemetery, built by political prisoners, in 2019. In recent years, descendants of those killed by his regime have dug up mass graves in a bid to find their relatives. A ‘Law of Democratic Memory’ introduced by current Socialist Party prime minister Pedro Sanchez to confront the past continues to attract opponents.



Barcelona, Real Madrid & Franco: How two rivals united in exploiting a painful divide

Gernika has positioned itself as a ‘city for peace’, with initiatives linking it with other bombed cities including Hiroshima and Dresden. In 1997, the then-German president Roman Herzog wrote to survivors to express regret for his country’s role in the attack. In 2022, on the 85th anniversary, Sanchez’s government issued a declaration that “for the first time in history” expressed Spain’s “unmitigated condemnation”.

A view of Gernika (The Athletic)

It is hard to picture Gernika before the bombing. Today, it is a quiet town surrounded by the green mountains of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. Little remains of the pre-bombing days apart from two former arms factories and an old water tanker as you enter the town. The 10-minute walk from the centre to Gernika Club’s Urbieta stadium takes you past another survivor of the bombing: a bridge that was left untouched, despite Franco’s insistence this was a strategic attack.

Gernika Club are not overtly political but remain a proud Basque club. They are one of 160 in the region affiliated with Athletic who help the Bilbao side maintain their unique policy of only signing Basque players — Athletic striker Asier Villalibre came through the ranks at Gernika. They play in the Segunda Federacion, the regionalised fourth tier of Spanish football, in a group that includes the reserve teams of La Liga clubs including Athletic, Real Sociedad and Deportivo Alaves.

On a Sunday afternoon in March for a mid-table match against Tudelano, a team from the autonomous community of Navarre, sweeping views of the mountains contrast with the bruising game on display at the Estadio Urbieta, which is far from reaching its 3,000 capacity. Gernika fall behind within 40 seconds, lose defender Gaizka Argente to a second yellow card after half-time and are outclassed in a 4-1 defeat, with academy graduate Iker Amorrortu scoring two of their opponents’ goals.

In a dingy room for press conferences, head coach German Beltran — a former Real Madrid youth player who once trained alongside Iker Casillas and Samuel Eto’o — is in a sombre mood. The 44-year-old knows what Gernika represents, as an honorary Basque who has played for and managed several clubs in the region.

“I’m incredibly proud to fly the flag for Gernika wherever we go,” says Beltran. “On a cultural level and in terms of tourism, it’s an incredible place. It’s a privilege to live here… There’s no doubt we’ll take Gernika as high as possible.”

Gernika are aiming to qualify for next year’s Copa del Rey (The Athletic)

Gernika secured their status in the division earlier this month and their immediate aim is to qualify for next season’s Copa del Rey; they are eighth in their 18-team group, which would be enough as things stand given Athletic, Real Zaragoza, Alaves and Real Sociedad’s youth teams are above them but are ineligible for Spain’s cup competition.

But the bombing still matters to them, even if fewer survivors remain as each year passes. For a new generation of ‘gernikenses’ (people from Gernika), it continues to stir strong emotions. Just ask Ramon Santos Gandaria, Gernika Club’s 26-year-old social media manager whose grandfather lived through the attack.

“Every year on April 26, at 4pm they turn on the sirens — that’s when the bombing started,” he says.

“In that moment when the sirens ring out and you look to the sky, you ask: ‘What would it have been like then to see planes dropping bombs, what impact would it have?’

“That’s when it reaches you.”

Like any institution that bears the town’s name, Gernika Club remain linked to the bombing. According to Iratxe Momoitio Astorkia, the director of the Gernika Peace Museum, it would be a “dangerous form of amnesia” if the town stopped being associated with the attack.

“During many years it’s been a part of resistance and denial,” she says. “During other years it’s been about claiming our right to say what we weren’t allowed to.

“Now it’s the pride of being able to remember and to defend the other ‘Gernikas’. To give — through the name of Gernika — a voice to others who have experienced suffering.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *