Sixty years ago, Hitler’s warplanes bombed this mountain town to rubble. For the first time, Germany atoned for the slaughter in a solemn tribute Saturday to the more than 1,000 civilians who died.
As a bell recovered from a church destroyed in the April 26, 1937, attack tolled for its victims, German Ambassador Henning Wegener sat in the front row of wooden seats in Guernica’s cemetery, his head bowed.
German President Roman Herzog planned to apologize today for the attack, the first air bombardment of an undefended town in history and immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Germany’s atonement comes after six decades, but it is not too late for survivors who remember the attack as if it happened yesterday.
“We were in a sandbagged shelter when it began,” recalled Miren de Gomeza, 76, who along with Wegener placed wreaths at a victims’ memorial. “We thought we would die, and began to pray together, but we couldn’t hear our voices above the bombs.”
When de Gomeza and others in the shelter emerged after the three-hour bombardment, “we saw a Dante-esque scene. There was a red cloud over the town, trees and utility poles covered the streets, and all the houses were on fire.”
Incendiary devices were among the 100,000 pounds of bombs dropped on Guernica by the German Condor Legion, which fought alongside Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. It was the first time they were used against an urban target.
German fighter planes strafed civilians trying to flee.
“The planes came very low,” remembered Itziar de Arzanegi, who was 11 then. “We could even see the goggles on the pilots’ faces. One old woman didn’t run, and instead screamed curses at them. She was hit by bullets.”
Death estimates range from 1,000 to 1,650.
Wegener, in an interview, noted Germany’s acceptance of blame comes as new information is emerging about World War II, to which the Spanish Civil War was a prelude. The role of Swiss banks in accepting Nazi gold stolen from Jews, and of Franco protecting German spies and saboteurs have recently made headlines.
“There is a taking stock, and a new reflection on the past,” Wegener said. “There is a new sensitivity, and if wounds have not healed, it is time to do something about it.”