The town of Gernika (Basque spelling) is strategically important as 2 main roads intersect there with links to the port town of Bermeo and the Basque capital Bilbao. The river also becomes deep enough for trading boats to navigate the estuary to the Bay of Biscay.
Across medieval Europe meetings were held and new laws signed under oak trees. In Gernika there’s been an oak on the same spot since the town was founded in 1366. The first lasted 450 years being replaced in 1742. The third tree was planted in 1858 but this was replaced in 2005 after it died from a fungus. The town gardeners have always grown oaks from the acorns and there is a stock of descendants which are given as gifts to towns and organisations friendly with the Basque region.
Gernika is the traditional seat of the Biscay Province Parliament; Basque laws were passed under these oaks up until 1876 with a meeting house built nearby for this purpose. When the Basque region became part of Castille it became customary for new kings to come to Guernica to swear an oath under the tree to uphold the laws of Biscay. The symbol of the oak leaf features on many Basque logos and coats of arms.
So Gernika has always held special significance for the Basque people and it’s regarded as their spiritual heart. During the Civil War most Basque regions voted to side with the ruling republicans which pitted them against the nationalists led by Franco. Northern Spain was hugely important for both sides as it has coal, iron and the subsequent heavy industry in abundance.
The nationalists were aiming to take Bilbao and on March 31st leaflets were dropped from planes across the region bearing a message from General Mola telling people their lives and possessions would be spared if they surrendered. The same day the town of Durango became the first ever defenceless civilian European town to be bombed from the air. Hundreds died and fighter planes straffed people in the streets as they ran. General Queipo Del Llano claimed over the radio that only military targets has been hit and that the priests and nuns that died had been locked by communists in the churches and burnt alive.
Monday is market day in Gernika and was and still is a huge affair taking on a holiday feel. On April 2nd 1936 the town held 10,000 people; locals, market goers and also refugees fleeing the first bombings from a few weeks earlier. At 1630 hours all hell broke loss and for 2 and ¾ hours the German Luftwaffe (Condor Legion) and the Italian air force carpet bombed the defenceless town. Wave upon wave of explosives and incendiaries rained down, with fighter planes shooting people as they ran in fear. The town was all but destroyed.
The supposed military objective was to destroy the river bridge which remained untouched as were the two munitions factories. Journalists arrived quickly to the scene and reported the bombing but the Francoists denied any bombing had taken place instead blaming the republicans for setting fire to the town as they retreated. It’s estimated around 1500 people lost their lives.
A few days later the town was taken unopposed. The oak tree and meeting house were luckily untouched by the bombs and locals held an armed guard around the tree to stop the victors felling it as a symbolic act against the Basques. At the Nuremberg trials Goering confessed that Guernica was used as a testing ground for the ‘total war’ bombing techniques for the war to come!