84 years ago, in a small town in the Basque part of Spain it was market day, Monday April 26th 1937, half-past-four in the afternoon.
The shoppers heard a rumbling overhead, they looked up they saw waves of Italian and German planes, objects began dropping out of the planes.
Some of the shoppers screamed and ran but it didn’t help, these were bombs.
The bombs were high-explosive and they blew buildings apart, people either died in the explosions or were buried in the rubble.
As rescuers tried to get to the dead and injured, the second wave of bombers came over.
But these planes weren’t dropping high-explosive, they were dropping incendiary bombs.
Why did they drop high-explosive first and fire-bombs second?
Because the bombers were part of The Condor Legion, Germany’s contribution to helping General Franco win the Spanish Civil War for the Fascists.
The Condor Legion was under the command of Oberstleutnant Wolfram von Richtofen, and the bombing was an experiment for the bigger war Germany knew was coming.
The objective was to find the most effective way of destroying a city.
So first they dropped high-explosives, to shatter gas-lines and create an inflammable atmosphere, to break water pipes so fire fighters couldn’t put out fires, to create rubble to hamper emergency services, and to destroy electricity and phone lines so they couldn’t co-ordinate a response.
Then, the second wave would drop fire-bombs to ignite all the gas and exposed wooden structures, and the broken water pipes would mean the fires couldn’t be put out.
In this way the destruction was found to be more thorough and effective.
The lessons they learned that day were later used by the Germans over Britain, then by the British over Germany, then by the Americans over Japan.
300 people died in the bombing of that Basque city.
And yet, even today, it’s much more famous than the bombing of all the other cities, where many, many thousands more died.
So why have more people heard of the bombing of this Basque town than any of the attacks on far larger cities?
It’s because Picasso painted a picture named after that town, called ‘Guernica’.
He painted it for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.
It was 12 feet high by 26 feet long, painted in stark black and white, to feel more like a filmed documentary than a piece of art, a critic said of it:
“The protest is found in what has happened to the bodies, the hands, the soles of the feet, the horse’s tongue, the mother’s breasts, the eyes in the head – we are made to feel their pain with our own eyes.”
Guernica, the painting, was exhibited in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester. Brazil, Milan, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Nelson Rockefeller tried to buy it for the United Nations building in New York, but Picasso wouldn’t sell the original, so Rockefeller had a huge tapestry commissioned to copy it.
Picasso stipulated that the painting could not be shown in Spain while it remained a dictatorship under Franco.
In 1975, Franco died and Spain was returned to democracy.
In 1981 the painting was returned to Spain and hung in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
It had its own museum built and in its first year was visited by over a million people.
Of all the destruction in World War Two, one town is remembered more than any other because of one painting.
When we think of everything wrong in the world and we feel powerless to do anything about it, it’s worth remembering the power of a single piece of creativity.