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The Bombing of Guernica: Could WW2 Have Been Stopped That Day?

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

When did WW2 begin? Conventional wisdom says 1 September 1939, the day the UK and France declared war against Nazi Germany following the invasion of Poland, but it’s not quite as simple as this.

For America it began at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941; for Russia, it was Operation Barbarossa (22 June 1941); for Jews in Nazi Germany it was the day Hitler became Chancellor (30 January 1933); for China, it was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (18 September 1931).

It's easy for history to box things in to digestible years – say 1939 to 1945 – and while this is not wrong it’s not quite the full picture. When asking the huge historical question of why WW2 began these dates have to be broadened.

For those living in the Basque town of Guernica WW2 began on 26 April 1937, when Nazi Germany bombed the town on behalf of Franco and the Nationalist Government during the Spanish Civil War. The raid, led by the Nazi Luftwaffe, targeted civilians and killed many. The estimated figures are disputed, but it’s believed that between 200 and 250 people were killed and many hundreds wounded.

Franco’s aim was simply to terrorise those who did not support him, but for Nazi Germany, it was a chance to practise a policy of imperialism: how would the world react?

Nazi military leader Hermann Göring described involvement in Spain as an “opportunity to test under fire whether [war] material had been adequately developed”. Nazi commander Wolfram Von Richthofen described the carnage: “Guernica, a city with 5,000 residents, has been literally razed to the ground. Bomb craters can be seen in the streets. Simply wonderful.” This was the first use of Blitzkrieg (a technique later seen in London) and was the climax of Hitler’s German re-armament programme.

But it wasn’t just a military training run. Historian Paul Preston told the BBC in 2003, “Germany and Italy were in it [the Spanish Civil War] because they wanted to weaken Britain and France, seeing it as an opportunity to change the balance of power.” In strategic terms a Facist Spain was good news for the Nazis: it ensured Europe’s third largest country would be sympathetic to their aims of imperialism. WW2 in Europe was underway.

There had been an attempt by Britain to stop any international involvement in Spain with a Non-Intervention Agreement, but it didn’t work. Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco despite signing the agreement – providing weapons, transportation of troops, and of course bombing raids such as Guernica. In fact, it seemed that only Britain stuck to the agreement with a ban on British sales of fuel to the Republicans in Gibraltar, a decision that historian Gareth Stockey says came as a “huge boon to Franco, whose Army of Africa was at the time stranded in Morocco”.

It has been said that the bombing of Guernica and the Spanish Civil War provided the green light Hitler needed for WW2. Preston goes further: “Had they [Britain] been stronger in opposing then I think the whole course of events, Anschluss, Munich, the whole thing would have been dramatically different. If you push me, I’d end up saying there probably wouldn’t have been a Second World War.”

Preston’s argument is a thought-provoking one that suggests a British intervention in Spain after the bombing of Guernica might well have curtailed Hitler’s imperialist ambitions. More importantly, could an early alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union (who supported the Republicans) against the Fascist powers in Spain have made the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 impossible? If so, the question arises, would Hitler have been able to invade Poland on 1 June 1939 at all?

When we remember those who lost their lives, loved ones, and homes in Guernica, it’s clear that the ramifications of that terrible event – portrayed in all its horror by Pablo Picasso – reverberated well beyond this small Basque town.