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Shockwaves from Spain

21 April 2017

Peter Street recalls political and religious tensions at the time of the German bombing of Guernica

Greek photonews/Alamy

The art of destruction: Picasso’s Guernica at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid;

The art of destruction: Picasso’s Guernica at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid;

NEXT week marks the 80th anni­versary of the destruction of Guer­nica, a small town in the Basque country, the autonomous region in Spain. The name Guernica is now more famil­iar as a reference to Picasso’s famous painting; the cata­strophic events that the painting por­trays, although not the first such bombing of the Spanish Civil War, had repercussions across the whole of Europe.

There are, of course, some ob­­vious and chilling parallels with cur­rent foreign affairs. The recent chemical attack by the Syrian gov­ernment this month, and the Guernica bomb­ing, both brought home, within their various contexts, the nature and the threat of modern warfare; they both heightened the debate be­­tween those who feared the consequences of more overt participation in the conflict by other nations, and those who called for greater political and military re­­sponse.


THE civil war in Spain (July 1936-March 1939) was fought between the Spanish Repub­lic and an upris­ing led by General Franco, whose supporters were known variously as “rebels”, “insurgents”, and “Nation­alists”. A conflict that might have remained a local­ised struggle broke out — in the words of the historian Hugh Thomas — at “an especially nervous moment” in the history of Europe: in the context of Commun­ist Russia and its championing of international revolution, and the growing belligerence of both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. All three countries were unofficially involved in the war, and it was German and Italian support that ultimately en­­sured Franco’s success.

Franco argued that his was a cru­sade to defend Christian civilisation, which was under attack from an atheist government inspired by Communist ideals — attacks aimed at de­­stroying the Roman Catholic Church and its adherents. During the war, the Nationalists claimed that hundreds of churches were de­s­troyed by Republican forces, and that 20,000 priests had been killed. Current estimates are that 4200 RC priests, 2365 members of religious orders, and 283 nuns were killed. In addition, 20 Protestant ministers were killed by Franco supporters during the conflict.


HERE in Britain, the issue aroused fierce religious and political debate, dividing the nation as no other foreign event had done since the French Revolution. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Cosmo Lang, sup­ported the Government’s policy of non-intervention from the outset, understanding it as part of wider political efforts to maintain peace in Europe. As with recent de­­bates over intervention in Iraq and Syria, it was widely feared that Brit­ish involvement in Spain would have damaging ramifications. Non-intervention, it was felt, would help to keep the conflict localised, and restrain the level of support from outside countries.

(It is worth noting here that non-intervention was also the official policy of Germany and Italy, a stance violated repeat­edly through the participation of their air forces and the presence of 10,000 Italian “volunteers” in Spain.)

The official neutral and seemingly disinter­ested position of the Church of England at the time reflected the complexities of the political situa­tion. The Archbishop of York, William Temple, for example, was confused: he feared that the out­come would be either a Socialist government dominated by anti-Christian forces, or a military government under Franco which would dominate the Church.

Similarly, the Bishop of Chiches­ter, George Bell — thought to be the most likely prelate to speak out because of the interest he had shown in foreign affairs when campaigning against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Ger­many — refused to be drawn into the debate, condemning only the “horrors” in Spain in gen­eral terms.


SOME Anglicans, however, were more out­spoken in their allegiance. The Dean of Dur­ham, Cyril Aling­ton, was one of several who worked with British RCs who supported the Nationalists’ fight against what was termed “the Red menace” in Spain. On the other side, church­men such as the Dean of Canter­bury, Hewlett Johnson, already known as “the Red Dean” because of his public sup­port for Socialism and Communism, cham­pioned the Re­­publican government in its struggle against Franco from the start.

In March 1937, Johnson was al­­most pre­vented from travelling to Spain — as part of a delegation of clerics and other representatives — by the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. The Government, however, was forced to back down in response to the public outcry against the ban.

During Johnson’s visit to the Basque re­­gion, Durango, a town near by, was heavily bombed, even though it had no military signi­fic­ance. About 250 were killed. Among them were 14 nuns and two priests. Johnson visited the devastated area and broadcast from Bilbao soon afterwards, contradicting National­ist ac­­counts of the bombing which attributed the carnage to “the Reds” and their deliberate de­­struction of churches in the area.

On his return, Johnson used the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral to preach about the sit­uation, which led to a reprimand from Arch­bishop Lang for so openly championing the Republican cause. Johnson even attempted to build support from among his fellow clergy of London and the south-east: 2500 invitations were issued for an exploratory meet­ing, but only 12 attended. Such a response typified the widespread non-partisanship within the Church towards Spain. That was until events less than a month later.


IT WAS the German bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 which made many in the Church of Eng­land feel compelled to speak out finally. Guernica was a small settlement, but, being long known as the home of Basque liberty (the Presid­ent of the Basque Republic had been in­­augurated there the previous autumn), it was regarded as cultur­ally significant.

It was market day, and upwards of 10,000 people were in town dur­ing the late afternoon, when, with Franco’s agreement, the town was razed by saturation bombing from 43 aircraft.

The number killed is still dis­puted: the Basque government reported that there were 1654 vic­tims, while Spanish figures claim about 126 died. More recent estim­ates support the higher number, taking into account the many who died of asphyxiation while trapped in underground shelters after the event, and those who were strafed by Stuka dive-bombers on the out­skirts of the town.

News of the destruction of Guernica soon spread throughout Europe. Initially, National­ist spokes­men denied that Guernica had been attacked, before changing tack and blaming the horror on the Repub­licans (in a strategy that has obvious parallels with the current Syrian government’s attempts to shift the blame for its chemical weapons attacks on to the insurgents).

The Times ran a powerful account headed “The Tragedy of Guernica”, and the editor of the Daily Herald sent a telegram to the Arch­bishop of Canterbury asking him to express “disgust at such warfare methods”. The Chap­lain replied that there would be no comment directly to the press, but that Lang regarded Guernica’s destruction as “deplor­able and shocking”.

The Bishop of Winchester, Cyril Garbett, decided to speak out pub­licly: in the House of Lords, he de­­scribed Guernica as “a crime: a cruel and cowardly act of terrorism”, and urged the Government to protest against “an appalling outrage; [to] express the abhorrence felt by the whole country, irrespective of what view is taken of the conflict”.

A Residentiary Canon of Man­chester Cathedral, Peter Green, even wrote a letter to the press expressing his fear of a European war: “The scenes in Guernica will be repeated. . . . I may live to see all central Man­chester in flames.” Indeed he did.


BUT still the internal wrangling of the Church continued. In June, Hewlett Johnson spoke to the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals’ Vigilance Com­mittee in Strasbourg, condemning the Nazi attack on Guernica while standing almost on the German border. Under pressure from Eden, Lang publicly rebuked Johnson once again.

One of the reasons that Lang was willing to do so was because of his concern that Johnson was damaging relations with Catholics. Cer­tainly, tensions between the two groups were escalating over the issue. The editor of the Church Times, Sidney Dark (1924-41), was a member of the executive committee of the pro-Republican Friends of Spain, and argued in the paper on 13 August 1937 that it was regrettable that “the Roman Catholic Church has lost a large part of its prestige and influ­ence from the hectic defence of the Spanish insurrection by Roman Catholic apologists in this and other countries.”

The historian Ben Edwards argues that, in return, “Protestant opposition to the Nation­alists in­­furiated Catholics in Britain: they were at a loss to understand how anyone in the Church of England could defend a regime so hostile to religion.” In reply, Johnson and others asserted that the Republic was averse to the long-standing repres­sion and reactionary policies of the Roman Catholic Church, and was not against all of Christianity — arguing that, in fact, the Basque Church was allowed to operate freely.


IN A similar situation to the Syrian crisis today, the bombing of Guernica reinforced existing efforts to per­suade the Brit­ish Government to admit Basque refugee children. The Prime Minis­ter, Stanley Bald­win, reluctantly consented, des­pite his fears that it would compromise Brit­ain’s policy of non-intervention, and despite press fear-mongering about “Basque Babies” being “Red terrorists” and campaigns for their repatriation. No public money was made available, however.

Nevertheless, some 4000 refugee children were admitted under the auspices of the Basque Children’s Committee, whose mem­bership and fund-raisers included Roman Cath­olic, Anglican, Free Church, Quaker, and Salvation Army representatives.

Many of the refugees had re­­turned home by the end of the year. Spain’s civil war ended in March 1939, and it soon became clear that it was safer for them to be back in Spain rather than remain in Britain, facing the European civil war that had begun in September.

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