Though on a small scale by later standards, the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 ranks as one of the iconic moments in the 20th century. Memorialized by Picasso in what is perhaps his most famous work, it was an event that shocked the West for the degree of death and destructiveness inflicted on a single, defenseless community. For many Europeans it symbolized their fears for what a new war would bring to the continent, and indeed in retrospect it also served as a precursor for the conflict that was soon to come. Ian Patterson’s book about the bombing of the town is both more and less than a study of the attack, as he broadens his focus beyond the actual event to fit it into the context of its era.
Patterson’s focus is evident from the start, as he begins not with the bombing of the town but with how it was initially covered by the media of the time. This approach serves to demonstrate how the meaning of the event was contested from the start, as both the Republican and Nationalist sides in the Spanish Civil War present it as an example of their opponents’ barbarity. Charged with launching the attack, the Nationalists denied any responsibility and instead accused the Republicans of attacking the village in an effort to galvanize public opinion against General Franco’s forces. The images of the destroyed town, though, quickly took on a larger meaning, as they served as visual embodiments of the new type of war, one in which civilians suffered as well as combatants.
From here Patterson brings in the larger context of the literature of the times about war, particularly war from the air. The limited use of air power against cities during the First World War created awareness of the threat, while the advances in technology and the warnings of experts served to magnify it. This anxiety was a consequence of the emergent concept of total war, where whole societies were now targeted by enemy forces as a means of waging war. Though the fears of the 1930s proved exaggerated in some respects, Guernica’s fate was indeed one that would soon be inflicted on an increasingly escalating scale upon Rotterdam, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and others, all of which helped to cement Guernica’s status as a harbinger for the decades that followed.
Short yet enlightening, Patterson’s book is a thoughtful examination of the bombing of Guernica and the broader meaning it held for his age. While his definition of total war (which he limits to the use of air power to effect destruction) is rather narrow, his book nonetheless serves to illustrate how closely we have come to associating the concept with the devastation brought by the bombing of cities. This is a work that should be read not just by people seeking to learn about Guernica’s destruction, but also by anyone interested in modern warfare and its impact on Western thought in the modern age.