Guernica and Bucha

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After Picasso’s Guernica (tiles), Guernica, Spain. Photo: Jules Verne Times Two / / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Guernica and Guernica

Guernica (Gernikara in Basque) is a city of 17,000 located in the province of Biscay (Vizcaya) in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. It has a recorded history that goes back almost a thousand years and for centuries has been at the center of Basque culture and politics. The Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau based some of his ideas about direct democracy and the “general will” upon public assemblies held beneath the renowned Tree of Guernica. But the town is best known because of Picasso. When people today speak of Guernica, they see it through the lens of Picasso’s Guernica.

In 1937, the most famous artist in the world – a Spaniard from Málaga — made a mural sized painting depicting the recent destruction of Guernica by German Luftwaffe bombers. The painting was controversial. The Communists thought it too abstract; they wanted socialist realism. The liberals thought it was too political; they wanted beauty. The fascists and Nazis thought it was degenerate; they wanted it burned. But following its initial exhibition at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, the picture’s stature and renown grew.

In 1938, Guernica was sent on tour across Europe, and then in 1939, after the fall of the Spanish Republic, to the United States. It soon landed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it remained until 1981. Scholars of every persuasion wrote about it: the formalist critic Clement Greenberg, the English connoisseur and Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt, the gestalt theorist Rudolf Arnheim, and many others. The picture became a cipher, its meaning dependent upon the perspective of the viewer and the historical circumstance of spectatorship. With each succeeding generation, Guernica’s exalted position solidified – especially in progressive circles — until it became what the art historian Karl Werckmeister called an “icon of the left.”

You could say I grew up with the picture. As a teen in the late 1960s and 70s, I visited MOMA almost weekly for the free film programs. During breaks in screenings of Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, or Sergei Eisenstein, I went upstairs to the galleries, and nearly always stopped to look at Guernica. The picture was hung on a wall barely larger than itself. Opposite it were some painted studies, plus a selection of work-in-progress photographs by Picasso’s lover, the artist Dora Maar. There was always a buzz in the room as people moved forward and back and side to side to get the best view and sometimes whisper to each other. They pointed to the bull and horse of the corrida — the latter in agony; the mother with a dead child in her arms at left; the woman with a lamp reaching through a window in the middle; the screaming woman beneath a window at right; the fallen soldier at the bottom, his extended right hand grasping a broken sword; and the street-light/eye/sunburst/bomb-blast at the top. That last reminded visitors – at a time when Cold War tensions were high – of the thermal flash of an atomic bomb.

To a young, Jewish aesthete, the painting was about two things, neither of which was the actual Luftwaffe bombing of a distant Spanish city. It was about Cubism, the art movement invented by Picasso, Braque, and a few others around 1910, that changed the direction of art for all time; and anachronistically, it was about the Holocaust. In the 1970s, there were still lots of survivors in my Forest Hills neighborhood, and their presence made a big impression on me. I remember once as a small boy, riding in our apartment building elevator with a man who had blue numbers on his arm. I pointed at them and looked up at my mother. She quickly apologized to the man who shook his head from side to side and replied in a Yiddish accent, “Yuh don vanta know.” I thought about those survivors when I looked at Picasso’s painting, particularly the screaming woman at right with arms raised. She might be in a gas chamber.

In 1981, after the death of Franco and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, Guernica was returned to Spain in accord with the deceased artist’s wishes. It happened on the evening of September 9, in secret for reasons of security, and I woke the following morning to read in the Times that it was gone. By then I was a graduate student in art history and knew enough to approve “cultural repatriation.” But in my heart, I resented the Reina Sofia Museum in for stealing Guernica. In October, 2019, I traveled to Madrid and one of the curators there, Chema González, kindly took me into the galleries when the museum was closed to the public to see the picture by myself – that was the apology I never got and didn’t deserve.

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Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Lately, Guernica the city, has been in the news because of the war in Ukraine; it’s seen as the antetype of Bucha, population 35,000 in the Kyiv oblast. Reporters from several news organizations, especially The New York Times, have documented war crimes there. The numbers are not high – perhaps two dozen – but the details are awful. Men were executed while their hands were tied. Some showed signs of abuse or torture. Women were shot dead in their homes or while hiding in cellars. Atrocities also appear to have occurred in Mariupol, but evidence may never be found because of the Russian bombardment and occupation. Like Guernica, the city was leveled.

Has history repeated itself in Ukraine? President Volodymyr Zelensky thinks so. On April 5, 2022, during an address to the Spanish parliament, he said: “Imagine, that people now – in Europe – live for weeks in basements to save their lives. From shelling, from air bombs. It’s April 2022, and the reality in Ukraine is the same as in April 1937, when the whole world learned the name of one of your cities – Guernica.” In both places, shells and bombs rained down on unarmed civilians.

“Just” war

Most human cultures have rules – often unspoken or unrecorded – about how fights are to be conducted, and what consideration the loser owes the winner and vice versa. In the Early Modern period in Europe, these principles were systematized and documented in what’s known as “just war” theory. In 1758 the French lawyer Emer de Vattel, building upon the ideas of the 17th Century Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius, argued that a sovereign may not wage war in a manner “more fatal to mankind or more harsh in its operation” than absolutely necessary to protect his security and defend his rights. He also insisted upon the inviolability in times of war of women, children, the aged and infirm:

“This is so plain a maxim of justice and humanity, that at present every nation, in the least degree civilized, acquiesces in it. If sometimes the furious and ungovernable soldier carries his brutality so far as to violate female chastity, or to massacre women, children and old men, the officers [must] exert their utmost efforts to put a stop to them; and … punish them whenever he can. But if the women wish to be spared altogether, they must … not take up arms.”

The key principle here is that in a just war, innocent civilians must always be protected from harm unless they choose to take up arms. That principle was put to the test in the Peninsular War in Spain (1807-14) a half century after the publication of Vatel’s treatise. That’s when masses of Spaniards called guerillas seized weapons to fight French invaders, their mercenary allies, and often each other.

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Francisco Goya, 2nd of May, 1808, 1814, Prado Museum, Madrid.

When Napoleon’s forces were finally defeated in 1814 by the British and their allies, the Spanish crown commissioned the country’s greatest artist, Francisco Goya to paint two decisive moments at the start of the resistance: the uprisings in Madrid on May 2, 1808, and the reprisals on May 3. The first shows a near-desperate scene where civilians armed with knives set upon the Mamluk imperial guard of the French at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The second

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Francisco Goya, 3rd of May, 1808, 1814. Prado Museum, Madrid.

shows the revenge killings one day later; it’s the more celebrated of the two canvases and has often been interpreted as a universal outcry against oppression, a tribute to innocent victims of war, and a call to freedom. In fact, both pictures are one-dimensional propaganda images, retrospective attempts to rationalize the preceding six years of chaos and corruption, and uphold the righteousness of a restored, Spanish monarchy, allied with the martyred pueblo. The pair of paintings is thus the precursor of many propaganda pictures of resistance and atrocity all the way up to Guernica.

Goya explored the same themes– without propaganda this time — in a series of 82 etchings hidden during his lifetime and later published under the title The Disasters of War. Here he

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Francisco Goya, “With reason or without,” Disasters of War, c. 1812. Photo: The author.

depicted the war without heroism or glory. French troops and Spanish guerrillas are locked in desperate hand-to-hand combat to the death, with no distinction between who is winning

and who is losing, who is dead and who is still alive. There is no trace of triumph or respite, only the desperation of a struggle without issue. In the etching titled “With reason or without,” guerrillas are shown fighting heavily armed French soldiers with knives and a spear; they are already wounded but keep fighting. One soldier is so close to his enemies that he can’t fully raise his weapon and so must point his bayonet toward their groins.

The age of set-piece battles waged by professional soldiers was over the era of total war was begun. Within a few decades an effort was underway to somehow control the scope and passion of war and re-establish binding rules concerning the treatment of captives and putative civilians. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 defined “belligerents” as any inhabitants who “spontaneously takes up arms” but nevertheless sought to protect civilians as well as infrastructure “dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected.” In addition, aerial bombardment of people and infrastructure was proscribed by a draft Hague Convention of 1923, but the document was never ratified and its provisions were mocked by Mussolini in 1936 in Ethiopia, and a year later by the Spanish Nationalists.

The Spanish Civil War began in mid-July 1936, when a group of fascist officers led by Emilio Mola staged a coup against the elected, coalition government in Madrid. Soon, the country was divided between Republicans (or Loyalists) and Nationalists, the latter directed by Francisco Franco who — after Mola’s death in a plane crash — named himself Generalissimo (“highest of all generals”). Fighting between the two sides quickly intensified, with foreign forces and volunteers entering the country to aid one side or the other. The Soviet Union sent in guns and a small number of troops in support of the Republicans. The volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an American battalion organized by the Communist International, arrived in Spain in February 1937. They were spirited but poorly trained. Other irregulars joined the fight against Franco, though they sometimes fought each other or the Popular Front government: communists against anarchists, Stalinists against Trotskyists etc. More ominously, Germany sent in significant detachments of ground, naval, and air forces in support of Franco, and enlisted further military assistance from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

On April 26, 1937, 24 bombers from the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe, commanded by Field Marshall Wolfram von Richthoven, undertook an aerial raid on infrastructure, military, and civilian targets in Guernica. The goal was to clear a path for Franco’s soldiers to advance westward to Bilbao and secure domination of Northern Spain. The initial afternoon bombing raid on Guernica was damaging but not catastrophic. There followed, a few hours later, a much more destructive attack. This one consisted of 29 planes, dropping bombs in a broad line running north to south. Most of the buildings in the ancient town were either destroyed or badly damaged. Deaths were reported by Republicans at the time as about 1,700; but a more accurate count is probably 300-400.

Whatever the correct number, the Spanish Nationalists under Franco were ruthless in their methods. But they were hardly the only ones. During World War II, attacks upon civilian populations and infrastructure were widespread, despite the recognition that far from demoralizing the subject population, “terror bombing” tended to strengthen its desire to resist. The Luftwaffe bombed civilian targets in Durango, Guernica, Santander and elsewhere in Spain, and a few years later London, Coventry, and Rotterdam, among other cities. The United States deployed terror or “strategic” bombing in Dresden, Berlin, and Tokyo and of course atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Carpet bombing of targets in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1965 to 1973 killed at least 300,000 civilians. U.S. “precision” bombing in Serbia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan killed tens of thousands. The count of civilian deaths from bombardment in Ukraine so far number in the low thousands, but is sure to rise. In many of these cases, the claim is made, sometimes with plausibility, that civilian belligerents and other non-military contributors to the war effort make such tragedies inevitable. In any case, in the age of total war, everything – soldiers, civilians, infrastructure, politics, culture and propaganda — are at once targets and instruments of warfare.

Political contradictions of Guernica

There is little doubt that in both Guernica and Bucha, invading armies — German and Russian — killed unarmed civilians to avenge partisan attacks and demoralize the general population, however dubious the latter strategy. But there is an additional parallel, we have begun to see, between the Spanish Civil War and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one less likely to be acknowledged by Zelensky and his NATO allies: The dreadful killings in Guernica, like those in Bucha, Mariupol, and other civilian centers, were not only the consequence of criminally culpable soldiers and their military and political leaders. They were also the result of a model of total war that presses ordinary civilians into military service and makes them targets. The atrocities were additionally the consequence of a model of propaganda that deploys civilian suffering as a means of rousing national resistance and international support. That system was in operation in Spain in 1937-39 and in Bucha and the rest of Ukraine today.

At the Spanish pavilion of the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, where Picasso first exhibited Guernica, hortatory text on the walls conveyed the idea that the entire population was mobilized to defeat the Spanish Nationalists. One of them, written by President Manuel Azaña read: “In the

trenches there are over half a million Spaniards with bayonets who will not let themselves be overrun.” Indeed, the president’s greatest challenge was to transform the many popular militias

into an organized military and police force capable to defeating the professionally trained

Spanish Poster featuring the painting They shall not pass Madrid, Nov 7 by J. Briones

J. Briones, They Shall Not Pass, Madrid November 7, 1937.

soldiers commanded by Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini. Loyalist posters and magazine covers of the period – among the greatest achievements of 20th century graphic design – emphasize the popular character of the resistance. Men and women in civilian or worker clothes stand shoulder to shoulder on the barricades or in battle lines. Uniformed militiawomen shoulder rifles, campesinos do the same, and everywhere the slogan “no pasarán”.

The problem for the government was that in shaping these insurgent forces into a disciplined, modern military, the fury that drove the partisan militias might be lost. That’s why a second propaganda drive was also undertaken – this one in apparent contradiction to the first. It represented the civilian population not as the vanguard of resistance, but as helpless victims of

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Augusto Fernandez Sastre, possibly with Robert Capa, ‘What are you doing?”1937. Merril C. Berman Collection.

fascism. Enlarged photographs at the Spanish pavilion in Paris depicted women and children fleeing shootings and bombardment. Posters showed the same thing, as in Augusto’s extraordinary example, “What are you doing to prevent this,” published in English and Spanish versions. The point of the poster was obviously to rouse fury at the Nationalists and unify Loyalist opposition. The surrealist French poet Paul Éluard drew upon the propaganda in his 1937 poem “Victory at Guernica” in which the innocent dead inspire the living to fight until victory:

Those whose despair
Enrages the desolate flames of hope
Let’s crack open together the last bud of the future

In creating Guernica, Picasso’s was caught in the horns of the same political and propagandistic dilemma. In early versions of the painting, Picasso represented the fallen soldier with his arm and sword upraised, as in a final gesture of defiance. But in so doing, he was implicitly undermining the government’s claim that there were no troops garrisoned in the city (in fact, there were) and that the bombing was a war crime. In Picasso’s finished version, he eliminated the raised arm. The soldier is instead represented as if he were simply a shattered piece of ancient statuary, no more valid as a military target than the dead or fleeing women, children, and animals. The result is a painting that, though obviously a committed response to a wartime atrocity, is nevertheless oddly inert. The fleeing or terrified women and children, the stricken animals (note too, the crying goose in the shadows at middle left), and the fallen soldier are all broken or hopeless. Guernica was an image not of resistance but of defeat, and thus an icon of artistic resignation more than of political solidarity.


Zelensky’s government faced a military and propaganda predicament like the one addressed by the Spanish in 1936-39: How to encourage a broad-based, popular resistance, while at the same time corralling it so it’s militarily effective; and how to arouse patriotic, popular resistance while still insisting upon the distinction between military forces and civilian non-combatants?

At the outset of the war, civilians including women and children, were enlisted to make Molotov cocktails, and taught how to use them. Ukrainian military and political leaders made plans for a broad-based, popular resistance to expel the Russians: “The season of total Ukrainian guerrilla safari will soon begin,” said Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, in late March: “Then there will be one relevant scenario left for the Russians: how to survive.” The national Special Operations Force published a handbook instructing ordinary citizens about how to demoralize an occupying army and sabotage its military operations. A video instructed saboteurs on how to blend into the background and avoid Russian attention.

Ukrainian artworks, like Spanish Civil War posters, frequently convey the breadth of the resistance by depicting a phalanx of civilian women and men. A Ukrainian artist who works under the pseudonym “Kinder Artist” drew a group of naked women joining together to push

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Kinder Artist, Ukraine Will Resist, 2022. Photo courtesy the artist.

against a Russian troop carrier. Another watercolor titled Ukrainian Titans Open Up the Skies shows a line of naked men, women, and children holding up an ominous grey sky. Kateryna Lysovenko depicted a woman with one breast exposed, like Delacroix’s Liberty at the Barricades, holding an infant child at her side. Both mother and child have one arm raised to the sky with middle finger extended. A poster by Andriy Yermolenko shows the Kyiv Founders Monument transformed into a tableau of men and women wielding automatic weapons in defense of the city.

But since the Ukrainian expulsion of Russian forces from the suburbs of Kyiv, the main thrust of war propaganda and Western reporting has been focused not on civilian resistance but on the suffering of civilians disengaged from the war effort. The deaths of non-combatants in Bucha, and the execution of surrendered members of volunteer militias, have been compared to killings in Guernica, and treated as war crimes. In mid-April, as a result of the discovery of bodies in Bucha, all killed by retreating Russian forces, President Biden accused Putin of genocide. He did so again last Friday: “Not only is he trying to take out Ukraine, he’s literally trying to wipe out the identity of the Ukrainian people, attacking schools, nurseries, hospitals, museums with no other purpose than to eliminate a culture.” A pair of conservative think tanks issued a report on the same day highlighting a “significant risk” of genocide in Ukraine and accusing Russia of “genocidal intent.”

The problem with the increasingly frequent charge of genocide is that it that occludes the legal distinction between genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and simple war crimes. The word genocide, the deliberate destruction of a whole people, was coined by the Polish scholar, Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule, and was first used at the Nuremberg trials the following year. But the judges there failed to include genocide in their final indictments, apparently because of American concern that it might be turned against them for their conduct toward Native Americans and African Americans. The politicization of the term genocide was thus present almost from its birth, and since then has been deployed highly selectively in international criminal law, as Phillippe Sands has pointed out.

The evidence is nevertheless clear that Russia has engaged in grave “war crimes” and “crimes of aggression” in its invasion of Ukraine. Bucha is one obvious example, but documentation of other war crimes – for example across the Donbas – accumulates daily. The added imprecation of “genocide” however, only muddies the legal picture. Proof of genocidal intent is hard to come by. Such charges, in addition, hinder resolution of the conflict. A negotiated settlement between perpetrators and victims of genocide is impossible – the latter expect retribution, not signatures and a handshake.

Conclusion: Goya’s Duel with Cudgels

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Francisco Goya, Duel with Cudgels, c. 1821. Prado Museum, Madrid.

After seeing Guernica at the Reina Sofia in Fall 2019, I walked the few blocks to the Prado, which I consider to be the greatest museum of paintings in the world. I won’t argue that case here, but a museum with many of the best works by Van der Wyden, Bosch, Bruegel, Titian, Rubens, Poussin, Claude, Velazquez, and Goya would on its face be a contender for the title. The Goya collection is unparalleled and includes what have come to be known as his “Black Paintings,” so-called because of their dark tone and spirit. They were made during the artist’s last few years in Spain before emigrating to France in 1823, and installed in his house, the

Quinta del Sordo (Country House of the Deaf Man). All of them were removed from the walls in 1873, attached to canvas and donated to the Prado. They are in bad condition – trimmed, damaged, repaired and partly repainted – but the paintings remain fantastic, enigmatic, dream-like, caricatural and in one case horrific (Saturn Devouring his Son).

Nobody knows why they were made or what they mean, though theories abound. My own is that they were intended to function as a kind of Theatre of Cruelty, “passionate and convulsive,” according to the 20th century dramatist who coined the term, Antonin Artaud. At the Quinta, visitors and the artist himself would stroll the hallways and confront startling critical and political visions: rank and hierarchy are smashed, received ideas undermined, and laws of cause and effect suspended.

One of these paintings, Duel with Cudgels, shows a struggle between two plainly dressed men, possibly colossi, buried in the earth up to their knees. They appear unable either to advance or retreat, so they will continue to fight forever, or until they kill each other. This painting is therefore both an ironic representation of the idea of “just war,” and an allegory of the Peninsular War and the government repression that followed it. It also prophesies the current state of the war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin recklessly invaded Ukraine — prodded for two decades by the U.S. and NATO — and expected an easy march to Kyiv. Denied that prize, he has apparently settled for more limited aims: a firmer hold on a territory Russia already partly controlled, the Donbas region. Ukraine on the other hand, its citizens motivated by fury over war crimes or genocide, and its military floated by arms and money from the U.S. and NATO, is intent on driving Russia entirely from its territory, including the Donbas and possibly even Crimea. But just as Ukraine is focused on vanquishing Russia, Russia is determined not to be defeated by Ukraine, whatever the cost.

In the meanwhile, casualties on both sides mount, the prices of food and fuel rises everywhere, and people all over the world – excluding Western political leaders – wait for the other shoe to drop: A mistake by any of the parties to the conflict could trigger a nuclear exchange. No artist-geniuses can help us now. What’s needed is mass public demonstrations to stop the arms merchants, the fossil fuel profiteers, the corrupt oligarchs (Russian, Ukrainian and American), the propagandists, and their political accomplices “Every honest man is a prophet,” wrote Goya’s contemporary William Blake. “The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.”


Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at