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Heinkels over Guernica

Hugh Thomas

One day in the mid-1930s, a self-educated Texan, Herbert Southworth, arrived in Washington and found himself a job in the Library of Congress. In the evenings, he studied and made himself a socialist. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Mr Southworth worked for the Republic. He later joined the United States Information Services and, in that capacity, went to Morocco with the American amphibious expedition in 1943. In Morocco, he married a French lawyer, and ran the radio services of USIS. Subsequently, after the war, he became the general manager of Radio Tangier and in the end owned it. He was bought out by the independent Moroccan government in 1960.

All the time, his hostility towards the regime of General Franco simmered, though for many years his only overt action was the founding of a formidable collection of books about the Spanish Civil War. Retiring from Morocco with a reasonable fortune at his disposal, he eventually bought a handsome chateau in the Indre. There, in the serenity of an immense library, he worked methodically to undermine the intellectual position of those who had helped, as he puts it, " the possessor classes in Spain, landowners, factory owners, bankers to keep their possessions ".

His first book, The Myth of Franco's Crusade, published in French and Spanish a little over ten years ago, established Mr Southworth as a formidable polemicist. An attack on the intellectual respectability of Rafael Calvo Serer, a leading journalist of the lay Catholic movement Opus Dei, this first sally never found an English publisher. Nor, understandably perhaps, did his second book, Antifalange, a commentary on an apologia for the old shirts of the Spanish fascist movement by Maximiano Garcia Venero. But these two books made Mr Southworth well known in the narrow circle of foreign hispanists; and also in the much larger one of exiled and other opponents of Franco's regime. Down to the chateau on the Indre trooped a succession of scholars and bibliophils. The hooting owls, old oaks and crumbling farm buildings formed an inappropriate backcloth to the polemical discussions and the minute textual analysis which characterized Mr Southworth's method. The library was sold a few years ago to the University of San Diego, but by now the intrepid Texan has another vast collection on the same theme.

Now La destruction de Guernica, the culmination of Mr Southworth's years of patient labour, is published. It is a black day for old friends and new of the Spanish Nationalist's "last cruisade", as the late Douglas Jerrold, one of Mr Southworth's main targets and my own one-time publisher, put it in his autobiography. It must be riling for Mr Southworth that so many of those who would have felt it necessary to answer his views are dead. On the other hand, I can only feel that Brian Crozier, a biographer of Franco and a defender of the view that Guernica was destroyed not by the Germans but by the Basques, is dramatically challenged by this book, as is Ricardo de La Cierva, until recently the Director General of Popular Culture (censor-in-chief) in Spain itself. But do not let it be supposed that any of us can sit back complacently. Some of Mr Southworth's mud splashes almost everyone who has written about modern Spain. Friendship is not stood in the way of scholarship. I, for example, am described as capricious, in my changes in estimate of those killed at Guernica; Raymond Carr is seen as the leader of a neo-Franquist conspiracy, with Stanley Payne, because of a suggestion that the faults of the Spanish left between 1931 and 1936 justified the military rising of the latter year. So look to your swords, and off we go to the Chateau de Roche. You have spoken of the last crusade, monsieur? Well, this is the last after that.

The subject at issue is, of course, a serious one. On April 26, 1937, the "sacred" Basque town of Guernica -population about 6,000- was destroyed. At that time, it was probably some ten mile's from the front line. Seventy hours later, on April 29, Nationalist forces entered the town. A controversy began immediately about how the destruccion had occurred and, with pauses, the controversy has continued ever since. Indeed some of the most vigorous defences of the Spanish Nationalist line have been made in the past year or two. Thus, an article "exposing the red myth" of Guernica by Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth College was published in 1973 and reprinted in Die Welt and Il Tempo. In Il Tempo the article had as its title "Sensational Revelations Destroy a Myth". These articles were published at a time when even in Spain itself a book had been published by a journalist, Vincente Talon (Arde Guernica. Madrid: San Martin, 1970), suggesting that the controversy was now not so much whether the Basques or the Nationalists destroyed the town, but whether the Germans had the approval of the Nationalists high command when they did it. A subsidiary, but also important, problem related to the number of deaths caused.

Indeed, it is fair to say that some of the views of the more prominent historians now writing in Spain -members of what Mr Southworth would refer to as the neo-Franquist school- are more forthcoming on this matter than, say, Mr Crozier. Thus, Colonel Martinez Bande, in what is the nearest thing to an official history of the Spanish Civil War, recognizes, in his appropriate volume (Servicio Historico Militar: Monografias de la Guerra de Espana No 6, Vizcaya, Madrid, 1971), that Guernica was destroyed by German aviation; while Ramon Salas Larrazabal, in his monumental history of the Republican army (Historia del Ejercito Popular de la Republica, 4 volumes, Madrid, 1973), published an operations order by the German Condor Legion, dated April 26, 1937, which reads thus: " Saemtliche fliegende Merlaende [sic] der Legión Condor im mehrmaligen Einsatz. Angriff auf zurueckgehenden Gegner auf Strassen Doeralich [sic] Monte Oiz und auf Bruecke und Strassen ostwaerts Guernika."

It is, therefore, clear beyond a shadow of doubt that George Steer, The Times correspondent in Bilbao in April 1937 (subsequently killed in Burma in the Second World War), was right when he reported that Guernica was destroyed by Heinkel 111s, Junkers 52s, and Heinkel (fighters) 51s. Equally right were Noel Monks of The Daily Express and Christopher Holme at Reuters who, with the Belgian Mathieu Corman for Ce soir of Paris, were the only other foreign correspondents in Bilbao at the time. They drove out to the burning town on the night of the tragedy. It should also be obvious that the reports of the various journalists who entered Guernica under Nationalist auspices after April 29, were false. They were told by the Nationalist press department that Guernica had been either entirely or wholly destroyed by the retreating Basques. These journalists included James Holburn, also of The Times, but accredited to Franco's forces. He subsequently became editor of the Glasgow Herald. Now retired, he has virtually accepted his mistake in conversation and correspondence with Mr Southworth. Other journalists who clearly made a mistake were W. P. Carney of the New York Times, Georges Botto of the Havas agency, Max Massot of the Journal of Paris, Pierre Héricourt of Action française, Richard Massock of the Associated Press and some others. Possibly they were intimidated : another French journalist, Georges Berniard, of Le Petit Gironde of Bordeaux, was captured by Nationalist forces in Guernica when they entered and narrowly escaped being shot as a spy. (His Basque guide was shot.)

It is in the unravelling of how and why these reporters wrote as they did that Mr Southworth is at his most interesting. He was particularly fortunate to be able to use the Havas agency archives in Paris, and he throws much light on the activity of that agency (which was, after 1944, closed down because of its collaboration with the Germans). In 1937, Havas was regarded as being almost a government news agency and Mr Southworth is able to show that, when important items of news came up, the custom was for them to be checked by the Quai d'Orsay. Sometime's, the checking went a very long way indeed. It is clear that Botto's important dispatch from Vitoria about Guernica was given maximum distribution by Havas and, since it was therefore the basis of many other versions, can be regarded as an essential piece of evidence. Mr Southworth has uncovered much discreditable information about Georges Botto, suggesting that he may have been a spy and making clear that he collaborated in the 1940s.

There are naturally some ambiguities left behind even after this new and fascinating versión of the story. Thus an interesting telegram to London (published here for the first time) from the British Ambassador to Paris, Sir Eric Phipps, reports that the phrase "It is begged that the greatest posible publicity may be given to the above", when used by a Havas correspondent at the end of a dispatch, was the formula "generally used to indicate that the news given is incorrect or only given under pressure". Botto in Vitoria ended his cable (also published in its original telegraphic form) "diffuse largement cette dépêche". Surely, therefore, Botto was using the signal. But the Havas agency either by mistake or design did give the telegram maximum publicity. Mr Southworth assumes that it was by design, probably with the connivance of ultra-Catholic rightists in the Quai d'Orsay. I am not so sure he makes his point. It may have been a mistake, as has often happened with secret signals of that sort from the time of Theseus onwards. Furthermore, disreputable though Botto clearly became later, he did nevertheless give the sign that what he had written was rubbish.

The whole treatment of Botto's dispatch is a good instance of Mr Southworth's method. Minute care is paid to the exact words of the document concerned - rightly, because, if different people on the basis of the same evidence have drawn different conclusions, there should be an explanation. Every possible lead is followed up, sometimes over years. Then a conclusion follows. Sometimes, however, this conclusion fails to consider the possibility that sometimes things happen by accident. Mr Southworth himself takes infinite pains. But many of the people he writes about were slapdash, overworked and afraid, both of their opponents and their superiors.

This is a point which should be considered in relation to Mr Southworth's own conclusions. If we assume that Guernica was destroyed by the Germans, it is still not absolutely clear, even after reading these 500 absorbing pages, exactly why it happened or who was responsible. It could not have been (as General Galland wrote in his memoir) that Guernica was bombed heavily by mistake because of the bad weather: a force of some forty aeroplanes does not spend three hours over a small town in order to destroy a bridge, clouds or no clouds. Was Guernica destroyed to give the Basques a good shock and to persuade them not to fight for Bilbao? Very possibly that is the explanation, and it is Mr Southworth's, but there is no hard evidence for it: the archives of the Condor Legion were apparently destroyed in the Second World War, and its commanders did not write any account of it before died -Hugo Sperrle, the supreme commander of the Condor Legion, died in 1952 having been condemned as a war criminal; General von Richthofen (not Richtofen, incidentally) died on the Russian front in 1943.

There may be people alive in Germany who know exactly why the decision was taken as it was along the lines of the telegram I have quoted, but they would not be Hannes Krautloft, as Mr Southworth implies, since he had left his post early in April. Furthermore, would Major Fuchs, if he is still alive -he was, I think, in charge of those Heinkel 111s which did the deed- actually know the reason for his orders ? I doubt it. He certainly would not have known whether there was or was not a row between General Franco and General Sperrle afterwards, as George Hills suggests in his biography of Franco (Franco the Man and his Nation, Robert Hale, 1967) on what Mr Southworth rightly considers rather dubious evidence.

On this, I agree with Mr Southworth. It is surely improbable that the Germans set off and bombed Guernica by themselves, without discussing the matter with the Nationalist high command. They never did on any other occasion; the Germans were not particularly anti-Basque –less so, I should have thought, than the Nationalist leaders, who were outraged that the traditionally Catholic, even right-wing, Basque nationalist movement should have sided with the "reds" in return for virtual independence. Even so, there is no real evidence that Generals Franco and Mola knew that a particularly disagreeable essay in aero-psychological warfare was being tried. Of course, they may have given an easy assent to the bombing of Guernica ; it was a road junction not far from the front line and there was an arms factory just outside it. The accursed French had anyway destroyed much of the town and burned the famous oak during the Napoleonic wars -just the sort of historical information incidentally that Franco might have had, in a rebellion which was being fired by anti-French propaganda (the word ragout was removed from menus in Nationalist Spain, along with every other verbal manifestation of that decadent country). If Guernica was sacred to the Basques, so much the better. So, "we bombed it and bombed it and bueno, why not", as a Spanish officer said to Virginia Cowles, later in 1937. The Germans, furthermore, were interested in testing the effectiveness of the new Heinkel 111, a bomber which had been brought to Spain at the end of March, and also in whether incendiary bombs could have the devastating effect that some experts thought.

One can reconstruct a likely scenario of what perhaps happened but it may be, for all Mr Southworth and I know for certain, that Georgie Hills is right. It may be that Franco kept a diary, and that there may be an entry reading thus: "Had a frightful row with the monster Sperrle who has gone too far this time over Guernica. We must mount a smokescreen. Have told the press department to say the Basques did it. They're capable of it, the bastards, didn't they try and destroy San Sebastian ? "

It follows, therefore, that the last word has not been written even now. One interesting question is raised by Mr Southworth's quotation from Que Pasa ?, a Barcelona journal, in 1967. A letter in this very sensibly said: "It is the fault of Nationalist propaganda if the dossier on Guernica has taken the dimensions which it has. Instead of looking the facts in the face, with courage, and explaining what happened as a lamentable episode, such as happens in all wars, Nationalist propaganda has continued to say "Guernica was burned by the red's". It was an error." Why did it happen like that ? Mr Southworth faces the question but does not fully explain it. Who could ?

I think he is probably correct in placing the responsibility in the first instance on Luis Bolin, the official charged with dealing with the foreign press at Salamanca and a reporter for ABC, the monarchist newspaper, in London. It seems fairly obvious that Bolin lost his job at Salamanca immediately after Guernica, and it is fair to suppose that he was dismissed because of his bad handling of the episode. But that is only speculation. Mr Southworth points out that Bolin was not just a right-wing Spaniard: he was half English and seemed to be in some ways more an enragé English Catholic than a Spanish monarchist. Hence his difficulties with Arthur Koestler at Malaga, which will be recalled by all readers of Spanish Testament or Dialogue with Death. Hence too perhaps the quick acceptance that his views gained with Douglas Jerrold, Arnold Lunn and others. But was Bolin acting alone ¿ He does not go into the matter in his own memoirs, Spain, The Vital Years (1967). It is surely improbable. But it is possible.

Perhaps I should declare an inrerest here. Douglas Jerrold was a friend of mine. He published a version of the Guernica story in The Spanish Civil War which even Mr Southworth seems to accept. Indeed, in a recent examination of what I published in 1961 for the benefit of a forthcoming new edition, I have not really changed the text at all except in respect of the casualties caused by the attack. Mr Jerrold raised no question about my text. He accepted it, and in no way entered he controversy which followed the publication of The Spanish Civil War, in which Arnold Lunn and others entered again with energy. In 1937 Jerrold and Lunn were indeed convinced that as Mr Southworth says (though using the words as a denunciation) the Civil War was "a holy war, a Christian crusade to save the Catholic church, as well as western civilization, from oriental threats and from ' communism". Hence, they would champion what their friends said and stick to it.

Bolin's uncle Mgr Manuel Bidwell, who was half Colombian, had been Bishop Auxiliary to the Archbishop of Westminster. Captain Aguilera, the press representative who escorted Holburn, Botto and the others to Guernica, spoke English perfectly and had been to Stonyhurst. (George Steer was a Wykehamist.) These Christian gentlemen had, however, been fundamentally affected by the terrible atmosphere of a witch's sabbath which characterized Nationalist Spain in those days. To understand this atmosphere requires a more equable spirit than that of Mr Southworth who approaches his victims with all the generosity with which the Count of Monte Cristo approached his enemies. Was the origin of Danglars's treachery to be sought in the number of pregnant girls in the Rue du Chat Qui Pisse in Marseilles in the Napoleonic era ? Such pedantry would have been swept aside by Edmond Dantès with contempt, just as Herbert Southworth, the Count of Anti-Cristo, tries to sweep aside sceptical historians of the next generation. With Dantès, as with Mr Southworth, you must take a side.

Our new Count, for example, complains that I include, in the same chapter in my book as my treatment of Guernica, a study of the Republican capture of Santa Maria de la Cabeza, in Andalusia. Mr Southworth's comments: " l'historien anglais, sans doute, a pensé que, puisqu'il avait attribué une atrocité aux franquistes, le moment était venu d'en attribuer une autre aux républicain's." Mr Southworth is entitled to read my chapter like that if he wishes. In fact, my arrangement was logical since I had adopted a chronological approach to my account. That Nationalist redoubt did fall on May 1, five days after Guernica. On April 26 itself, the fighting there was, in the words of its defender Captain Cortes, "tough and murderous " (tenaz y mortifero). There is thus a perfectly good reason for considering the two event's close together. Would Mr Southworth also have raised his eyebrows if I had spoken at the same time of the murder on April 23 of the Communist leader in Barcelona, Roldan Cortada, presumably by anarchists, and the closing down of the anarchist collective of Puigcerdà with the death of its inspirer, Antonio Martin, el cojo de Malaga, on the same day at the hands of the carabineers ?

Hispanists fall out, and Franco goes on for ever. I could very easily raise one or two other minor points of this kind but it would be petty to do so. Mr Southworth has written a meticulously documented book of very great interest. If some further work remains to be done on Guernica itself, La destruction de Guernica [Ruedo ibérico, 1975] will always stand as remarkable study of the interaction of sensation, the press, government and polemic.

In The Times Literary Supplement 11/4/75