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Guernica echoes, but not at home

The '37 attack resonates around the world, less so in Spain.

Itziar Arzanegi can still hear the roar of the German and Italian warplanes 70 years later: "It was so cruel, so unimaginable."
Itziar Arzanegi can still hear the roar of the German and Italian warplanes 70 years later: "It was so cruel, so unimaginable."Read more

GUERNICA, Spain - Itziar Arzanegi can still hear the roar of the German warplane overhead, and see the old woman shaking her fists at the foreigners destroying her town. She remembers the look of horror on the woman's face as the plane swooped low, opened fire, and cut her down.

Today marks 70 years since German and Italian fighter planes backing the fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War leveled this historic Basque town near the north-central coast.

Myths and misinformation have shrouded the 1937 bombing from the outset, starting with the death toll, which historians have been gradually revising downward for decades. But Guernica has come to be seen as a foretaste of the aerial blitzes of World War II, immortalized in Pablo Picasso's Guernica, one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century.

But while the images of destruction are etched indelibly in the world's consciousness - and in the minds of a dwindling number of survivors - the 70th anniversary is causing barely a ripple in Spain. Little is planned to mark the event on a national level, and no major Spanish politicians are expected to attend a Mass, concert and wreath-laying for the dead in Guernica's cemetery.

It is symptomatic of a country that has never come to grips with its Civil War past. Spain has become a cultural and economic powerhouse, but critics say its success has been built - quite literally - over the ruins of its greatest disaster.

"In Spain, we have changed on the outside - we've built new highways, shopping centers, and successful multinational companies - but to change people's mentality on the inside has proven much more difficult," said Emilio Silva, president of an organization that leads efforts to exhume the bodies of civilians killed by Franco's forces in the 1936-39 war. Half a million people are believed to have died on all sides.

Many in the generation that lived through the war and Franco's victory learned that the best way to survive under the dictatorship was not to talk about it, Silva said. Those who oversaw the country's transition to democracy after Franco's death in 1975 believed reconciliation meant burying the past.

But grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the war generation are starting to demand more openness, Silva said, adding, "A country without memory has no meaning at all."

Today, Guernica is a town of 15,000 nestled in a lush valley at the southern tip of an estuary that opens into the Bay of Biscay. But survivors of the Guernica bombing, their faces lined by age, say forgetting has never been an option for them.

Arzanegi was just 11 when the bombs started to fall. She fled to a pine grove on a hill and watched the inferno below. She and other villagers hid in the brush as the planes screamed overhead, until one woman could contain her anger no longer. She jumped out and started to scream at the sky, just as a plane was coming into view.

"That bombardment I cannot forget, not even for a single day," Arzanegi said. "As long as I live, the sight of that plane dropping down and machine-gunning that woman will be with me. It was so cruel, so unimaginable."

Only about 200 survivors are known to be alive today, according to Remembering Guernica, a peace group based in the town. But the stories they tell of that day in their childhood are captivating and terrifying.

Luis Iriondo, 84, says he was separated from his family and hid in a bomb shelter.

"There was no light, no ventilation," he said, "and there were so many people pressed together that it was impossible to breathe. I was frightened that a bomb would hit us and I would be buried alive."

In the end, he decided to take his chances on the streets: "Better to be machine-gunned than buried alive."

After Hitler's Condor Division planes and Italian allies unleashed their payloads, reducing the town of mostly wooden houses to smoldering embers, the fleeing Basque government announced that 1,245 people had died, and that more than 800 had been injured.

But the numbers were mere guesswork. In the world's collective consciousness, Guernica became synonymous with the tens of thousands killed in subsequent bombings elsewhere.

Jose Angel Etxaniz, a historian linked to the town's museum who has spent nearly 20 years studying the bombardment, said his team meticulously pored over records and had been able to document 120 deaths from the bombing.

But Guernica captured attention because of dramatic dispatches by foreign correspondents, chief among them George Steer of the London Times, who described walls of flames visible for miles around.

"In the form of its execution," he wrote, "and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history."

It was these accounts in the foreign press that caught the attention of Picasso, who was living in Paris at the time, Etxaniz said. Otherwise, the artist might well have picked a different subject for his signature painting.

Read George Steer's 1937 dispatch from Guernica via

Take an interactive look at Picasso's masterpiece via