This month.....

Peace in a world of conflict

I’m sitting in a hotel in Gernika (that’s the Basque spelling) on my penultimate day of walking the early leg of the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with one of my godsons and his family and some friends. My godson is walking on to Santiago and hopefully should arrive there by the end of August.

For many Gernika is famous because of the picture by Pablo Picasso painted in June 1937 following the bombing of the town by the fascist forces of Francisco Franco just a few months earlier on 26th April 1937. The picture was displayed at the International Art Exhibition in Paris that year and opened the eyes of many to what was happening in the Spanish Civil war.

The bombing of Gernika was the first bombing by aircraft of a civilian target, something that became, unfortunately, an aspect of war in the Second World War and many (most?) conflicts since. The town was to a large part destroyed, over 80% of the buildings were destroyed by the bombing and the fires that followed. It has been a great topic of debate about how many people were killed. At the time 1654 deaths were reported but since then it has been suggested that the death toll could have been no more than 300. It’s likely that the real number will never be determined. There were refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Gernika at the time. It was also market day so many people from the outlying countryside will have been in the town. it’s just not known who was present in the town that afternoon when the bombs started falling.

It was not until 1941 that people were allowed to return to the town to clear rubble and start to rebuild the town. There must have been many people whose remains were in that rubble but were not identifiable. Some people also think that the fascist forces ‘cleaned up’ the town in the intervening years. The importance of Gernika is in that change to military tactics, the bombing of a civilian targets.

Gernika is an important place for Basques, it was the centre of the Basque parliament which met under the boughs of an oak tree that stands in the town (though now a dead stump surrounded by oaks planted from its acorns). The bombing of Gernika was an attack upon Basque culture when the Basque area was holding out against fascism.

In Gernika there is a museum of peace. This moving exhibition tells the story of the bombing of Gernika but also the story of many who have and continue to work for peace in our world. Having visited it this afternoon there was a lot to take in and luckily their website enables one to revisit the exhibition.

The peace museum in Gernika does have many echoes with the exhibition at Coventry Cathedral that tells the story of the bombing of Coventry on 14th November 1940. If you’re ever passing Coventry it’s worth calling in to the Cathedral anyway but do visit this exhibition.

I found my immediate comparison between Gernika and Coventry interesting. This was something I’d not thought of before even when I learned about the Spanish Civil War for O Level History (it was over 40 years ago so I need to do some revision on this). Both the town of Gernika and the City of Coventry do major work in encouraging peace in our world. Having suffered the effects of intensive bombing and the destruction that follows there was a natural initial reaction of anger and hate but swords have been beaten into plough shares in these communities (I’m certain with much effort and difficulty) and they are keen that others learn from their experiences.

But bombing of civilian populations continues to happen. The barrel bombs dropped on civilian targets in Syria, the atrocities against people in our link churches of Sudan and South Sudan show that humanity has still a lot to learn about making peace in our world.

Whatever the death toll in Gernika, and the amazingly few who actually died in Coventry, this is put into sharp contrast by the many cities who in the closing months of the Second World War suffered massive bombing raids and huge casualties. But still Gernika particularly stands as notable not because of the death toll but because it was the first civilian population to be bombed.

In our country Coventry Cathedral has a link with many places around the world working together for peace in our world but perhaps the most moving is Coventry Cathedral’s link with Dresden Cathedral through the link that the two cities have with each other.

In so many aspects of life those who have suffered the most often work the hardest for peace and reconciliation and I hope we are inspired by their examples to work for peace in our lives and communities. Few will have experienced what Gernika experienced but all can take the positive lessons that that town would want to present to us as they encourage us to work for peace.

Wishing you peace in your lives and in our communities and in the communities that we are part of.

Richard Curtis