On the 85th Anniversary of the Bombing of Guernica

When Did World War II Start? And When Will It End?

When does something, anything, begin? When does something, anything, end?

These are the kinds of questions that would often get me in trouble as a kid. Back in Brooklyn, at St. Rose of Lima elementary school, my teachers in general weren’t very interested in such fuzzy inquiries. And at home, my no-nonsense and always-occupied mom had a standard response to these sorts of childish Saturday-morning musings: “Jimmy: you’re talking crazy again. Things start when they start, and they finish when they finish. Like this conversation; now go and play, I have things to do…”

These questions would have bothered my teachers and my mom, just as they bother a lot of people, because beginnings and ends are among the few things we usually feel most certain about. The details of whatever it was that happened between the start and the finish of something, that we might disagree about; that might be open to interpretation. But beginnings and endings? We tend and we need to carve those in stone. Literally. And we spend a good part of our lives marking and commemorating those rock-solid landmark certainties in our own trajectories, and in the trajectories of our families, communities, nations.

But let’s stop for a moment, and put aside the Monday-to-Friday-nine-to-three common sense that has been chiseled into us like the Roman alphabet; let’s channel our curious inner kids, on one of those lazy Saturday mornings, when we’re not busy memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance or studying for a History quiz…

When does something, anything –a war, a love, a movement– actually begin? When does something, anything, actually end?


On a picturesque campus in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, there is a college chapel. And in that chapel there is a bronze plaque dedicated to the Williams College faculty and students who died during World War II. And on that plaque, among the dozens of engraved names, places and dates of death, there is one entry, seventh from the bottom –I counted– that stands out to the history buff, almost like that single birch in the nearby forest of oaks and pines, or like the typographical error that pops out to the eyes of a trained copy editor: “Barton Carter, Calaceite, Spain, 1937.”

An American dying in World War II in 1937! And in Spain! Surely, this must be some kind of mistake…

Because on any given Monday to Friday, any schoolgirl will tell you that World War II began in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Any schoolboy who has prepped well for the history quiz will cite December 7, 1941 as the day that World War II began for the United States; the day after that infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, FDR would request Congress to formally declare war on Japan. The men and women who, after that date, volunteered or were drafted to take part in World War II, would eventually come to be celebrated as the “Greatest Generation”, extraordinary people who made tremendous sacrifices and demonstrated great heroism in the effort to put down Fascism once and for all.

But Barton Carter?; he died in Spain, four full years before the United States would get serious about the fight against fascism, two long years before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Carter was a volunteer in what would come to be known –somewhat inaccurately– as the Spanish Civil War, a horrific conflagration that lasted almost three years, eventually sending about a half million Spaniards into exile, and another 500,000 to their graves. (More than 100,000 Spaniards still lie in hundreds of unmarked mass graves strewn all over the Iberian peninsula.) Though this so-called Civil War did pit Spaniard vs. Spaniard, the conflict quickly became international, as within days of the onset of the coup that unleashed the war, Hitler and Mussolini intervened on the side of the insurgent generals, and before long, the Soviet Union would come to the aid of the forces loyal to the government. To the surprise and chagrin of Spain’s democratically elected government –and of antifascists all over the world– the UK, France and the US, in full wait-and-see appeasement mode, decided to remain neutral, and even imposed –and enforced– an embargo on the sale of arms to the Republic.

Despite, or more probably, because of the embargo, the war in Spain was felt with great force and immediacy in the US. And in an unprecedented display of international solidarity, some 2,800 American men and women –like Barton Carter– risked life, limb and their American passports –many of which had actually been stamped “Not Valid For Travel To Spain”–, by traveling to Spain, to take up the fight against international fascism. These volunteers, who would later become collectively known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were just the tip of the iceberg. Hemingway’s now iconic portrait of an American participant in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls features a rugged and solitary WASP idealist from Montana. But most of the non-fiction volunteers emerged from vast, intensely mobilized communities, which were decidedly urban, working-class, and ethnic. The closest thing to a rifle that most of the volunteers had ever handled before Spain was probably a picket sign. Unlike Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, they were more likely to have more experience sleeping on a tenement fire-escape than in the great outdoors in a Fitch and Abercrombie sleeping bag. And for each man or woman who took the extraordinary step of volunteering in Spain, there were thousands who stayed behind, raising funds to send medical supplies to the besieged government, urging the FDR government to “Lift the Embargo Against Loyalist Spain,” and doing their bit to “make Madrid the tomb of fascism.”

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain came to occupy a space in the US imaginary similar to the place held by Vietnam in the 1970s, or Syria in the 2010s; a relatively small piece of far-away real estate that seemed like the point of collision, subduction and upheaval of all of the world’s major ideological tectonic plates. And for those three long years, all eyes were on Spain. And yet…

Exactly six months after Franco’s troops marched triumphantly into Madrid in April of 1939, Hitler, in September, invaded Poland and, according to most standard accounts, World War II was officially underway. The horrors of that war undoubtedly help explain why the memory of Spain was subsequently eclipsed and almost forgotten in the US. But there were other forces in play in the immediate post-war period, that would help transform how –and if– Spain would be remembered.

We could cite abundant and diverse contemporary examples showing how the Spanish Civil War was perceived, by many at the time, as being entirely of a piece with what subsequently came to be known as World War II. For starters, the Lincoln volunteers frequently and presciently depicted themselves as soldiers who in Spain were attempting to stave off another world war. In November of 1937, for example, volunteer Hy Katz would write home to his mother:

If we sit by and let them grow stronger by taking Spain, they will move on to France and will not stop there; and it won’t be long before they get to America. Realizing this, can I sit by and wait until the beasts get to my very door–until it is too late, and there is no one I can call on for help? And would I even deserve help from others when the trouble comes upon me, if I were to refuse help to those who need it today? If I permitted such a time to come–as a Jew and a progressive, I would be among the first to fall under the axe of the fascists;–all I could do then would be to curse myself and say, “Why didn’t I wake up when the alarm-clock rang?”

In March of 1945, no less an authority than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself, in a private missive to a diplomat that later was intentionally leaked to the international press, would characterize, in no uncertain terms, the clear continuities he saw between the war in Spain and the rest of WWII:

Having been helped to power by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and having patterned itself along totalitarian lines, the present regime in Spain is naturally the subject of distrust by a great many American citizens who find it difficult to see the justification for this country to continue to maintain relations with such a regime. Most certainly we do not forget Spain’s official position with and assistance to our Axis enemies at a time when the fortunes of war were less favorable to us, nor can we disregard the activities, aims, organizations, and public utterances of the Falange, both past and present. These memories cannot be wiped out by actions more favorable to us now that we are about to achieve our goal of complete victory over those enemies of ours with whom the present Spanish regime identified itself in the past spiritually and by its public expressions and acts.

Even a publication like Stars and Stripes, a semi-official organ of the US Armed Forces, would, in its European edition of July, 1945, unhesitatingly affirm: “Nine years ago last week, the first blow was struck in World War II. On July 17, 1936, in the picturesque garrison town of Melilla, in Spanish Morocco, a Spanish general and his Moroccan regiments proclaimed civil war against the infant, five-year-old Republic and its government…”

It would seem then, at least from the vantage point of 1945, that there was a good degree of clarity regarding the general contours of how the Spanish Civil War was likely to be remembered into the future: as part and parcel of the long struggle against international fascism. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Fifties: once the Axis had been defeated, and once the Cold War West had replaced fascism with communism as its number one existential threat, despite those assurances from FDR that we would never forget, those memories of fascist Spain were in fact almost entirely “wiped out by actions more favorable to us.”

Between 1945 and 1955, Francisco Franco managed to refashion himself completely. No longer an ally of the defeated Axis –in fact, he would claim that he had never been such a thing– and invigorated by the chill of the Cold War, Franco now repackaged himself as a stalwart anti-communist, ruling over a strategic land mass at the corner of Africa and Europe. And it worked. If, for FDR, Franco had been a pariah ruler, a former Axis sympathizer without any legitimacy, for Truman and Eisenhower, the Generalissimo would become a crucial partner in the war between “freedom” and “communism.” Truman and Eisenhower effectively helped end the Franco regime’s ostracization from the post-war international community of nations. In exchange, the US got to build an archipelago of Cold War military bases on Spanish territory.

For Franco to go from being “Adolph’s Man in Madrid” to being “Ike’s Man in Madrid,” a lot of history would have to get rewritten, on both sides of the Atlantic. And so it was. Peter Carroll reminds us of how it was not until 1952 that the first US edition of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” was issued. Orwell’s book was a powerful indictment of how the Communist Party had attempted brutally to squelch the social revolution that was unleashed in Spain in 1936, and Orwell’s anti-communist book quickly became a fixture of the Cold War canon. It didn’t seem to matter much to right-wing cold warriors that Orwell’s positions were, on the whole, far to the left of the official popular front communist stance during the Spanish Civil War.

And before long, in both Spain and the US, the Spanish Civil War could be talked about not so much as an opening bracket, a provisional beginning, for the antifascist World War II, but instead, as one of two things; 1) either as a self-contained exotic object, a kind of ethnic, fratricidal bloodletting, neatly bracketed and framed by its own deeply carved starting and ending dates [1936-39]; or 2) as an early chapter of an entirely different story, the Cold War annals of communist mischief and perfidy.

But let us go back to the plaque in the chapel on the campus in the woods. From the vantage point of 1946, a community mourning loved ones lost in WWII –like, say, Williams College– could reasonably see fit to include Spanish Civil War dead in their tributes. Barton Carter’s name on that plaque in the chapel of Williams College in the woods of the Berkshires was right where it belonged. It just so happens that the answer to “When did WWII begin?” depends on where, when and to whom you ask the question.

Please view this clip: Abe Osheroff

Throughout the summer and fall of 1936, indeed, for the duration of the war, Spain would be on almost everybody’s mind and retina in the US, whether they liked it or not: even escapist Depression-weary moviegoers who bought tickets to see Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) or Disney’s Snow White (1937) or Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938), or Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) for example, would be regaled with pre-show newsreels that, with melodramatic music and foreboding narrations, depicted the horrors of a new kind of modern warfare being debuted and perfected in Spain. Those much celebrated innovations in the field of aviation –which in the 1920s and early 30s had fueled optimistic dreams of a more connected and peaceful world– gave way to the nightmarish scenes projected in darkened movie houses all over the world; of the bombers of the Condor Legion –the same planes which soon would be flying over London– dropping their eggs of death on horrified civilians, who look skyward, cursing their unknown assassins: “watch and listen –booms the newsreel narrator– “as death rains down from the sky on the defenseless civilian populations of Madrid, Barcelona or Guernica.”

These same interwar years also ushered in a number of major technological innovations in the production and dissemination of visual culture and information that would make the war in Spain one of the most spectacularized current events of its time, maybe of all time. Relatively small reflex cameras using better and faster film stock –like those used by Gerda Taro, Kati Horna, Robert Capa among many other photographers– made possible the close-up and in-depth documentation of both the horrors and the boredom of war. New technology allowed photographs to be transmitted via phone and radio waves making it possible for people in far away places to see images taken at the front just a few hours before. Photojournalism and improved printing technologies –Life magazine began circulation in 1936– brought high-resolution images into the kitchens and living rooms of people all over the world. Pictures, for example, of kitchens and living rooms in Madrid or Barcelona having been sheared open by bombs, like so many hinged-open doll houses. Smaller and better movie cameras, with improved sound-image synchronization made impactful newsreels –like the one that pushed Abe Osheroff over the edge– part of everyday culture. It was not uncommon for the captions of photos or the narrations of newsreels to focus as much on the technological marvels that brought the images before the eyes of the spectators so quickly, as on the object of representation of the image itself. Juan Salas points out that some of the very first images of the war published by the New York Times were captioned in this completely self-referential way: “As Civil War raged… this photograph was rushed to Bordeaux, France, telephoned to London, and thence radioed to New York.”

For most of the war, direct travel to Spain was impossible or impractical. American volunteers like Abe Osheroff, Hy Katz, or Barton Carter who wanted to join the International Brigades in Spain had to travel first to France, and, because their reason for traveling was illegal –to participate in a foreign war– they needed an alibi for boarding a Europe-bound ship in New York harbor. Some of them announced rather implausibly to passport and border officials –with their unmistakable working class accents and cheap cardboard suitcases– that they were off to see the World’s Fair in Paris, which ran from May to November of 1937. I don’t recall seeing evidence of any volunteers actually realizing their alibi and attending the Fair; they had more important things to do, like making it down to France’s southern border, and walking across the Pyrenees into war-torn Spain. But had they made it to that fair, they undoubtedly would have found their way to the Spanish pavilion that everyone was talking about, and within that pavilion, if they got there in July or later, they would have seen the central work of art that we are here talking about, 84 years later, one artist’s rendition of what impelled the volunteers to head to Spain in the first place: carnage, or in Abe Osheroff’s unwitting and prescient description of Picasso’s painting via newsreel footage: “civilians gettin’ plastered all over the place”.

The promise of technology to improve the quality of life had been a standard theme for World’s Fairs throughout the XIXth and XXth centuries. And the 1937 International Exposition in Paris was no exception: “Art and Technology in Modern Life” was its theme. Surely the planners of the Exposition weren’t thinking along these lines, but the theme of the fair could very well serve as a fitting if sinister subtitle to Picasso’s massive painting.


There is an old story often told about about how once, in Nazi-occupied France, a Gestapo officer supposedly visited Picasso’s Paris studio. He was poking around the place and came upon a large photographic replica of Guernica hanging on a wall of the atelier. The Nazi officer asked the artist: “Did you do that?” To which Picasso is said to have replied: “No, you did.”

The tale is almost certainly apocryphal, too good to be true, but it’s a helpful vignette because it points us in the direction of the ambiguity of the term “Guernica.” Guernica is at once a place –a small city in the Basque Country of great symbolic importance to the Basque people; Guernica also denotes an event –on April 26, 1937, in one of the first and most dramatic examples of aerial terrorism, planes from Hitler’s Condor Legion and Mussolini’s Aviazone Leggionaria, carpet-bombed and strafed the town on market day for more than three hours non-stop, when the streets were full of buyers, sellers, livestock, etc.; and Guernica, finally, is a work of art, for some THE work of modern art, that was commissioned, as we have seen, to be exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition of Paris in 1937.

If “What is Guernica?” is a trick question, so too is “Where is Guernica?” Of course we can trace the sinuous trajectory of the actual canvas with relative precision: from the 34 days it spent in Picasso’s Paris studio while he hastily painted it, to its subsequent summer and autumn months at the Paris Universal Exposition; later extensive touring around Europe before coming to the US for more touring; its eventual deposit at the MOMA, where it remained for decades, because the artist had stipulated that it should never return to a dictatorial Spain. After Franco’s death and Spain’s transition to democracy, and after a lengthy and complicated set of negotiations, the canvas finally did come to Spain in 1981; was installed first at the Casón del Buen Retiro, right next to the Prado, until its apparent final resting place was prepared for it, in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

But where is Guernica really? I’ve resisted showing you any images of the painting that is at the center of today’s reflections. Because in some ways, there’s really no need to show it to you. You’ve all seen it, perhaps too many times. Guernica –the image– is ubiquitous, and it pops up in the strangest of places –on the walls of dorm rooms, on jigsaw puzzles, on drinking-glass coasters, etc. The idea of Guernica is, for me at least, also like a catchy tune, something that takes over my neurons willy nilly, often when I least expect it. Especially over the last few weeks and months, as I’ve been here in Madrid, where you all were supposed to be as well, thinking about and planning this talk.

Just a few weeks ago, less than a mile away from the Reina Sofía, where Picasso’s Guernica is enshrined with all the sanctimonious aura of Modern Art here in Madrid, I went with a friend to see one of the strangest things one could ever imagine: a museum show of the work of Banksy, the elusive street-artist. My friend teaches sculpture at the university, and we went straight from one of her classes, where a couple of dozen young artists were getting down and dirty with clay and plaster, to this “unauthorized exhibition” of the elusive but cleaned-up graffiti artist. Sarah herself still had some clay under her fingernails, and some splattered plaster on her boots. On the way from the Complutense to the Círculo de Bellas Artes, we wondered how in the world Banksy’s work would be curated in the context of a museum, how some of the most site-specific images ever produced since Altamira –images whose defining formal characteristics are the haste with which they were produced and their decidedly precarious and ephemeral nature — how those works would be treated in what was being touted as a blockbuster international traveling show. The tickets cost 18 euros.

The show itself was ridiculous, so much so that as we walked through its many rooms, my friend and I looked around for cameras that might be filming the spectators who were perhaps unwittingly participating in a massive Banksy reality hoax. We actually hoped that Banksy was somewhere nearby, laughing at us. But to be honest we didn’t see many signs of irony that day. The work was framed and illuminated and presented more or less as if it had been created for, and belonged in, a conventional musee des beaux arts. And we all paraded dutifully through room after room, spending more time looking at the labels than at the works themselves –par for the course at most museums nowadays– and trying to come up with clever things to say about these impossibly out-of-place objects.

But by far the most bizarre element of the show for me, and the element that got us thinking and talking about Guernica, was the video installation that visitors are pretty much obliged to watch, seated, before being able to walk through the galleries. (This obligatory video session might have been, in part, an anti-Covid measure, a way to control the flow of visitors to the crowded gallery.) On a multi-screen wrap-around display, in a dizzying sequence of zooming-in satellite photographs, the original locations of Banksy’s street art are pinpointed one after the other, almost as if they were the targets of smart-bombs. The site-specific work of Banksy is presented not by showing us the textures of the neighborhoods in which he executed his works; rather, site is reduced here to a textureless and lifeless set of GPS coordinates; neighborhoods are presented and inventoried as if seen from the nose-cone of a bomb. It honestly seemed like a bad joke; a Banksy prank. Maybe it was, maybe it is. Because right then and there, I was reminded of our introduction to this kind of technology and this kind of footage. It was during the Iraq invasion of 2003, when the nightly news treated us day after day after day to footage literally supplied by the Pentagon. Point of view shots of bombs homing in on their targets, doing their civilizing job of shocking and awing, supposedly with surgical precision, with not a bloodied child, woman, horse or bull anywhere to be seen.

On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ambassador John Negroponte gave press conferences at the entrance to the Security Council room at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. Armed with satellite photographs of what were alleged to be weapon factories in Iraq, Powell and Negroponte, stood before a huge blue curtain, and made their case for the impending and necessary invasion of Iraq. Reporters and diplomats familiar with the space chosen for this momentous press conference noticed something amiss: that blue curtain backdrop had been placed there to cover something up: the 1:1 full-size tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica that had adorned that space since 1985. When the news broke of this unusual cover-up of the Guernica tapestry, and ever since, all kinds of accusations and hypotheses have been thrown around to explain the change in décor for that press conference. But I’m pretty sure Sarah and I might have come upon the definitive explanation as we exited the gift shop through the Banksy exhibition.


When does something, anything, actually begin? When does something, anything, actually end?

I want to start knotting up my own beginnings with endings, wrapping up this talk, while leaving this image in your minds, on your retinas. I do fervently hope that sometime soon we can stand together before the real Guernica here in Madrid; it’s a memorable experience. But in the meantime, I want to argue that in some ways, the torn and tattered, well-traveled version of Guernica put forth in this painting, is an extraordinarily fitting and provocative emplacement of Picasso’s work, maybe even more so, I dare say, than the august room that the original painting now presides over in the Reina Sofía. Obviously, a massive canvas by Pablo Picasso is not as out of place in a museum setting as a stencil and spray paint intervention by Banksy. And yet, the process of plucking Picasso’s work from the black-and-white mediascape out of which it emerged, from the propagandistic urgency that animated it in the first place, is also a form of displacement and violence, and, paradoxically, a manner of forgetting through commemoration. Frames are to art what the brackets [ ] that envelop beginning and end dates are to the flow of history, to the flow of life. Helpful and necessary? Maybe. Distorting and decontextualizing: for sure.

This painting was done by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer in 2016. It is in the Whitney Collection and it is titled Veterans Day. A makeshift calendar points to the importance of that day of commemoration –someone has been crossing out the days leading up to the present depicted in the painting, which is circled in red –veterans day, 2016. And yet, in the entire gallery of characters that the painting references and recreates, there is not a single officially recognized veteran to be found. A newspaper clipping memorializes Cassius Clay –later Mohammed Ali–’s momentous decision, at the peak of his boxing career, to declare himself a conscientious objector, and refuse to serve in the Viet Nam war. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” A draft-dodger being celebrated by someone who is keen on commemorating Veterans Day. A large framed photograph represents a group of Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers, giving the popular front salute; these brave men and women, who, as we have seen, stood up to fascism five years before Pearl Harbour, have never been granted the official status of veterans; in fact, they were eventually branded with the non-sensical label of pre-mature antifascists, and were written out of most versions of the history of “The Greatest Generation”.

So: how are we to make sense of Dupuy-Spencer’s veterans day commemoration of non-veterans, or some might even say of anti-veterans? The painter herself gives us a number of clues. A book on the top shelf of the bookcase is titled “Art After World War I +2 +3”, playfully suggesting that history is an open-ended and on-going sequence of wars. The visual representation of the music that swirls out of the record player speaker also has a kind of open-ended energy to it, as the music would seem to spiral out and across the threshold of the painting’s frame and resound into the future. And then, of course, there is the Guernica.

Dupuy-Spencer’s painting begins to make sense only if we recognize that the vision of history that it comes out of and that it puts forth is one that eschews conventional frames, standard distinctions, beginning and end dates carved in stone. Her veterans are not the survivors of wars that have been packaged and named and dated by nation states or ideological blocks; her veterans are survivors, as it were, of The Good Fight.

Her painting helps us realize, in fact, that once cleared of all the nationalist borders, frames, and periodizations that they forced us to learn in school, history, as Peter Carroll has been saying for years, can look entirely different to us, and we can start to trace clear through lines that run, for example, from the terrorist bombing of Guernica, through Hiroshima, Operation Shock and Awe, and on to the disgraceful drone warfare that we often tolerate or accept without flinching. That blue curtain in the United Nations was an attempt to block that through line, that association, between the carnage from the sky in Guernica, and the carnage from the sky about to be unleashed in Bagdad.

Dupuy Spencer’s painting, finally, can help us reclaim Barton Carter, Hy Katz, Abe Osheroff and Cassius Clay/Mohammad Ali as admirable veterans, but in an ongoing, borderless and endless war for human dignity. Abe Osheroff perfectly sums up this war: “you resist. Win or lose, you resist.” This was and is a war that begins anew every day, has no clear beginning or end; its a war that pits those who insist on looking at human suffering –and human beauty– with the distance and indifference of a satellite or a drone, vs. those who embrace the horizontal and on-the-ground perspective of solidarity and empathy towards all of those civilians getting plastered all over the place through no fault of their own.

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1 Response to On the 85th Anniversary of the Bombing of Guernica

  1. Pan e cartas says:

    Qué suerte que Jimmy no dejó de hacerse preguntas. ¡Gracias por un artículo que me ha sacudido¡

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