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Picasso’s Guernica being viewed at its home in the Reina Sofia Museum by study-abroad students

Guernica is an exceedingly important commemoration of the Spanish Civil War

by Suzan Hagstrom
Photos: S. Hagstrom unless noted otherwise

After such a long absence from Spain, I myself was something of an exile, so viewing Picasso’s paintings at the Reina Sofia Museum – not far from the Prado – topped my “must do” list. I spent at least an hour studying Guernica, acclaimed by many art experts as the world’s most potent anti-war statement.

The Guernica

Picasso painted Guernica in France in 1937 to document Nazi Germany and fascist Italy’s bombing of civilians in Guernica, a town and cultural center in northern Spain’s Basque region. The government of Spain’s democratic Second Republic had commissioned the painting to drum up much-needed international support for its fight against fascism.

Guernica in the aftermath of the Nazi bombing in 1937

Fascists won the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936 through 1939, killing nearly a million people in a country about two-thirds the size of Texas (TX area: 268,597 square miles or 695,662 square km; population in 1936 = 6,192,000; 6,360,000 in 1939*). In those years Nazi Germany and fascist Italy used Spain as a testing ground not only for weapons and aircraft but also for an intense campaign to terrorize civilians. Nazi Germany later unleashed the same horrors on a larger scale throughout Europe during World War II.

While marveling at Guernica, I couldn’t help but think of its presence in the Spanish capital as a triumph, considering how Nazi Germany bombed Madrid civilians to aid Franco. Viewing Guernica, which arrived in Spain in 1981 when the restored democracy has solidified (Spain’s democratic Constitution was ratified in a referendum on December 6, 1978 by an amazing 90% of Spanish voters)  made me think about today’s situation in Ukraine.

Guernica is an exceedingly important commemoration of the Spanish Civil War given Madrid owns so few plaques or monuments of the ferocious conflict to remind one and all that good would ultimately triumph over evil.

A Civil War walkabout sets the record straight

There was little discussion about the Civil War when I lived in Spain. And that hasn’t changed, according to Madrid resident, tour guide and art history professor Dr. Almudena Cros. Although she mostly shepherds tourists through the Prado and other art museums, thirteen years ago Cros began offering a walkabout focusing on the Spanish Civil War. Both sets of her grandparents were profoundly affected by the conflict which inspired her presentation.

Real Casa de Correos on Puerta del Sol, once a jail and torture chamber for Franco’s perceived enemies, now the seat of the government of the Community of Madrid. But because there is no plaque to mark it, no one would be forewarned of this neoclassical building’s gory past.

Armed with vintage photographs and copies of primary source documents, Cros points out Madrid’s Civil War markers, some of which are mismarked; that is, they contain misinformation or omit pertinent information. A practitioner and activist of historical memory, Cros mostly points out the lack of markers. For example, her specialized tour begins at the seat of the government of the Autonomous Community of Madrid (coterminous with Madrid province), in the Real Casa de Correos on the Puerta del Sol, which served as a jail and torture chamber for Franco’s perceived enemies during the years I lived in Spain.

A Nazi bomb fell in front of this pharmacy across Puerta del Sol from the Real Casa de Correos. No marker to say so either.

There is no plaque describing this detail on the building, nor is there any plaque on the opposite side Puerta del Sol, where Nazi Germany dropped a bomb in front of a pharmacy.

For me, the highlight of Cros’ walkabout was seeing the bullet holes, pock marks and craters from shellings on buildings at the Complutense University. When I attended classes there in 1974 and 1975, no one mentioned the campus was a key battleground and site of a long stalemate during Spain’s Civil War.

Pockmarks, left, and bullet marks, right, caused by Nazi offensive in the Complutense University, a key battleground of the Spanish Civil War

Now standing at the university is a new memorial honoring the international brigades, groups of volunteer soldiers from 50 nations who defended the democratic Second Spanish Republic. It reminded me of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s parades and commemorations for its volunteers and veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up.

History Professor Almudena Cros, center, with her Civil War walkabout group. See the proudly displayed flag of the International Brigades who came to assist the Second Spanish Republic. The memorial to the International Brigades can be seen in the background.

I was disheartened to learn the memorial is occasionally vandalized and/or painted with graffiti. I was shocked to learn Cros is sometimes harassed in the streets of Madrid. On hearing Cros talk or seeing her flag of the Second Republic, some passersby will call her puta roja or Communist whore.

These anecdotes from Cros reveal the divisions and fault lines underlying Spain’s current democracy, a situation confirmed by other Spaniards, including two old friends who I hadn’t seen in decades.

Casa Pepe, an unabashed fascist shrine in 21st-century Madrid

A shrine to the one who brought “forty years of peace, justice and liberty” to Spain. On his death, there is nothing but a “democracy, shit, shit!!!”

To show me fascism is alive and well, a longtime friend of mine, Mariano Fernandez, introduced me to Casa Pepe during a road trip from Malaga to Madrid. Nearly a hundred years old, the family-owned business is located right in the center of Spain. The combination restaurant, bar, souvenir shop and mini-museum houses a shrine to Franco and fascism.

A political poster hanging on the wall declares in Spanish: “With Franco forty years of peace, justice and liberty. And with democracy, shit, shit!!!”

Author in front of Casa Pepe: “Entering Casa Pepe transformed me from a naive outsider to a disillusioned insider.”

Casa Pepe is a magnet for unrepentant, unabashed, self-avowed fascists, falangists or fachas and/or malcontents who are bitter against the government that has been elected within the framework of a Constitution that, per its Preamble, implements “an advanced democratic society.” What I gleaned from multiple conversations and the ambiance at road stops is some Spaniards believe Communists control the government. In addition, they feel the government is too liberal and too accepting of immigrants, migrants and refugees. They want a return to their own brand of law and order.

Entering Casa Pepe transformed me from a naïve outsider to a disillusioned insider. To my dismay, I realized the politics in Spain is just as polarized as it is in the United States.

But because I was traveling in Spain, with its longer history, I could connect to a place and time free of division.

Cordoba, the synergy of multicultural coexistence

Hagstrom literally at the feet of the poet Garcia Lorca she so holds in high esteem

Cordoba, an hour’s train ride from the wedding I attended in Seville, is the subject of Lorca’s elegant and hauntingly prophetic poem Song of the Horseman. In homage to one of the world’s greatest poets, I recited the poem in Spanish to friends while revisiting Spain. One verse roughly translated to English — “Death is watching me from the towers of Cordoba” – inspired me to photograph the city’s centuries-old towers. Yes, I am still a nerd.

Torre de la Malmuerta, left, and Torre de la Calahorra with Roman bridge in Cordoba

I didn’t think much about death on seeing Cordoba for the first time 48 years ago. Now I view my own death and that of Lorca, executed by fascists in 1936, differently.

Cordoba is most renowned for its Mosque-Cathedral, an architectural wonder so unique it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Built atop centuries-old Visigoth and Roman ruins in 786, the mosque became a pilgrimage site as important as Mecca. After founding Europe’s first university, Cordoba became a mecca of learning where scientists, religious leaders, artists, philosophers, government officials and astronomers exchanged information while the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages.

The  Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site: a “forest” of some 1250 columns of varying heights

The mosque’s seemingly endless columns and arches are simultaneously mesmerizing and breathtaking – just as I remembered them 48 years ago. After the Catholic Monarchs forced the Jews and Muslims out of Spain, their descendants built a church inside the mosque. Appreciating the mosque’s beauty, the Catholic occupants carefully preserved its arches and sacred features, including prayer niches.

Even more impressive than its blend of Western and Eastern aesthetics is Cordoba’s lesson in history. For centuries, before Spain’s kings and queens reclaimed Spain, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted in peace in Cordoba.

Hagstrom leaving for Spain 47 years after her first visit: Hope made this one “epic”.

Relearning this exceptional period of harmony gave me hope, making my trip to Spain nothing less than epic.


Click here for Part 1.


*Source: Britannica and Texan State Library and Archives Commission

Hagstrom is a journalist and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California Berkeley. She is the author of Sara’s Children; The Destruction of Chmielnik, a World War II history text documenting the survival of five siblings in Nazi Germany’s death camps.


> Featured image/Angela Hu, CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped. (Hu titled her photo of the Guernica and its viewers “Picasso’s Guernica–impressive up close.”)
> Quote mark/Oakus 53, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

> Ruins of Guernica/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224. Unknown author. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
> Real Casa deCorreos/Luis Garcia, CC BYU-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.