I thought I knew something about Picasso and Guernica before I started editing this piece, “Guernica: Horror and inspiration,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes. I was wrong. By way of explanation, a sample of Rhodes’ prose:
Most of the buildings in Gernika were constructed of wood above the ground floor. For that reason, the Junkers had been loaded with both high-explosive bombs and incendiaries—the HEs to make kindling, as Kurt Vonnegut once explained to me from his similar experience in Dresden, the incendiaries to light the fires. The HEs were 100- and 500-pounders. The lightweight incendiaries—tubes 14 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, made of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite—were packed in droppable dispensers, each holding 36 bombs.
Thousands of Elektron incendiaries fell on Gernika that night, skittering down like icicles broken off a roofline. Pure metal burning at 2,200 degrees Celsius, they were almost impossible to quench.The Australian journalist Noel Monks describes the aftermath (Monks, 1955: 97):
[On arrival] I … was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nau-seating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.
In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro … . Most of Guernica’s streets began or ended at the Plaza.
It was impossible to go down many of them, because they were walls of flame. Debris was piled high. I could see shadowy forms, some large, some just ashes. I moved round to the back of the Plaza among survivors. They had the same story to tell, aeroplanes, bullets, bombs, fire.
This one is worth reading all the way through. It’s part of a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ special issue on art and destruction that is also worth taking a look at. As is the exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, which collaborated with the Bulletin on parts of its Doomsday Clock Symposium in November.