Seventy years ago today, on 26 April 1937, the small market town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain, was virtually destroyed by German and Italian bombers in the first mass air raid in history. What is not often mentioned in accounts of the atrocity, however, is that the Italian planes were flying on oil sent by Stalin. This was only one of many duplicitous acts by Moscow in the Spanish Civil War, which included the liquidation of revolutionaries and anarchists by Stalin’s secret police. Moscow had signed two economic and friendship agreements with Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator in 1933. They were part of Stalin’s fantasy of building alliances aimed at containing Nazi Germany and Japan. Oil and other commodities started flooding into Italy. Alliances came at any price, as far as the Stalinists were concerned. The following year, Moscow signed an agreement prolonging the trade protocol as well as a new agreement for export credits. In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, with tacit Soviet support. After the invasion, the two states signed agreements to provide petroleum products and payment for purchases even though the League of Nations, which the USSR was a member of, had imposed economic sanctions on Rome. In October 1935, Time magazine reported: "Since July cargoes of Soviet wheat from Sebastopol, coal and coal tar from Nicolaiev, and oil from Batum have been regularly arriving at Massaua and Mogadishu, Italian war bases in Africa. Much Soviet oil is also being sold to Italy direct, as Communists paradoxically fuel the Fascist fleet." The USSR continued to supply oil and other goods to fascist Italy throughout the war in Ethiopia as well as the civil war in Spain.
The attack on Guernica was ordered by General Franco, the leader of the nationalist forces in the civil war which had broken out in 1936. Nazi Germany, like fascist Italy, was officially not involved in the war and both had signed a non-intervention pact. But they had armed Franco’s troops and Hitler was keen to send the rest of the world a message through his Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombed the town of 5,000 for over three hours, creating a firestorm which killed over 1,600 people and injured another 800. Only 1% of the town's buildings were said to have survived - most of them on the outskirts. In Paris, Pablo Picasso read about the outrage – thanks to the work of the journalist George Steer. Franco blamed the destruction of the town on left-wing forces, accusing them of trying to smear the nationalists. But Steer collected fragments of German bombs and told the world what had happened. In response to the killings, Picasso painted one of the great works of the 20th century, Guernica, which, on his wishes, was only shown in Spain after Franco’s death. It was taken to Madrid in 1981, six years after the death of the fascist dictator. The air raid on Guernica was a dress rehearsal for the Second World War, which consumed the lives of more than 55 million soldiers and civilians. Was world war inevitable? Only after a certain point, which included the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. Moscow’s role, which later included the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact and the purges which destroyed the leadership of the Red Army, is key to understanding how the alternatives were closed off one by one.
Paul Feldman, communications editor