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Spain’s Civil War: The Valley of the Fallen and Picasso’s "Guernica"

Basque Country, Spain

The tragedy of Spain’s civil war can be felt at the Valley of the Fallen, a vast underground memorial to its victims, and by viewing Picasso’s powerful anti-war painting, Guernica, inspired by the Nazi saturation bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica.

Complete Video Script

For another thought-provoking excursion, we’re side-tripping from Madrid up into the Guadarrama Mountains. A 500-foot-tall granite cross marks the Valley of the Fallen — an immense and powerful underground monument to the victims of Spain’s devastating Civil War.

In the late 1930s, a million Spaniards died as conservative Catholics and the military slugged it out against secular democrats. Unlike America’s Civil War, which pitted north against south, this war was between classes and ideologies. It divided every village. The right-wing Fascists ultimately won, and Franco ruled Spain, as its dictator, until 1975.

The sorrowful pietà draped over the entrance must have had a powerful impact on mothers who came here to remember their fallen sons.

A solemn silence fills the basilica. As if measuring sorrow in distance, this 870-foot-long chamber is far longer than any church in Europe. The line of torch-like lamps adds to the somber ambience. Franco’s prisoners, the enemies of the right, were put to work digging this memorial out of solid rock. Franco’s grave takes center stage. Some Spaniards come here to honor him…others come to be sure he’s still dead.

But interred here — in chapels flanking the altar — are the remains of tens of thousands — victims from both sides — who lost their lives in Spain’s civil war.

With every visit, I stare into the eyes of those angels with swords and think about all the “heroes” who keep dying “for God and country,” at the request of the latter.

Another place to remember the victims of Spain’s Civil War is back in Madrid at the Centro Reina Sofia. This modern-art museum has a fine collection of paintings, but we’re heading directly to the epic work showing the harsh realities of modern war.

In 1937, Guernica, a village in northern Spain, was the target of the world’s first aerial saturation-bombing. It was a kind of dress rehearsal for the horrors of World War II — approved by Franco, carried out by Hitler.

The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso heard the shocking news and immediately set to work sketching the destruction as he imagined it. In a matter of weeks, he wove these bomb-shattered shards into a large mural called Guernica.

For the first time, the world could see the destructive force of the rising fascist movement — a prelude to World War II.

It’s as if shards from the bombing are pasted onto the canvas. A woman looks to the sky, horses scream, a soldier falls — body shattered, sword broken. A wounded woman flees a burning house. A bull — symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby — a modern pietà. Picasso's painting threw a stark light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco.

Guernica caused an immediate sensation, and with each passing year…and war, it seems more prophetic. Picasso put a human face on collateral damage.