Guernica and Total War by Ian Patterson

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Guernica and Total War by Ian Patterson

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Category: History
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Conor Murphy
Reviewed by Conor Murphy
Summary: A fascinating, if heavy, account of the ways in which the western cultural narrative has been impacted by the notion of aerial warfare over the course of the last century.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861977649

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Chicken Licken thought the sky was about to fall on his head. Over the last century, the little chicken's ridiculous fears have come to seem considerably less ridiculous, prescient even, and have been echoed throughout our cultural narrative. One of the most potent symbols of destruction wrought from above is the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

On 26 April 1937, a squadron of the German Luftwaffe - known as the Condor Legion and led by Wolfram von Richthoven, a cousin of the World War I ace - reduced the historic Basque town of Guernica to rubble. It was market day. About 1,600 of the town's 10,000 inhabitants were killed and another 900 were injured. At the time, it was the largest aerial bombardment ever attempted and the only town in western civilisation to have been destroyed by bombing in an attempt to win a war by deliberately targeting civilians. Total war had begun.

Guernica became an international cause celebre and the cultural response to it resonated throughout decades. Picasso's huge mural is perhaps the most iconic of these responses. The sheer power of its abhorrence is as striking today as it was when it was first exhibited at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. It elicits an almost feral response and its apocalyptic vision helped to shape a cultural narrative in which Guernica became a symbol of a world in which no one was safe and death could indeed fall inexorably from the sky.

Ian Patterson carefully traces and details each thread that makes up our mutual fear of aerial bombardment, using political rhetoric, propaganda, reportage, popular novels, art and poetry. From the panics in London during the bombings of World War I and the British use of bombing to pacify colonies by "frightfulness" - in a re-working of propaganda, we call it "collateral damage" today - right up to Hiroshima and beyond, Patterson analyses the way in which we have learned to live with new technological abilities and the existential threats they bring. We now live with some very locationless fears, and Chicken Licken doesn't seem like such a silly chicken after all.

Guernica and Total War will appeal to all those more interested in an artistic and cultural response to war but considerably less to those who wish merely to analyse its success and failures in terms of tactics and casualties.

My thanks to the publisher, Profile, for sending the book.

Those interested in the history of aerial warfare could look at Keith Lowe's Inferno and those interested in the Spanish Civil War should read George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia.

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