Basque Fact of the Week: Gernika Was Not the Only, nor Even the First, Basque Town Bombed During the Spanish Civil War

One of the most infamous episodes in the Spanish Civil War is the bombing of Gernika, in which the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion attacked the Basque town on Monday, April 26, 1937, starting around 4:30pm in the afternoon. Monday was a market day, normally bringing thousands of people to the small town in the heart of Bizkaia. From the German point of view, this attack was a test of so-called terror bombing, in which civilians are attacked to break the will of the enemy.

Gernika after the bombing. Image from About Basque Country.
  • The town of Durango lies some 28 kilometers from Gernika. It was bombed on March 31, 1937. Durango was viewed as an important transportation junction between the front and Bilbao. German and Italian planes, modified to drop bombs, attacked the town, which had no air defenses. About 250 people died that day. Two churches were bombed during mass, and in one 14 nuns and the officiating priest were killed.
  • Earlier on the same day that Gernika was bombed, the small towns of Gerrikaitz and Arbatzegi (collectively known as Munitibar) were also bombed and machine-gunned. About 11 people were killed during those attacks. Other towns surrounding the mountain Oiz were also attacked, including Markina, Ziortza-Bolibar, Arratzu, Muxika and Errigoiti.
  • The raid on Gernika was originally reported by South African journalist George Steer, who sent a telegram to London describing the bombing and the German markings on the casings. At one point, Steer hid in a bomb crater in Gerrikaitz to escape machine gun fire from German planes.
  • The raid on Gernika was led by Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, who was the fourth cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron. Much of what we know about the German planning of the attack comes from his diaries.
  • Of course, the bombing of Gernika is the source of inspiration for Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica.
  • Though the numbers are uncertain and in some dispute, between 150 and 1500 people died that day. While many modern historians place the death toll to something less of 300 people, Xabier Irujo argues convincingly in Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre that a figure of 1500 is more likely.
  • One of the last survivors of the bombing of Gernika, Luis Ortiz Alfau, died on March 8, 2019.

Basque Fact of the Week: Today is Aberri Eguna, or Basque Fatherland Day

Aberri Eguna On! Happy Aberri Eguna!

Aberri Eguna, coinciding with Easter every year, is a celebration of the Basque Country. It has always had a political aspect, with events organized by the various Basque nationalist parties. However, it has also always had a cultural aspect, which has been more emphasized in Basque communities outside of the Basque Country. While it is not an official holiday, it has become the de facto Basque national holiday and, today, celebrations are often filled with sporting events, dancing, music, food, and drink.

A poster for Aberri Eguna in Vitoria-Gasteis in 1934. From Enciclopedia Auñamendi.
  • The word “aberri” was coined by Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, from his supposed linguistic element “aba”, meaning to him father, and “herri” meaning nation, land, people. While his etymology of the element “aba” is viewed as fanciful today, some of the words he made with it stuck and are used in Basque today.
  • The first Aberri Eguna was celebrated on March 27, 1932 in Bilbao. It was organized by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their founding. The next three were held in Donostia, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Pamplona.
  • During the time of Franco (1937-1977), and the corresponding exile of the Basque Government, official Aberri Eguna events within the Spanish side of the Basque Country (hegoalde) were rare. However, events were held on the French side (iparralde) and the Basque Government often took to the airwaves to send their messages to their countrymen in the south.
  • In 1964, the Basque Government organized Aberri Eguna in Gernika. This is the first of several in which Aberri Eguna is used as a means to push against the Franco regime. ETA also began to hold its own gatherings on Aberri Eguna, for example in Irún-Hendaia in 1966.
  • In 1975, during another Aberri Eguna event in Gernika, the Flemish deputies Luyten and Juippers hung an ikurriña in front of the Casa de Juntas (where the tree of Gernika stands). They were arrested by the Guardia Civil, prompting Belgium to issue a formal complaint.
  • In 1978, after Franco’s death, celebrations were held in all four Basque capitals in hegoalde: Bilbao, Donostia, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Pamplona. Together, some 230,000 people participated.

Primary Source: Caballero Basáñez, Carlos. Aberri-Eguna. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Found at:

Basque Fact of the Week: In Basque Mythology, Before Humans, There Was a Race of Giants

Basques are known for the strong Catholic devotion. However, the Basques are also known to have converted to Christianity relatively late. Before, they had a mythology that was based on various supernatural beings. One of those was the Jentilak, or race of giants. These beings, immense in size, existed before humans, though maybe co-existed with humans, at least in some tales. They had enormous strength and were responsible for the construction of many massive stone features, including churches, castles, bridges, and dolmens. They were said to be more Christian than the Christians. They suddenly died when a black cloud appeared in the sky and they fled to bury themselves.

  • The Jentilak are part of a larger European tradition of giants (think of Jack and the Beanstalk in England). “Modern” influences have corrupted the nature of these beings in these stories, but, at least in the Basque Country, they were originally benign beings.
  • The Jentilak would play games, such as pilota, throwing massive stones through the air that still lie at the foot of some mountains. One rock, near Amil, a part of Motriko, becomes surrounded by water at high tides.
  • The wide-spread belief in these beings is reflected in a number of place-names, including Jentilbaratza, Jentilzulo, and Jentiletxea.
  • The jentilak died suddenly when the black cloud appeared, for no apparent reason (they were not punished, as in the Biblical flood, for past sins). Further, the race that succeeded them — humans — were not as kind nor “Christian” as they were. This has led scholars to interpret these myths as the foundation of religious rites of burial. As translated from the original article in the Enciclopedia Auñamendi: The Jentilak die and are buried under funerary monuments that perpetuate their memory (they die precisely to be buried) and in this way the humans who take them as models learn that they also have to act in the same way with their own deceased: burying them and guarding their memory. This is reflected in the fact that the main cultural obligation in the ancient pagan religion of the Basques consisted in the daily realization of offerings to the deceased of the house.
  • In time, the cloud was reinterpreted as a portent of the coming of Kixmi, or Christ. Olentzero, the Basque “Santa Claus,” was a jentil who, being nearly blind, could look at the cloud and understood its meaning.

Source: Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio; Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Gentiles. Enciclopedia Auñamendi [en línea], 2019. Available at:

Thanks to Lisa Van De Graaff for suggesting this topic as a Basque Fact of the Week. If you have a topic you’d like to suggest, just let me know!

Basque Fact of the Week: Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, had Roots in Bizkaia

Known as the Liberator, Simón Bolívar is a national hero to many South American countries. Under his leadership, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama gained their independence from Spain. He also became president of what was then called Grand Columbia, encompassing the modern countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, he envisioned a united Spanish America, though felt that it needed a stronger central government than the United States because of the more varied peoples. Though Bolívar dreamed of a united Spanish America, his dream failed, in part due to the political ambitious of others as well as the fear that he was establishing a dictatorship with him at the helm. He died in 1830 of tuberculosis, at the age of 47.

Statue of Bolívar in Washington, D.C., photo taken by Blas Uberuaga.
  • Simón Bolívar was born into a wealthy family in Caracas in what is modern day Venezuela in the year 1783. His ancestor, Simón de Bolívar, from the village of Bolibar in Bizkaia, left for Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, sometime around 1559. In 1569, Simón de Bolívar moved to Venezuela. The wealth of the family came from a large number of estates and plantations. Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, dedicating his personal wealth to the cause of liberation and revolution, died a poor man.
  • The Bolívar name comes from the small village of Bolibar (current spelling in Euskara) in the heart of Bizkaia. There is a museum dedicated to the history of Bizkaia in the Middle Ages and to Simón Bolívar himself. Bolibar is only kilometers away from where my dad was born, but I have yet to visit the museum. The name comes from the Basque words “bolu” (mill) and “ibar” (valley), meaning “valley of the mill.” The country Bolivia gets it’s name from Bolívar.
  • Bolibar, the village, is very close to the neighborhood of Zenarruza, famous for the Collegiate Church of Cenarruza, which was an important stop on the Camino de Santiago. Zenarruza is a name familiar to Idahoans, belonging to long-time Idaho politician Pete Cenarrusa.

Primary source: Wikipedia.

Basque Fact of the Week: The First Person to (Intentionally) Sail Around the World was Basque

In the United States, at least when I was a kid, we learned that the first person to circumnavigate the globe — to sail around the world — was Ferdinand Magellan. In reality, however, Magellan died in the Philippines, and he never made it all the way. He left Spain with 5 ships but only one ship, the Victoria, returned successfully to Spain. After many changes of leadership, it was Juan Sebastián Elcano who was leading the ship and the expedition when it finally arrived. For his efforts, in addition to a monetary reward, he was awarded a coat-of-arms with the slogan “primus circumdedisti me.”

Image of Elcano, from Auñamendi Encyclopedia .
  • Magellan was essentially spurred on by Rajah Humabon of Cebu, one of the rulers of one of the islands in the Philippines, to attack his enemy Datu Lapu-Lapu, on the nearby island of Mactan. Magellan, who had already converted Rajah Humabon to Christianity, wanted to do the same to Lapu-Lapu but failed. In an ensuing battle, Magellan, attacking the island almost single handedly, confident in the superiority of European weaponry, was felled, initially struck by a bamboo spear.
  • Elcano was born on the coastal city Getaria, Gipuzkoa, in 1487. Before participating in Magellan’s expedition, Elcano was part of campaigns in Algiers and Italy. He got into some trouble for surrendering an armed ship to foreign powers. In his later life, he was persecuted for, seemingly, having many love affairs.
  • During the voyage, Magellan’s leadership was questioned and, along with others, Elcano participated in a mutiny against their leader. This was near the southern tip of South America, before they found the passage that would lead them to the Pacific Ocean that is now known as the Straight of Magellan. The mutiny was defeated. Elcano was spared and, after five months of hard labor, restored to a leadership position in the voyage.
  • Elcano may have been the first person to intentionally sail around the world, but he may not have been the first person to do it at all. Laurence Bergreen, author of Over the Edge of the World, notes that one of Magellan’s slaves, Enrique of Malacca, seems to have understood the language of the Philippine’s, suggesting he was originally from there. He may have made his way to Europe as a part of either the spice trade or dealings with Arabs. Thus, the expedition would have taken him near home and possibly made him the first person, though unintentionally, to sail around the world.
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