25-26 Abril The Merrimans are in Madrid and Requiem for Guernica

25-26 April
Robert Merriman’s diary for 25 and 26 of April 1937.

After the intense build up to the Radio broadcast to America on the very early morning of the 25th of April, the Merrimans slept in.  They met with Marion Greenspan (George Marion) and Josephine Herbst later in the morning.  Marion Merriman quotes Josie Herbst for her reasons of why she went to Spain:

 “Because“, she said simply.  Then she posed her own questions. “Why do you write a book?  Why do you fall in love?  Because.  It is the one concluding answer that comes from the bottom of the well.  Later you may dress it up with reasons; some of them may very well apply.  But because is the soundest answer you can give to an imperative.  I didn’t even want to go to Spain.  I had to.  Because.”¹

The Merrimans had lunch with Toronto reporter Ted Allan.  Allan was writing at the time for the Toronto Clarion.  He wrote several books on the Spanish Civil War and his “The Scalpel, the Sword” is a definitive biography of Dr. Norman Bethune of Toronto, who helped found the mobile blood transfusion units that were to save countless lives in Spain and many, many more in China in 1939.  Ted Allan would also later be known for being in the same car as Gerda Taro when she was killed at Brunete.

Luigi Longo
Luigi Longo (“Gallo”), Photograph from RGASPI Archives, Moscow Fond 545 Op 6 Delo 129

The diary says that Merriman was trying to get to see “Gallo” (the nom de guerre for Luigi Longo).  Not making contact the Merrimans and Greenspan head off into the suburbs of Madrid to try to see the lines at University City.  The fighting in this district of Madrid had been at a standstill for six months with the Republicans unable to dislodge the fascists who had infiltrated buildings in the new University of Madrid.  Sniping between buildings continued and a film showing the location can be found here at the 9:30 mark.

Merriman’s diary is nearly antiseptic in his analysis of what they saw.  Marion Merriman Wachtel’s memoir is more emotional from April 23rd before the radio broadcast:

“Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!” I said to Bob.  The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel”

But the scene changed, quickly.  As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire.  Then the tempo picked up. “That’s machine gun fire,” Bob said.  The machine guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn’t be sure.  Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me.  The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust.  We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings.  The horror of war was driven home to me.  I was terrified.¹

And from April 25, after the broadcast:

About four o’clock in the afternoon, we were pulling out of a gas station near the Post Office and we heard a dull, vibrating thud and saw a puff of smoke and dust go up from the bank down the street.  People scattered like leaves in a storm, and our bewildered chauffeur stopped in the middle of the open square but not for long.

We raced up a side street and parked the car on the  sheltered side of the narrow street.  Fortunately, I thought, the shells from artillery can’t come straight down between the buildings!  Bob and others calmly joined a larger crowd out on the nearby boulevard, around the corner, to see what was happening.  I decided to stay in the car.  But, a moment later, the shelling began again.  I was frightened into a cold sweat of terror.

At first there was a moment of what seemed like dead silence….Then the noise of the shelling exploded, the burst of the artillery surrounding every part of me.  My mind, my head, my eyes, my shoulders, my entire body immersed in the horrible sound.

I jumped from the car and ran down the street.  My God! My God! This sucks up all the air into silence and then the explosion bursts and the air is gone and the silence is overwhelming again.  My screams froze in my throat.  I ran to Bob, who made me stand quietly against a wall until I got over my terror.  I wasn’t as much hysterical as I was angry.  All I could think was, “the bastards, the bastards, the bastards”.  I couldn’t say a thing.¹

Here is a British Pathé newsreel of Madrid at this time.

On the 26th of April one of the great outrages of this war occurred.  Guernica was bombed by the German Luftwaffen (see this video at the 45:00 mark for an eye-witness account).   Guernica is no better remembered than in Picasso’s famous mural from the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid  (this image is Wikipedia Creative Commons licensed at this resolution):

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In a fury of outrage, Picasso painted this large mural in one week in his Paris studio.  Sadly, the West knew little about Guernica until much later in the war.   The Fascist propaganda spread stories about the city being burned by Republican forces.  A British volunteer for the Fascists, Peter Kemp,  continued this lie even into the 1950’s.²  Like horrors that were to lie ahead in World War II, the larger the atrocity, the harder it is to believe.


¹  Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid. pp 130-139.   There is considerable description of the radio broadcast and the reporters who contributed to it by Wachtel and Lerude in this segment.   Thanks to Warren Lerude for encouraging discussions on the Merrimandiary project and readers are recommended to read Marion Merriman’s memoirs in their entirety.

²  Peter Kemp, Mine Were of Trouble. Cassell & Company, 1957.