We had decided to visit the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid ‘temprano’: early. Somehow, in our confusion of language and signage, we ended up going in by the exit. We didn’t mean to, but nobody challenged us on our route. Unsurprisingly, as Picasso’s Geurnica is the highlight of the collection, it sits in a room close to the completion of people’s visit. On this particular day it also meant that it was almost the first thing we came to and, for probably 8 whole minutes, we were alone with the masterpiece and its security guard. Usually the key work of a gallery throngs with people getting their look at one of the wonders of the world. For us that day brought the unexpected privilege of silence, space and the opportunity to gaze at the artwork without the jostle of others. It was quite a moment.
Guernica is named after the Basque town which was reduced to rubble after bombardment by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. The scale of destruction served the propaganda purposes of Franco who wished to promote fear as a way to defeat his opponents. For Italy and Germany it was an opportunity to test their weapons and capabilities before the full horror of global war was unleashed. As is so often the case, in the fog of war, the accounts given at the time varied widely. Berlin denied any involvement and the rumour was propagated that Republican forces had done it with explosives as part of their retreat. As the saying goes, ‘The first casualty of War is Truth’. As we contemplate military manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border the risk of intended or unintended hostilities – when the truth of what is transpiring is so doubtful – is frighteningly real. Time and again in human history a spark has led to conflagration.
Over the years I have spoken with people who experienced life in terrible places of fear and death during conflict. I have listened to a personal account of horror told by a survivor standing beside a cattle-truck in Auschwitz. From the same war, but in a very different setting, I have heard about the experience of someone who spent years as a prisoner of war. At the moment I’m reading Herta Muller’s novel The Hunger Angel, which centres on the experiences of Leo in a Soviet labour camp. While we view these experiences from the perspective of history, a recurring theme for all these voices is the uncertainty of when or how the experience would come to an end. In winter especially, the hardships and suffering of people detained in the horror of the camps appeared to be an unending tale of misery. It is remarkable that anyone emerged alive from such places, either physically or spiritually.
There’s no such thing as a winnable warSting, Russians, 1985
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Studying the history of conflict and genocide is an important task in every generation. For me part of the power of Guernica is the reminder that we arrive in horrific places via a whole catalogue of other atrocities and mundane acts of human indifference. Evil is built, rather than suddenly appearing. It’s why some of the most important struggles against tyranny are fought in the foothills before the full scale of disaster is both blindingly obvious and seemingly irresistible. The present prospect of war in Europe must urge us to work and pray for leaders to weigh the full cost of conflict. Even when things appear confused and uncertain we need to seek peace and pursue it – to stand up for a world in which war is never viewed as the right way to settle disputes.
Author of all peace who through your son reconciled us to yourself, we pray for peace in our world at a time of heightened tensions.
for our governments and political leaders – for wise counsel and sound initiative to defuse tension
for diplomats – that they may have space to negotiate
for the people of Ukraine – that their close ties with the people of Russia and other neighbours will remain strong even in the face of military threat.
We pray that all governments commit time to dialogue and understanding, respect the will and freedom of all peoples, invest in welfare and alleviation of poverty and reject militarism and the threat of violence.
May Christ’s teaching and example be our inspiration, may hearts and minds be changed, and may your holy spirit be at work transforming each of us day by day,
Through your everlasting grace and mercy.