His fellow eyewitnesses are dying off, but Alfonso Canovas, 95, remembers Barcelona becoming one of the first major cities in the world to be subjected to a campaign of aerial bombardment.
“I wasn’t even there for the worst of it,” he said. “But I saw bombs fall, and I was told about how they bombed the Gran Via, leaving the street littered with body parts, which also hung from the trees.”
In 1938 Italian aircraft rained bombs on the Catalan city as they broke non-intervention treaties to support General Francisco Franco’s rightwing rebels in the Spanish Civil War. The use of attacks from the air was designed to provoke panic, kill civilians and destroy morale. Within a few years, the technique would spread through war-torn Europe as cities such as Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden were subjected to blanket bombing.
Now, 75 years after one of those bombs killed his father Jose, Canovas has helped persuade a Spanish court to investigate former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s air force for war crimes. The case was accepted by a Barcelona court last week.
“These indiscriminate bombardments of civilians targeted densely populated neighborhoods,” a panel of three magistrates said. “The front line was far away, making this a laboratory for future civilian bombardments and producing mass crimes that would be punishable by any law at any time or place.”
“This is not about revenge,” Canovas said. “I have been a pacifist since I was 12 years old and I do not want to restart old arguments. I can pardon, but what we can’t do is forget. It is important that people know the truth about what those particular Italians did at that time.”
Canovas’ father was killed early in 1938, when Italian bomber squadrons based on Mallorca ratcheted up their bombing campaign. Mussolini sent instructions: “Start violent action on Barcelona tonight, with constant hammering diluted over time.”
Every three hours for the next three days a fresh wave of bombers appeared, killing 670 people in attacks that appalled foreign onlookers and brought protests from the Vatican and the US.
Since World War II, Italians have seen former Nazi officials pursued in their courts for war crimes, but have rarely debated Italy’s role in the Spanish Civil War.
Although Mussolini’s troops allegedly also committed atrocities during campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia, and later in Slovenia and Greece, only one public apology has ever been given. In 2011 former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi apologized to his friend, late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and offered compensation.
While Canovas has added his name to the private prosecution, the real organizers are a group of mainly leftwing Italians living in Barcelona.
One of these, math teacher Guido Ramellini, said that the raids were among the first experiments in the bombardment of cities.
“When the British wanted to know how to build bomb shelters during the Blitz, they called on expertise from Barcelona,” he said.
“I know some people will call us traitors to our homeland, but we believe all humanity is our homeland, and Europe too. There is no reason why we should bury the ghosts of Europe’s past,” Ramellini said.