By the 1930s, there was a deep separation within the democratic Second Republic between the Loyalists and the Rebels. The Rebels were a coalition of Fascists, Carlists, Monarchists, Rightists, and Clergy who wanted to overthrow the Second Republic. They were led by General Francisco Franco and General Emilio Mola. The Rebels made their first attempted coup d'etat on July 18, 1936. The Loyalists, led by Miguel de Unamuno, a Basque Nationalist, were those who did not agree with Franco and wanted to keep the current democracy. At first, Unamuno supported Franco and his plan to overthrow the republic, but he then realized that Franco would not offer the Basques what they wanted. The uprising failed because most senior officers and most of the Spanish population remained loyal to the government, along with the Guardia Civil in Catalonia. However, the Rebels were backed in the south and in Galicia and Leon by the Assault Guard and the Guardia Civil. The four Basque provinces were split, with Alava and Navarra supporting the Rebels. Later that year, Unamuno died, weakening the Loyalist cause.
On October 1, after a vote in the provinces, the republic gave the Basques autonomy in order to win support. That same day, Franco was named head of state by the Rebels. The Basque government was installed on October 7 with Aguirre as the leader. During this time, the Basque government was able to bring back to life the Fueros and the Foral system. Basque schools were taught in Euskera. The Basque Nationalist Party became stronger than ever. A Basque police force was created and named Ertzantza.
There was no one the Fascists hated more than the Basque Nationalists. Franco believed that the only way to defeat them was through total annihilation. Franco made an agreement with Germany and Italy for help. They brought in bombers and other artillery. Franco's campaign against the Basques began March 24, 1937. The Basques were completely unprepared. The Fascists bombarded civilians with bombs, but little ground was taken. First Durango was bombed, then Ochandiano, but the Basques didn't lose morale. In order to speed the advance, the Fascists decided they would have to make a huge attack, so together Franco, Mola, the Germans, and the Italians all decided to attack the city of Guernica in Vizcaya.
A painting of the bombing of Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Guernica was a busy market town on the riverfront. On the day of the attack, peasants lined the streets selling their fresh produce. The attack began at 4:40 pm on Monday April 26, 1937. Aerial attacks bombarded the city. Bombers used included the Heinkel IIIs, Junkers (Ju 52s), Savoia-Marchetti S81s, Dornier Do 17s Fiat CR32s, and Messerschmitt BF109s. Guernica had no defense. Attacks continued until 7:45 pm. About 1,645 people were killed. Franco tried to deny that the attacks were made by his troops or by the Germans or Italians. Franco didn't admit to the bombings until 1970, but never apologized. The German government finally apoligized in 1998. There was still hope in the Basque people after the attacks; their ancient oak was not touched by the bombs. However, the Basque people suffered a shortage of food supplies. Many refugees packed into the capitol city of Bilbao.
The Rebels soon seized Bilbao. They arrested 16,000 suspected Basque nationalists, killing about 1,000 of them. On August 26, 1937, the Basques surrendered. The United States, France, and Britain all supported the Basque government-in-exile. Aguirre was able to escape to New York and establish a headquarters. In the next few years, thousands of Basques were sent to German concentration camps.
Once Franco took the Basque provinces, he outlawed the Euskera language. The Basques were convinced that the French, British, and Americans would help liberate them from Spain. The Basque Nationalist Party informed the US about Spanish events through a new intelligence service. The government in exile returned to the Basque country. They put their faith entirely in the United States and decided to disarm and concentrate on international diplomacy. Aguirre believed, when the Basque government had run out of money to maintain an armed force in 1947, that the U.S. would come to their defense.
Because of his anti-communist stance, the United States supported Franco. in August 1950, the U.S. gave Franco $62 million in credit to rebuild the country and keep out communism. In 1951, The Basque government office in Paris was removed and turned back into the Spanish Embassy. The ultimate betrayal for the Basques came when the U.S. entered with Spain in the Defense Pacts of September 1953. It gave Spain $226 million, which was mainly used for U.S. development of roads, port facilities, and bomber and navy bases near Madrid, Torrejon, Zaragoza, Seville, Moron de Frontera, and Cadiz. With a stronger Spain in control of it and no major allies, the Basque cause for self-determination was looking hopeless.
The relationship between the Basques and the Spanish State took a major shift in the middle of Franco's era when the terrorist group ETA was formed.