Museo de la Paz, Gernika

   - darkometer rating:  6 -
A museum in the heart of the Basque town of Gernika (Guernica) in northern Spain. It is not only about the bombing of the place in 1937 but also about other war atrocities and conflicts as well as issues of conflict resolution, human rights and peace in general.    
More background info: After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936,  the little town of Gernika was at first not directly affected. But that was soon to change. Within less than a year it became a target for the advancing Nationalists under Franco, since the Biscay region of the Basque country was not only held by Republicans but Gernika in particular was also the spiritual capital of Basque national identity (which the Nationalists, unsurprisingly, wanted to break).   
While Gernika is regarded as the first victim of a bombing campaign with the goal of maximum destruction, it was not in fact the very first defenceless civilian town targeted. In March, the nearby town of Durango was bombed – and even though the devastation caused there (with some 250 civilian casualties) was not as enormous as that inflicted on Gernika shortly after, Durango had already been a warning. 
For that reason, the inhabitants of Gernika were already wary of a threat, and some sent their children away to safer places. Yet on Monday 26 April 1937 it was a market day, and traders and buyers conducted their business as usual, if in a somewhat tense atmosphere. Because of the market there would have been around 10,000 people in the town, much more than normal. At lunchtime everything was still calm.
Then the bombers came at around half past four in the afternoon. Mostly they were German “Legion Condor” planes of different types (there is some disagreement exactly which types were used, but the He-111 is consistently named amongst them – the type that later was the mainstay in the bombing raids flown over London and other English cities during the Battle of Britain in WWII), and apparently there were also some aircraft from the Italian air force involved. 
Both Nazi Germany and Mussolini's fascist Italy had quickly sided with Franco in the Spanish Civil War and were keen to provide crucial military aid – quite actively. This was a welcome “testing ground” for their own militaristic plans that lay in waiting ... 
On this day of 26 April 1937, the bombers followed the river valley from the north and then hit Gernika from north to south. The planes came in several waves – and all in all the bombing lasted for about three hours. Fighter planes that accompanied the bombers even strafed fleeing civilians on the roads leading out of the burning town with machine-gun fire.
The bombing itself was the first “real-life test” of a perfidious technique designed to cause maximum destruction through relatively “economical” means: in a first wave, bombers would drop large explosive bombs to “crack open” the roofs of buildings. After that a much larger number of small, light-weight incendiary bombs would be dropped en masse into these opened cracks to set the town on fire, which would then self-destruct, as it were, through fire without any further enemy input. 
It was a pattern so convincingly successful, from a military point of view, that it was to come back to haunt Germany big time, as it was also applied on a much more massive scale in the Allied bombings of Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden and many other cities. (See in particular Hamburg's Nikolaikirche Memorial for more on this!)
But back to Gernika. After the bombers had left, the centre of town was almost completely destroyed, about 85% of all buildings were either reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair. Worst of all, the fire-bombing caused a blaze that couldn't be put out for several days.
The overall number of fatalities caused by the bombing as reported by the Basque authorities was 1664. And even though the exact figure remains contested, and may have been significantly lower, it was still clear that for such a small town it was a devastating death toll.
Given this and the fact that no strategic infrastructural or military targets were hit (whether intentionally or not), Gernika is regarded as the first case of pure “terror bombing” of a civilian urban centre. 
Much of the rubble from the destruction wasn't even cleared away for years, until 1941, two years after the war. But then a reconstruction programme gave the town a new lease of life – and a new face (see under Gernika). 
The reaction to the tragedy of Gernika was not just worldwide outrage, but also took artistic forms, especially in that famous painting by Pablo Picasso that bears the town's name, in its Spanish form: Guernica. 
In Gernika itself, a Foundation set about creating the Peace Museum in 1998. It has since been reworked, expanded and modernized, and there are also study facilities and temporary exhibitions. Its official name is (Fundacion) Museo de la Paz de Gernika (or in Basque: Gernikako Bakearen Museoa Fundazioa) and its mission goes beyond the museum itself but also includes propagation of reconciliation and conflict resolution worldwide. 
What there is to see: When entering the museum and paying your admission fee at the reception desk, make sure that you also borrow one of their folders with laminated sheets that have English translations of the exhibition's texts (other languages are also available – just ask). If you don't speak Spanish to the museum staff they will probably offer it to you on their own accord anyway. 
In the exhibition itself, all texts are in Basque and Spanish only. So if you want to properly understand things you may be dependent on the folder. However, not all the texts are purely factual. There are also quite extravagantly “poetic” elements in some of them … furthermore it is only the main texts that are translated, not the labels of individual exhibits.
Before even touching on the topic of the bombing of Gernika, the exhibition kicks off with a rather elaborate prologue about what peace can mean. After all it's not just the absence of military aggression, but can also mean good-neighbourly relations, security of food resources and the environment, education, liberty and civil rights, racial equality, and such like. 
At the end of this first section, the theme of Gernika and the bombing is introduced in quite a spectacular way. An automatic door opens and you enter a darkened room which in part looks like the mock-up of a dining room anno 1937. You sit down on a bench along on wall. The door closes behind you and then a sound-and-sight “show” begins. 
This is designed to take you into an “experience” of the day of the bombing. First there's lots of emotional talking full of anxiety. Then there's rumbling and flashing of lights until behind the screen in front of you lights reveal a scene of destruction and debris. After this “show” a door at the other end opens and releases you into the main part of the exhibition proper. 
This first provides an overview of the history of Gernika before the war in quite some detail, then moves on to the 1930s and the years of the Spanish Civil War in general as well as the ways it played out in Gernika.   
The bombing of the town is obviously a core element and the technical aspects are dutifully explained. There are even models of the planes that may or may not have been involved. Artefacts include both a large regular bomb and strikingly smaller incendiary bombs, as well as various other objects. Photos, predictably, also play a key role in this exhibition. One artefact I found especially noteworthy was a plate from Dresden – the historical link should be obvious enough (otherwise see background above).
This is augmented further by an interactive screen on which you can go on a virtual walk through Gernika and the destruction caused in April 1937.
Another elaborate section is about Gernika and Spain after the war, both during the repressive years of the Franco regime and beyond. 
The present-day aim of reconciliation is underscored by the section about Germany's then president Roman Herzog who in 1997 issued an official apology to the people of Gernika for the bombing of their town. 
The topic of reconciliation is also picked up through a video projection (with English subtitles) involving both images from the Spanish Civil War as well as other conflicts and key players in brokering peace, such as various Nobel Peace Prize winners. 
One section revolves around the famous “Guernica” painting by Picasso – and the central installation here is a curious “deconstruction” of that image, hanging in bits and pieces from the ceiling so that different perspectives reveal different portions of the actual painting. Very odd. 
A more predictable section highlights the importance of human rights, and right at the end there is a very interesting part about the Basque conflict, which started in the late 1950s and resulted in a string of terrorist bombings, kidnappings and killings by the Basque nationalist organization ETA directed against the Spanish state (which reacted with state terror in return, especially through the GAL “anti-terrorist” death squads). The conflict lasted until only a few years ago, when it was finally ended in 2011, helped in no small measure by the involvement of not only the UN but also (Northern) Irish politicians (with their own experience in conflict resolution) as well as ex-US president Jimmy Carter. I found this one of the most intriguing parts of the museum. 
At the time of my visit in April 2015 there was also a temporary exhibition about the reconstruction of Gernika (and other places) after the war. This was in four languages: in addition to Basque and Spanish also in English and French. 
On balance, I must say I have a bit of mixed impression of this museum. While some parts are well organized and presented in a more or less successful style there were also some overbearingly utopian and almost “poetic” elements in the texts, and also a few seemingly arbitrary “arty” exhibits (such as that mousetrap in an illuminated box!?!), which at times I found a little hard to stomach. 
That sights-and-sounds installation about the bombing is also an ambiguous part. I'm sure some will find fault with such “entertainment” add-ons, though I found it was at least better executed than other such installations I've seen elsewhere. But it does add to the element of “tear-jerking” efforts that pops up now and again all over the exhibition in between the more soberly informational and educational elements. Overall, though, the exhibition is certainly well worth visiting. 
Location: right in the heart of the little town of Gernika, in the Basque country, northern Spain, at Foru Plaza 1, opposite the town hall (ayuntamiento) and across the street from the tourist information office. 
Co-ordinates and Google maps locator:
43°18'54.4"N 2°40'41.9"W
Access and costs: easy to find within the town; reasonably priced.  
Details: Once you're in Gernika, the museum is very easy to find. It is right in the centre on the square called Foru Plaza that's on the western side of the main road that leads through the town centre. The clock tower of the adjacent town hall can be a useful beacon landmark. It is walkable from practically anywhere within Gernika. From the train station it's a mere 3-minute walk (via Geltoki Plaza and Adolfo Urioste Kalea). 
If you've come to Gernika by car, note that there is no parking directly at the museum, but free parking can be found e.g. on the western side of Europa Park (a 5-minute walk away). 
Admission: 5 EUR (some concessions apply), extra temporary exhibition: 1 EUR. 
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (in winter, October to March, only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and on Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Mondays.
One-hour guided tours (for groups) in English have to be pre-arranged in advance and cost 28 EUR (contact museoa(at) or book online at
Time required: Between one and two hours. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Spain in general and Gernika in particular. 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Gernika
  • peace museum 01 - outsidepeace museum 01 - outside
  • peace museum 02 - insidepeace museum 02 - inside
  • peace museum 03 - general peace prelude sectionpeace museum 03 - general peace prelude section
  • peace museum 04 - dining room mock-uppeace museum 04 - dining room mock-up
  • peace museum 05 - sight-and-sound recreation of the bombingpeace museum 05 - sight-and-sound recreation of the bombing
  • peace museum 06 - clock in rubblepeace museum 06 - clock in rubble
  • peace museum 07 - Civil War sectionpeace museum 07 - Civil War section
  • peace museum 08 - contemporary commodificationpeace museum 08 - contemporary commodification
  • peace museum 09 - model bomberspeace museum 09 - model bombers
  • peace museum 10 - incendiary bombpeace museum 10 - incendiary bomb
  • peace museum 11 - big bombpeace museum 11 - big bomb
  • peace museum 12 - plate from Dresdenpeace museum 12 - plate from Dresden
  • peace museum 13 - Franco medalpeace museum 13 - Franco medal
  • peace museum 14 - mouse trappeace museum 14 - mouse trap
  • peace museum 15 - section for childrenpeace museum 15 - section for children
  • peace museum 16 - interactive screenpeace museum 16 - interactive screen
  • peace museum 17 - film projection roompeace museum 17 - film projection room
  • peace museum 18 - Picasso sectionpeace museum 18 - Picasso section
  • peace museum 19 - temporary exhibitionpeace museum 19 - temporary exhibition

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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