On 26 April 1937, the town of Gernika was bombed for more than three hours. A total of 31 tons of bombs and projectiles were dropped by the pro-Franco air force on a defenceless town, leading to the destruction of the urban centre and approximately 500 casualties. The air attack was carried out by the German Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria and it was organized by the Colonel Von Richthofen in accordance with the Spanish Colonel Juan Vigón.
After the attempted military coup d’etat on 18 July 1936, whose main promoters were the Spanish army and fascists who sought to put an end to the democratic regime of the Second Spanish Republic, the military relied on the help of Hitler and Mussolini. The putsch was a failure and triggered a Civil War that came to an end on April 1, 1939 with the victory of General Francisco Franco. During the conflict, systematic and extensive bombing of the rear was undertaken by the air force, giving birth to a new military strategy further used during the Second World War. After this point, the war was no longer a war affecting only the front, but also the rear, and therefore a total war. Many Republican cities were completely devastated, in particular Gernika, which held special meaning for the pro-Franco Army: Gernika was the symbol of the Basque nationalism, and consequently, the Spanish nationalism wanted to put an end to it. Fascist propaganda set the whole machine in motion and accused the Republicans of having bombed the Basque town, a lie repeated during the whole Franco dictatorship. The bombing caused an international commotion and the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso immortalized it on a canvas that became symbolic of the atrocities of the war.
Seventy years later, during commemorative events for the bombings held on April 27, 1997, around 150 survivors listened to the German ambassador, Hening Wegener, read a letter sent by Roman Herzog, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany during the bombing, in which he acknowledged German responsibility for the events, offering “his open hand pleading for reconciliation”. This historic act of reparation opened the door to several questions pertaining to the transnational aspect of commemorative policies. The contrast between the prolonged silence kept by Spanish institutions and the German President’s initiative proved the need for reconciliation that goes beyond national borders with regards to the most traumatic events that have shattered the 20th century.
Aware of the international symbolism of Gernika as an icon of the resistance against a devastating model of total war, in 1999 the Gernika-Lumo City Council started to reshape in the municipal museum, at both a physical and conceptual level. At the same time, it started works aimed to open a documentation centre focused on the bombing and the Civil War. This centre was integrated into the new museum for which a compilation of international document collections was undertaken. Consequently, the doors of the new Gernika Peace Museum Foundation were opened in 2003 under the Management of the same Museum Foundation (made up by the Basque Government, the Diputación Foral de Bizkaia and the Gernika-Lumo City Council), the first peace museum in Spain. Since then, the Foundation keeps working at a local level for the study and dissemination of memory of a few international historic events from which a global message, such as the promotion of a culture of peace, can be created.