Poland moves forward with refocusing history on Polish heroism and victimhood
The Museum of Second World War in Gdansk, Poland which opened on March 23, 2017 in the midst of controversy.
By Carolyn Yeager
POLAND IS MERGING TWO MUSEUMS OF HISTORY INTO ONE – the newly opened World War II Museum in Gdansk with another yet-to-be-established state-sanctioned institution that, when it opens, will be focused solely on Polish heroism during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
The current culture minister under the ruling Law and Justice Party, Piotr Glinski, has been pushing for a merger with a museum that currently exists only on paper, and is dedicated to the Battle of Westerplatte. In November 2016, the New York Times quoted Glinski saying that focusing on the September 1939 battle would better represent “heroic Polish self-defense,” and that the museum in the works failed to put “enough stress on the Polish point of view.”
“We should do something like what the Jewish community has done, which managed to arrange around the Holocaust all the other events of World War II,” said historian Jan Zaryn, a senator for the Law and Justice party, on Polish TV in October. In other words, make the Polish experience the center of the war for Poles, despite that it distorts the overall context of how and why things happened as they did.
According to VOA News:
The [WWII museum] project was launched in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is today one of the European Union's top leaders. Aside from its global approach, the creators of the state museum say it is different from most other war museums in that it puts civilian suffering - not military campaigns - at the heart of the narrative.
But the political climate in Poland has changed dramatically since then, with a nationalist and populist government in charge that deeply objects to its approach and wants to take control over the institution to change its content. Members of the ruling Law and Justice party say they want a museum that focuses solely on the Polish experience, with primacy given to the heroism of Polish soldiers who resisted the Germans.
A visitor looks at an exhibit in the Museum of the Second World War, which is reminiscent of the "Hall of Names" Dome covered with images of victims at Yad Vashem museum in Israel. Under creation for nine years, this museum first opened its doors for one day only to historians, museums and reporters in Gdansk, Poland, Jan. 23, 2017.
But according to Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian on the museum's advisory board, “Poland is already overrepresented in this international museum, which is not surprising, given that the museum is in Poland.”
And Antoni Dudek, a historian of Polish history and a professor at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw, was one of dozens of historians who signed a letter criticizing the merger, despite his support of the current government. “The controversy around the museum is emblematic of a larger problem, the way the ruling party is monopolizing the politics of memory and history,” Mr. Dudek said.
“The problem is that the government insists on discrediting and eliminating all other historical visions in the process,” he added. “This is a line that nobody should ever cross.”
The Politics of Memory
The current revision of Polish history has been underway since August 2016 with the passage of a law to outlaw the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” as inaccurate. The only term now legally acceptable in Poland is “Nazi German death camps.”
Under the current government, the ministry of culture has set up a department dedicated to policing what they call “the politics of memory.” Historians and academics have warned that these measures help to create a revisionist Polish history: An article in the Economist from April 2016 called instances in which the government interfered with historical portrayals “alarming.”
They also suggest that the party sees political gain in stirring up historical resentments. It plays up the most glorious aspects of Poland’s history, such as the anti-Nazi resistance. At the same time, it portrays the country and its people as victims, then and now.
The merger project has been contested for months, but now the Supreme Administrative Court hs given the government the go-ahead to make it happen. Glinski will divert the focus of the museum from an international view of the Second World War, to one that emphasizes the Polish perspective, specifically the experience of Poland’s first battle with Germany, which ended in Polish surrender. The current museum director Pawel Machcewicz expects to lose his job. Machcewicz is aligned with Donald Tusk, who appointed him to the post in 2008.
This is taking place at the same time that the Law and Justice Party authorities are also seeking to manipulate another major event in even more recent Polish history. They are leveling accusations against the Russian air traffic controllers of deliberately "luring" the ill-fated Polish plane carrying 90 top-level officials into crashing at the Smolensk airport in 2010. The motive was, according to their logic, to get rid of [President and brother of Jaroslaw] Lech Kaczynski, who had always been a vociferous critic of Russia's then-prime minster and current president, Vladimir Putin.