Polish Government at Odds With International Academics Over WWII Museum

A Polish World War II museum is the subject of a political battle between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and international academics.

Norman Davies, the British historian respected in Poland for his many books on their country, heads the international advisory board for the museum. He calls attempts by the Law and Justice party to take over the museum are “Bolshevik” and “paranoid.” “The Law and Justice government does not want a bunch of foreign historians to decide what goes on in ‘their’ museum.’’ According to Davies, one of the forces driving the government’s stance towards the museum is Jarosław Kaczyński, “who runs everything like a personal politburo.’’

Evidence is mounting that the Polish government is using a “politics of memory” strategy to settle old scores. Former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa and current European council president (and former prime minister of Poland) Donald Tusk appear to be among those targeted by the new policies. Both men are associated with the city of Gdańsk.

It appears that the government has long been planning to take over the museum. Last autumn, after coming to power and when the new museum was almost complete, the Law and Justice party announced a new museum to be opened at Westerplatte, where the first shots of WWII were fired.

Last week, Piotr Gliński, the culture minister and deputy prime minister, announced that he was considering merging the two museums. “This way he would create a new institution, with a new director,” and ultimately take control of both museums, said a spokesperson for Gdańsk city hall.

Davies believes the move comes directly from Kaczyński. “He is behaving like a Bolshevik and a paranoid troublemaker. Law and Justice are the most vindictive gang in Europe. Gdańsk is a particular target because of the association with Wałęsa and Solidarity, and Tusk, who is Gdańsk-born, is a history graduate and laid the foundation stone of the museum. Kaczyński was in Solidarity and managed Wałęsa’s election campaign before he became president of Poland [in 1990]. Wałęsa sidelined him, and Kaczyński has been planning his revenge ever since.’’

The historian said that the permanent exhibition planned for the museum was a “complete narrative of 1939-1945’’, put together by an advisory board with experience of building museums. “It is strongly about Europe, with an emphasis on the war as it concerned Poland. There is a substantial section about the Holocaust.’’

The government strategy seems to be focused on highlighting Polish heroism and sacrifice. A museum in Markowa opened last month to commemorate the Ulma family, who saved their Jewish neighbors. The project was fast-tracked by the government. The museum was considered important enough by the ruling party to have it translated into 5 different languages and streamed to Polish embassies in 17 countries.

The party has also proposed legislation that would ban the phrase “Polish death camps” when it feels “Nazi death camps” is more appropriate. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said: “It is hurtful for all Poles to hear of Polish death camps. It sounds like the Poles did it. They didn’t. The Germans did. This government wants to emphasis the positive things Poles did during the war.”

“The question is, will they de-emphasise the denouncements that occurred? Will they emphasize the righteous Gentiles while forgetting the informers? We do not know yet.’’

Jan Tomasz Gross, the Princeton historian, was questioned by the prosecutor under a charge of “insulting the nation,” apparently based on something he wrote back in September. He stated that Poles in WWII killed more Jews than they killed Germans.

This “politics of memory” policy has its own department in the ministry of culture. It has placed in effect measures, condemned by the U.S. and many European nations, to control the media, the internet and the judiciary. An airing of the Oscar-winning Polish film “Ida” on state television was preceded by a twelve-minute warning about alleged historical inaccuracies.

“The ‘politics of memory’ policy appears to work largely by insinuation,” said Davies. “When I first heard about it 20 years ago, I thought it was aimed at picking up what the Soviets had left out of Polish history. Fair enough. But now that Law and Justice is in government, we are seeing it as it is – a xenophobic attempt to rewrite history. As a historian you can’t help but see the parallels – the [communist] Polish People’s Republic had a ‘history policy’, and here we go again.’’

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE