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A Museum Becomes a Battlefield Over Poland’s History

November 12th 2016

Holocaust cattle cars

Conceived nearly a decade ago in a moment of pan-European 
optimism, the Museum of the Second World War here seeks to tell a story of 
devastation that transcended national boundaries. Its collection includes 
Soviet and American tanks; keys to the homes of Jews murdered by their Polish 
neighbors in the village of Jedwabne; flags from the Polish Home Army, which 
fought the Nazis; and an Enigma encoding machine.

But today, this state-financed museum’s fate is uncertain, caught up in the 
country’s cultural and political battles. After five years of construction, at 
a cost of 449 million zlotys (about $114 million), the museum may not open in 
January, as scheduled. Even if it does, the government may starve it of 

Piotr Glinski, the culture minister of Poland’s conservative government, has 
criticized the museum’s expansive approach and says it should focus more on the 
Polish experience. In a move that would oust the museum’s director, the 
minister has called for the museum to merge with another museum, which exists 
only in name. That institution is dedicated to the Battle of Westerplatte, the 
first battle of the war in September 1939, when Polish forces fended off the 
Nazis before surrendering — an event he regards as more symbolic of heroic 
Polish self-defense.

That merger, though harshly criticized by historians and unpopular with the
public, is indicative of deeper currents coursing through Poland. Since coming
to power last year, the right-wing Law and Justice Party has tapped into
populist discontent by depicting the country as a noble victim, besieged by
enemies both past and present — once the Soviets and the Nazis; today, the
European Union, German liberalism, Russian might and immigrants.

“It’s a potentially catastrophic event, with much wider significance than
Gdansk or one museum,” Norman Davies, a pre-eminent British historian of Poland
and chairman of one of the Museum of the Second World War’s advisory boards,
said of the proposed merger.

“It’s a part of the present government’s attempt to rewrite history,” he added.
“It’s one of the pillars of every authoritarian or totalitarian regime, that
they want to reorder the past to their own fantasies.”

The Museum of the Second World War was created in 2008 by the government led by
Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now president of the European Council. An
ambitious building designed by the Polish firm Kwadrat, it has 5,000 square
meters of exhibition space and a staff of 60. The original budget swelled by
more than 100 million zlotys (about $26 million) for technical reasons and
after the building, on the Vistula River delta, suffered water leakage.

With an emphasis on civilians, the museum has sections dedicated to the
Holocaust and to the Battle of Westerplatte. Among its 41,000 objects, of which
2,000 will go in the permanent exhibition, there are coat buttons from Poles
executed by Soviet NKVD agents in the infamous Katyn massacre of 1940, when the
Soviets killed thousands of Poland’s military elite. The museum also has
sections devoted to World War II’s Pacific theater and the French and Danish
Resistance, and an area for children that depicts a middle-class Warsaw
apartment before and during the war.

“The museum is the only attempt in Europe or really in the world to actually
present the war as international history,” said Timothy Snyder, a historian at
Yale University who serves on the museum’s advisory board.

“Poland is overrepresented in this international museum, which is not
surprising, given that the museum is in Poland,” he added.

Mr. Glinski, the culture minister and deputy prime minister, does not agree. In
an interview in Warsaw, he said he believed that the Museum of the Second World
War did not put “enough stress on the Polish point of view” and did not
adequately focus on the Battle of Westerplatte, “a symbolic place for Poles.”

“Our obligation,” Mr. Glinski added, “is to maintain a conversation about our
sacrifice, a conversation with world public opinion.”

“Poland is associated mainly with the Holocaust,” he continued. “The world
knows about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on April 19, 1943, but it doesn’t
recognize the Warsaw Rising that took a much bigger toll.”

Pawel Machcewicz, the director of the Museum of the Second World War, said that
the government’s move to merge it is in keeping with its efforts to discredit
the previous government of Mr. Tusk and to exert control over independent
institutions. Since coming to power last year, the government has replaced the
heads of state media channels and combined the roles of the chief prosecutor
and the justice minister.

But the museum merger hasn’t been so simple. The Polish Ombudsman’s office, a
state entity that protects civil liberties, has filed a lawsuit to block the
merger, arguing that Poland’s museum council, a state body, never sanctioned
the move. (Mr. Glinski said the council’s approval was not required.) And some
families who donated heirlooms said they would withdraw them if the merger went

“They thought they could do a blitzkrieg,” Mr. Machcewicz said of government
officials, “but now we have the Battle of Stalingrad.”

If the merger moves forward, Mr. Machcewicz expects to be out of a job, but
said he hoped that the museum could open in late January, if only briefly, with
its mission uncompromised. He said that the government had committed just half
of what the museum needed to cover operating and hiring costs for 2017.

“It would be a huge scandal in Poland, and internationally, if politicians
changed the exhibition created by renowned historians from Poland and
elsewhere,” he said.

Mr. Glinski said that the ministry had no intention of changing the museum’s contents and that it would open as planned. “It has enough for opening and for at least for six months,” he said. “After that period, we’ll see.”

The museum controversy is not the only sign that the Second World War remains a live issue in Poland. “Volhynia,” a recent critical and box-office hit film about the 1944 massacres of ethnic Poles by Ukrainian nationalists, has been
embraced by the government for its depictions of Polish suffering, to the dismay of the director, Wojciech Smarzowski.

At the Museum of the Second World War last week, workmen were scrambling to finish the interior and install the collections, despite the museum’s possible death sentence. The institution is just blocks from the European Solidarity
Center, dedicated to Solidarity, the democratic protest movement whose leader, Lech Walesa, the current government now depicts as a sellout to the Communist regime.

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.”

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