Historians, Government Officials Clash Over Polish History at New Museum

Trapped between nationalism and documentation, a Polish museum grapples with how to tell its story

Polish Museum
The site of the new museum in Gdansk Museum of the Second World War

What story should a museum tell? That question can be more complicated than you might think—especially when a museum is tasked with confronting dark chapters in history. Now, reports Vanessa Gera for the Associated Press, that question has flared into a political conflict in Poland, where a soon-to-be opened World War II museum faces criticism for the stark story it tells.

The Museum of the Second World War recently hosted a press day in Gdansk, Poland, to show off the project nearly a decade in the making, which scheduled to open to the public in late February. The preview took place before a Polish court announced on Tuesday that the museum would be forced to merge with another museum and come under government control. Now, the World War II museum will be forcibly pushed into a combined cultural organization along with another museum devoted 1939 battle perceived by Polish nationalists as a brave stand against the Nazis before the country’s eventual surrender and occupation. Ostensibly, reports Deutsche Welle, the change is intended to cut costs. But in effect, it will allow the Polish government to oust the museum's director and change the story it tells.

As the New York Times’ Rachel Donadio notes, the Museum of the Second World War was initially commissioned by Donald Tusk, a historian and the then-Polish prime minister and currently the president of the European Council. Its directive was to look at the civilian experience during World War II from an international perspective.

That would have made it unique among World War II museums. But the idea faced resistance within Poland, where right-wing nationalism has been on the rise in recent years. In 2015, the Law and Justice party, which embraces both an anti-immigrant and nationalist stance, came to power. Since then, Law and Justice has flexed its considerable muscle, cracking down on the media and battling for a more pro-Poland take on the past.

Last year, the government attempted to take over the museum and make it merge with the other institution, but museum officials fought back with a lawsuit. The forced merger is seen by many as an attempt to muzzle the initial museum’s story and to repudiate Poland’s more liberal former government. Now, the takeover will proceed—along with what The Art Newspaper’s Julia Michalska calls “an ongoing battle over national memory.”

In a way, that battle has been raging since World War II itself. Together, Nazi Germany and the USSR conspired to wipe the country off the map, turning the country into a proving ground for the concept of “Lebensraum” and working to annihilate Poland’s people, culture and national identity. During the war, Poland staged a scrappy resistance, but nonetheless millions of Poles were killed before the country was handed over to the Soviet Union, which controlled it until 1989.

However, many Poles also participated in some of the worst atrocities of World War II, collaborating with the Nazis, denouncing one another, indulging in rampant anti-Semitism and even participating in pogroms and death camps. It is this complex and uncomfortable history that Poland’s current right-wing government wants to revise. As SmartNews reported last year, Law and Justice has even cracked down on the words people use to refer to Poland involvement in World War II, threatening to jail anyone who says “Polish death camp” instead of identifying concentration camps as Nazi-run.

Now, reports Gera, that tussle over national identity has bled over into the museum itself. Government officials have accused museum leaders of presenting a story that is “not Polish enough,” withheld funds, and resisted its focus on other nations and civilian experiences. With the Polish court siding in the government's favor, the museum's fate is up in the air.

What’s next for Poland’s embattled World War II museum? It’s a conundrum that may prove as controversial—and unresolved—as the question of which version of Polish history it should present.

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