‘Vindictive’ Polish leaders using new war museum to rewrite history, says academic
Alex Duval Smith, The Guardian, April 25, 2016
|Past to the future: An impression of
how the £72m museum in Gdańsk will look. Photograph: Publicity
A £72m prestige cultural project is
caught in the crossfire between ‘xenophobic’ politicians and
A spectacular new
museum of the second world war is at the centre of an
extraordinary row between international academics and Poland’s
political leadership, amid claims that the country’s ruling Law and
Justice party is putting history at the service of politics.
Due to open in December in the
northern city of Gdańsk, the museum is billed as one of Europe’s
prestige cultural projects for 2016. It comprises 13 storeys – six
of them underground – and has been built at a cost of £72m.
of countries across Europe
and beyond have donated artefacts, including a Sherman tank and a
Soviet T34 tank.
The British historian Norman Davies,
who is revered in Poland
for his many books about the country, has been closely associated
with the project for eight years and heads its high-ranking
international advisory board.
He told the Observer
that attempts by the Law and Justice government to hijack the museum
are “Bolshevik’’ in style and “paranoid’’. He said: “The
Law and Justice government does not want a bunch of foreign
historians to decide what goes on in ‘their’ museum.’’
Oxford-based academic said one of the driving forces behind
government hostility towards the project in its present form was Law
and Justice strongman Jarosław Kaczyński, “who runs everything
like a personal politburo.’’
There is also increasing evidence that
a new “politics of memory” policy is being used to settle scores
with political rivals, such as the former Solidarity leader Lech
Wałęsa and the European council president Donald Tusk, prime
minister of Poland at the time of the Smolensk air disaster that
killed Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother.
Both men are
particularly associated with the city of Gdańsk.
A government move to take control of
the new museum appears to have been long planned.
Soon after coming
to power last autumn – when the new museum was almost complete –
the Law and Justice government announced the creation of another
museum in Gdańsk, at Westerplatte, where the first shots of the
second world war were fired.
Last week culture minister and deputy
prime minister Piotr Gliński said he was considering merging the
flagship museum with the as-yet-unbuilt Westerplatte museum.
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 said he believed the moves
against the second world war museum were coming 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
Kaczyński, who engineered his party’s
landslide parliamentary election victory last October, has devised a
“politics of memory’’ policy that aims to highlight Polish
heroism and sacrifice throughout history.
Last month the opening of a
museum in Markowa commemorating the bravery of the Ulma family in
saving their Jewish neighbours was fast-tracked.
In a measure of the
importance of the event for the government, the opening ceremony at
the tiny homestead museum was simultaneously translated into five
languages and streamed to Polish embassies in 17 countries.
In a further move under the “politics
of memory’’ banner, the government has proposed legislation that
would punish the use of the phrase “Polish
death camps’’ where “Nazi German death camps’’ is more
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
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 emphasise the
righteous Gentiles while forgetting the informers?
We do not know
Last week the Princeton historian Jan
Tomasz Gross – who wrote in September 2015 that Poles during the
second world war killed more Jews than they killed Germans – was
questioned by a prosecutor on the charge of “insulting the
The “politics of memory’’ policy
has its own department in the ministry of culture and in part depends
for its daily running upon measures, condemned by the United States
and a range of European bodies and officials, to control the media,
the internet and the judiciary.
When state television broadcast the
Oscar-winning Polish film Ida,
the screening was preceded by a 12-minute warning to viewers of
alleged historical inaccuracies
“The ‘politics of memory’ policy
appears to work largely by insinuation,” said Davies.
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.
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.’’
The ministry of culture and two Law
and Justice politicians did not respond to the
Observer’s request for