Places in Motion — Culture wars in Poland: Torn between the Nation and Europe

The new museum of the Second World War in Gdansk has become a battlefield between nationalistic and liberal views of Poland’s national identity. What is debated is the extent to which Polish and European history are interconnected.

Some of the most passionating pages of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum describe the siege of the post office of Gdansk on September 1st, 1939. At the time the city was a self-governing entity, separating Eastern Prussia from the rest of Germany and indirectly providing Poland with some access to the sea. Nazi Germany’s attack on the city being the first act of belligerence that marked the beginning of World War II, it is not by chance that Gdansk has recently built a high-profile museum devoted to the conflict. Few hundred meters away from it are the shipyards that used to be the stronghold of Solidarność before 1989: this Polish city it is by all effects an European lieu de mémoire.

One of the biggest museums of the country, counting on a international scientific committee, employing innovative exposition techniques, displaying an iconic building: the political and cultural significance of the enterprise underlying the Museum of the Second World War can hardly be underestimated – and it is further stressed by the 10 years of work and the investment surpassing 100 million euros. The museum has finally opened to the public at the beginning of this spring, but its permanent exhibition and governance have proved to be highly controversial in today’s Poland, where the memory of World War II and national relations with the neighboring countries continue to be hotly debated.

Even after more than 70 years from its conclusion, the war remains an incredibly popular subject for the European public, and it is continuously approached from dozens of different angles. The curators of the Gdansk museum necessarily had to choose a specific angle, so they took two fundamental decisions. First, the museum should focus on the everyday experience of the people affected by the war, not only of soldiers. To this end, many private donors contributed to the collection by offering thousands of objects belonging to their families. Second, the exhibition should stress the connections and similarities between the Polish people’s experience and those of the other people in Europe. According to the renowned historian Timothy Snyder, “the museum is the only attempt in Europe or really in the world to actually present the war as international history.” It is this choice that has become politically contested in Poland.

The debate on the Gdansk museum has become particularly tense after the comeback of the Law and Justice party (PiS) to power in 2015 (the museum had initially been promoted by their arch-enemy Donald Tusk, a Gdansk local). PiS leaders have not visited the museum, but they have made clear that they do not like it in any case. They engaged in a long battle to get rid of its director, which has come to an end in early April, when the Supreme Administrative Court sanctioned the appointment of a new director, Karol Nawrocki.

Nawrocki is expected to be more in line with the Law and Justice’s view on the memory of World War II. Indeed, he has already announced some changes to the permanent exhibition, which will give more space to the distinct Polish experience. The suffering of the Poles is likely to be stressed, while the authoritarian tendencies of interwar Poland and the acts of violence or cowardice committed by Polish citizens, e.g. against the Jews, will probably be downplayed.

To be sure, no one questions the awful experience of Poles during the war, which was extraordinary indeed. However, a nationalistic reading of the past is central to the narrative of PiS, which relies heavily on the representation of Poland as a victim and on the exaltation of its singularity – contrary to other existing narratives, which are more inclined to linking the history of Poland with the broader history of Europe, and not to overlook the shadows tainting the national history. More in general, the Law and Justice’s effort at gaining control on the Gdansk museum appears in keeping with its attempt at reducing the spaces available for independent, liberal narratives in the country, for instance by intervening heavily in the media sector and in other domains.

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