2016-11-09 23:06:20
A Museum Becomes a Battlefield Over Poland’s History

GDANSK, Poland — 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 funding.

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) 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.”

The museum does have a section dedicated to the Warsaw Rising, in which Poles, with limited aid from the Allies, fought the Nazis for 63 days in 1944 before the Soviet Army invaded. (That episode is the focus of a museum in Warsaw, the Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004.)

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 branch of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights 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 through.

“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.”