An internationally curated exhibition of the new Museum of the Second World War was supposed to open early next year in Gdańsk. The conservative Polish government is however determined to prevent that from happening, as they oppose the notion that an internationally focused exhibition can align with Polish national interests.
This step is therefore seen as highly controversial, because of critics such as the renowned historian prof. Norman Davies saying: “It is very sad, but you can see that party currently in power intends to reconstruct the entire modern history of Poland.” as he had stated in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza.
Kaczyński’s party is already known for its unprecedented decisions such as ignoring constitutional court rulings on the illegality of its actions concerning interventions into the judiciary sector. These interventions being in alingnment with the party’s vision of national interest that is vaguely defined by the government as “for Poland to get up from its knees”.
The Warsaw Rising Museum promoted by the late Law and Justice president – Lech Kaczyński – stands as a role model for how a museal exposition can achieve this by being formed as a monument of Polish exclusiveness and patriotism.
As the party’s current political manifesto includes more than 200 mentions of nation and national interest, fears of the conservative government appropriating history for political purposes are not unsubstantiated.
Minister of Culture of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party Piotr Gliński plans to merge the museum with the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 on the grounds of saving money. The merger set to take place on the 1st December would give minister Gliński a possibility to reshape the exhibition and appoint a new directorate.
The museum that is supposed to commemorate the infamous seven-day-long battle of Westerplatte where Poles stood ground against German superiority has only been formally set up by the minister last December.
Even the minister himself has been vocal about the museum having no real vision up until the spring 2016. Back then it tried to build on a (later discarded) project by the previous Law and justice Government of Jarosław Kaczyński, current head of the party.
On the other hand, the project of the Museum of the Second World War has been launched as far back as 2008 by a now-opposition Civic Platform party and its then prime minister Donald Tusk. The same Donald Tusk that is currently the president of the European Council.
After almost a half year long silence, minister Gliński attended a parliamentary deliberation on 14th of September saying: “A museum supervised by the ministry ensures that public expectations will be fulfilled.”.
He later followed with: “Content of this exposition is not a matter of taste of prominent Polish and international historians or the minister. It is supposed to depict the foundations and discourses of the politics of history in accordance with the Polish national interest. I will also remind that the exposition that is currently being created was adopted arbitrarily by decision makers of the previous establishment.”
In his speech, the minister stood by the position of Piotr Semka, Jan Żaryn and Piotr Niwiński. A right wing journalist and historians that wrote reviews denouncing the current setup of the exposition.
In these reviews the authors proclaim the exhibition to be: “Not catholic and patriotic enough.” and “Not at all stressing the positive side of the war – that is toughening men.”. This caused an indignation among many Polish and international historians that do not agree with the merger.
Among those historians there are prof. Timothy Snyder, a best-selling author of Bloodlands and a member of the museum’s advisory board and prof. Andrzej Nowak, a conservative historian with ties to the ruling party and a fellow of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
In August, the two wrote an open letter together that included this excerpt: “Both of us recognize that the exhibition reflects both historical truth in the aspect of the overall image of the war and also the special part of Poland in it.”.
The minister concluded his speech with a reference to this open letter as he proclaimed the need to give more space to the exceptionality of Poland and the Polish people rather than the abstract and “pseudo-universalist” depiction of an inherently evil war.
During the deliberation, one fact was also mentioned by the Civic Platform MP Tadeusz Aziewicz – out of the approximately 450 million zlotys (104 million €), 50 million has been pledged by the city of Gdańsk. The fact that its current mayor Paweł Adamowicz is a former Civic Platform member and an outspoken critic of the merger, makes it possible to anticipate for the donation’s to be held back.
It was also in this Baltic Sea city, where Solidarność, an independent trade union set to later overthrow the communist government, has been founded as an aftermath of the August 1980 labour strike at Lenin Shipyard.
This strike can be perceived as an intersection of many political figures that later had large roles to play in both the pre and post-1989 history of Poland, but especially in this event. Some like Lech Wałęsa or Lech Kaczyński became presidents, others like Tadeusz Mazowiecki or the then student leader Donald Tusk prime ministers.
Back then had all of them followed the same agenda focusing on defeating the communist regime, however with its collapse came also a collapse of their alliance. Solidarność movement that incorporated dissidents from left to right then faced most of its members departing to set up their own movements and parties.
Jarosław and his late brother Lech Kaczyński set out to form a Christian democratic Centre Agreement party that later transformed into Law and Justice. Mazowiecki and Tusk formed their own parties that later merged into one, from which the Civic Platform has been formed.
Most of the 2000’s Polish politics has been defined by the struggle of the two groupings to get the upper hand. It was during this time that Donald Tusk became the prime minister in 2007 and had set out plans for the Museum of the Second World War in 2008.
This all however changed in 2010 when a Polish Air Force Tu-154 crashed near Smolensk. All 96 people on board including Lech Kaczyński succumbing.
The fact of many of the 96 fatalities being political opponents of the then prime minister Tusk caused many conspiracy theories about the crash being organised by Putin and Tusk in order to get rid of the hard-line president.
Law and Justice was however unable to win enough votes to oust the Civic Platform out of the government up until 2015. It was then able to secure the posts of both the prime minister and the president.
During those 5 years Jarosław Kaczyński continued building on what he started with his brother. Poland lost a president, he had lost a brother, but his party had gotten a martyr that many Poles still look up to with monthly remembrance gatherings being organised in front of the presidential palace.
Looking back at Poland’s history, there was a time when the intelligentsia awaited a martyr/messiah to free them from the Tsar’s grasp. This history still lives on in the works of polish poets by the names of Mickiewicz or Słowacki that every Pole learns about in school.
It is therefore to be taken into consideration whether or not the catastrophic event of 2010 that had given Poles their martyr has not moved the Polish political thought back 150 years. To a time where the “public expectations” minister Gliński speaks about meant what one can read in any Polish newspaper of today. That is for Poland to get up from its knees, starting with discarding plans and projects of Jarosław Kaczynski’s nemesis.
Being ousted from most of the profitable positions, it was easy to win the 2015 elections on the campaign based on moral and patriotic ambiguity of the Civic Platform leaders. Especially seen in the anti-corruption rhetoric.
After all, Poland of the 2000’s has not ceased to be a post-socialist country with the entry into the European Union. As seen in the neighbouring countries, tunnelling and corruption are still omnipresent.
It is also important to note that minister Gliński was one of the short listed candidates for the party vice-leadership positions. However as in any elections, it is necessary for the candidate to gain popularity and the minister may have seen getting hold of the museum’s supervision as just that.
It is yet to be seen whether the 50 million pledged by the city of Gdańsk that make roughly 1,5% of the ministry‘s annual ministry budget will get a larger role to play.
Nevertheless, prof. Norman Davies urges us not to expect the worst just yet as he has confidence in the plenipotentiary minister Gliński picked for the merger. “I know prof. Zbigniew Wawer a bit and I believe that he will soften the various aspirations.”
As the minister himself has put it: “We will see after the merger.”