Should civilians be ignored on the battlefield

A museum as a battlefield

The Museum of World War II in Gdańsk, which opened in March, is a historical and political bone of contention. Pawel Machcewicz, the founding director who has meanwhile been dismissed by the national conservative government, takes stock.

Mr Machcewicz, if you wanted to visit the Museum of World War II in Gdansk today, what would you see?

The museum is still open. The permanent exhibition has remained unchanged so far. What has changed is that I have not been a director since April 6th.

How did you end up losing your job?

Legal tricks were used for this purpose. The PiS government's plan was to merge the museum with the existing open-air exhibition on the Westerplatte on the history of this area. As is well known, the Second World War began on the Westerplatte near Danzig. This merger would have created a new museum which, according to the logic of these people, would also have needed a new director. The new museum was to be named "Museum Westerplatte", which would make me superfluous.

However, the city of Gdansk prevented this trick. The building site on which our museum was built is tied to the purpose of the "Museum of the Second World War". In the end, I was fired after my museum was formally dissolved and then re-established. At least I was able to delay this process by taking legal action so that the museum could still open under my aegis.

Her successor, Karol Nawrocki, has already announced that he will change things.

Yes, in a section absolute numbers should become percentages. That affects the number of war victims. In absolute terms, the Soviet Union and Germany had the most war deaths. If you go by percentage, the Poles were hit hardest. The film in the last room, which refers to today's wars around the world, is also to be changed. Here the absence of Ronald Reagan, who was a hero for the Polish right, was criticized. Instead, Democrats Truman and Kennedy would be shown. In addition, the underlying song of the band Animals, "House of the Rising Sun", is deeply immoral, as it refers to a brothel in New Orleans. I fear, however, that this is just the prelude to extensive changes aimed at a completely different view of history.

What concept did you pursue in the museum?

The current concept is comparative. It shows events of World War I around the world because, as the name suggests, it took place around the world. We do not only talk about Poland, but we deal with Poland on around 50 percent of the area. We show not only the Warsaw Uprising, but also the uprisings in Paris, Prague and Slovakia. In addition to the Polish resistance movements, we also deal with those in Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Soviet Union.

In addition to the German and Soviet occupation systems, which directly affected Poland, the Japanese occupation regime is also outlined. Through the overarching narrative, we can work out the great context, similarities and differences. After I submitted a first concept paper for the museum in 2008 at the request of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was just in office at the time, the representatives of the PiS did not stop ranting against it.

Wasn't the concept “Polish” enough for the opponents of the project?

Exactly. We have been accused of marginalizing Polish history in favor of a supranational approach. Donald Tusk only wants to serve Germany and the EU. So the main accusation was that the exhibition was too cosmopolitan, too universalistic. The second most common allegation was that our museum was "pacifist". There would be too little military history in it, too little heroism. The war can also be a positive experience that shapes the character.

In fact, our concept focuses on the civilian population, but again not only the Polish. However, this part of the concept goes back to a specifically Polish experience. Here "only" 300,000 soldiers died, but 5 million civilians, including 3 million Polish Jews and 2 million ethnic Poles. That is a very high proportion of the civilian population. It is also a specific feature of modern wars that the civilian population is affected to an ever greater extent.

You have said that the museum has become a “main battlefield of Polish historical politics”.

The museum was a political issue from the start. When he took office in 2015, the PiS minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, said that after winning the election, his party now had the right to change the exhibition. When I first met Glinski, he had no idea. He claimed we hadn't portrayed the Volhynia massacre. We have our own section for this. They also claimed that we are hiding the bombing of Polish cities by the German air force, the defense of Warsaw and the Warsaw Uprising. However, all of this is thematized in the museum.

How should one discuss constructively when the other side argues only on the basis of ideological prejudices and does not know the actual content? Ultimately, the government's aim is to cut Poland's ties with Europe and the world and isolate us. The international historians and experts on Eastern Europe involved in the project, Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies, were also consistently ignored.

What steps are you planning to take to preserve the exhibition in its current form?

We will continue to take legal action against it. In doing so, we use the instrument of copyright law. At our side is the leading Polish copyright expert who represents us pro bono. If we have to, we will also turn to European courts.

What is your personal balance sheet?

Mixed. I already have the feeling that I have achieved a great victory. We got through the construction work, brought the museum to the opening. I did my best, despite the pressure from politics and the state media. But I also feel a great loss. We have built a network with researchers and other museums. Now we cannot continue the project. The museum could have played an important role in European and global historical research. It would have been important for Poland. So many people, locals and tourists, are currently crowding into the house, wanting to see the old exhibition. Now it will be a very narrow-minded museum.