Poland’s conservative government is taking steps that threaten an ambitious new World War II museum which international experts have spent eight years creating — the latest ideological battle the nation’s nationalistic authorities are waging against the pro-European rivals they ousted from power last year.
The Museum of the Second World War has been under development since 2008 and was due to open next year in Gdansk, where the first shots of the war were fired. The $120 million project was launched with the support of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now one of the European Union’s top leaders, a man deeply hated by the head of Poland’s new ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The Euro-skeptic Law and Justice party accuses the state-funded museum of not focusing enough on Poland, objecting to an approach that puts Poland’s wartime experience in the broader context of the fate of other nations under the German, Soviet and Japanese occupations. Kaczynski vowed in 2013 that if his party ever took power it would change the museum so it “expresses the Polish point of view.”
Critics are convinced Kaczynski, the most powerful man in Poland, is also motivated by his hatred of Tusk and Civic Platform, the pro-EU party that governed Poland for eight years before Law and Justice came in last year.
A group of historians and museum professionals wrote an open letter of protest, saying they see Law and Justice’s move as part of “a political struggle that involves the destruction of institutions brought to life by the previous government with no regard to their substantive value.”
“It is difficult for us to accept a mindless act of vandalism carried out on our culture,” they said.
The development comes amid a broader attempt by the new authorities to purge elites they believe are aligned with their political foes. Many of those losing their jobs now are professional experts with no party affiliation. The government says it aims to reshape a country that had become too liberal and whose national identity had been eroded by membership in the 28-nation EU.
Among those advising on the museum are some of the world’s most renowned World War II historians, including Norman Davies of Oxford and Timothy Snyder of Yale, scholars whose works are considered sympathetic to Poles’ suffering under German and Soviet occupations. The building itself is a multi-storied, avant-garde glass design chosen by a jury chaired by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.
“What they have is a museum that is going to be seen as remarkable on a European and on an international scale that will draw millions to Poland,” Snyder told The Associated Press.
The fate of the museum became unclear April 15 when Culture Minister Piotr Glinski announced he might merge the museum with another museum that does not yet exist — a step that would allow the government to legally abandon the concept of the original museum. The new museum would focus on the German attack on Poles on the Gdansk peninsula of Westerplatte, the opening move in the war, and Poland’s defense against the German invasion in 1939.
Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz said the proposed new concept is a “fictional entity” being used as legal trick to take over his institution and break his job contract, which runs through 2019.
Abandoning the original project “would mean destroying 90 percent of the entire content of our museum, which has already been partially produced and some of which is already being installed,” said Machcewicz, a historian of the 20th century with no party affiliation. “I have never heard of such a situation.”
The museum’s advisory board said it was “stunned and troubled” by the culture minister’s announcement, which was issued without consultation.
Snyder, a signatory of that statement and author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” said the world has other World War II museums but they all take an exclusively national view. The Gdansk museum would be unique because it would be the first to involve the stories of all the affected nations in Europe and Asia, he said.
“It’s an intellectual breakthrough, because it allows us to make sense of the Second World War and see if from multiple points of view,” he said. “It also makes Polish history accessible to anyone from anywhere. So if you are Dutch or Japanese or American, and you go to this museum knowing nothing about Poland, at the end of it you will see how central the Polish experience was to the war.”
Amid the uproar, the culture minister said all options remain, but added that merging the two museums would be the most efficient thing to do. “There is no sense in operating two museums in the same city with the same profile,” he told the news agency PAP.
One stumbling block could be the stiff opposition from Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, which donated the land for the museum. Adamowicz, a member of Civic Platform, said the city has the legal right to revoke the land donation if the museum is not built as planned. He said he is prepared to take that step.
Snyder says the government’s concept of a museum focusing solely on Westerplatte and Poland’s military struggle in 1939 would result in a narrowly focused exhibit that would not appeal to a wider international audience. He said it would also leave out key events like the Katyn massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police.
That, he said, would be counterproductive for a government keen on spreading knowledge of Poland’s suffering and military resistance.
“Why not just take credit for the museum? The Civic Platform government didn’t manage to finish it before they lost power. Politicians usually finish someone else’s project and take all the credit. It seems like a golden opportunity to do that,” Snyder said.