Letter from Gdańsk


15 February 2017

It was in Gdańsk, then Danzig, that the Second World War began, when the first shots and shells were fired in Germany's invasion of Poland.

In 2007, the then Polish prime minister and Gdańsk native Donald Tusk tabled the idea of creating a Museum of the Second World War in the city. Rather than treating the war as a series of conflicts, this institution would attempt to provide a history of the war as experienced by civilians, and do so with a global purview.

These plans are now threatened as a result of the 2015 electoral victory of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), known in English as Law and Justice. Catholic, traditionalist and stridently nationalist, PiS has attempted to remodel Poland according to its values. Last year, the head of the Polish Institute in Berlin was dismissed for promoting "unwanted content" regarding Polish-Jewish history, a fate shared by 12 other directors of equivalent institutions around the world.

Although the Museum of the Second World War is almost ready to open, PiS has attempted to stall and disrupt it. As the government does not possess the power to dissolve it completely, they have instead established a premises-less new museum, and intend to merge it with the Museum of the Second World War, allowing them to appoint a new directorial team and replace the permanent exhibition with one that fits their political agenda.

Below, the museum's director Paweł Machcewicz explains the museum's ethos, and the struggles it faces under the present government.

Visitors during the museum's preview, which might be the only time that the permanent exhibition is open to the public. IMAGE Roman Jocher.

Paweł Machcewicz There are many military museums in Europe and on other continents devoted to the First World War, Second World War and other conflicts. Another museum of that type would certainly enrich the variety of institutions in this field. However, the historians, curators, architects, and designers who have created the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk have set a different goal.

The Second World War was different from all earlier conflicts because it touched civilian populations the most. It was they who were its most important victims – and heroes – as they endured the most severe challenges: terror inflicted by occupying powers, humiliations, hunger, bombardments, slave labour and forced mass resettlements. As we developed the main concepts for the museum, we decided that the human dimension of the conflict is the most important to us.

There are many interesting, unique pieces of weaponry on display in our museum and there is a narrative about most important events on the fronts. We focus, however, on the everyday experiences of millions of ordinary people. The core of our permanent exhibition is constituted by historical artefacts, around 2,000 of them from all over the world. Many of them were donated by individuals willing to entrust us with their most sacred family relics.

After eight years of work by hundreds of people, the museum is now almost ready to open. Yet it is not certain whether it, and especially our permanent exhibition, will be ever open to the public. The Museum of the Second World War has become the main battlefield for conflicting perceptions of history and the role of museums in Poland. The current government, and the ruling Law and Justice party, have condemned our museum as too "pacifistic," "humanistic," "universal," "multinational," and "not sufficiently Polish."

Although one of our main goals in creating this museum was to make the Polish history a part of the European and world history, and thus more understandable to foreigners, last year our exhibition was continuously attacked before we could even present it to the public and the critics. We were condemned for showing the experience of many nations instead of presenting exclusively Polish sufferings and heroism, which nevertheless are the central threads of our narrative. We have been blamed for devoting too much attention to civilians instead of focusing on the military history. Allegedly, we present a vision of the war which is "too dark and negative," instead of showing that it could also be "a positive experience."

The government has announced the intention to merge the Museum of the Second World War with another museum founded last year just for this purpose. This legal trick would open the way to remove the current management and replace its permanent exhibition. As the director of the museum, I sued the Minister of Culture, and the court has recently suspended the planned operation of taking over our museum. We have gained several additional weeks before the final ruling of the court, which is expected in March or April this year. We will feverishly attempt to use this time to open the museum to the public before it is too late.

In January, the exhibition was previewed to 4,000 people, including historians, museum experts and journalists from all over the world. It was a rather unique experience: presenting the exhibition, not entirely completed yet, but with the strong sense that it might be the only opportunity to show it to the public.