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Amid Holocaust law, Poland gives its Second World War museum a nationalist rebrand

Changes to Gdansk site come as parliament passes new law

    The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk opened last year
    The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk opened last year (Photo: Getty Images)

    A contentious new Second World War museum, which opened in Poland in March last year, has become a symbol of a Europe divided between those confronting the conflict’s realities and nationalists’ view of history.

    Conceived in 2008 by historian Paweł Machcewicz and the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Gdansk’s Museum of the Second World War was supposed to be Europe’s most ambitious chronicle of the darkest chapter in its contemporary history.

    Its perspective was to be international, contextualising Poland’s experience of war and occupation. The Holocaust was to be treated as a theme of its own with Timothy Snyder, author of the bestselling account Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, recruited as an advisor.

    But the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party and its leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, opposed this approach.

    Mr Machcewicz — until last year the museum’s director — told the JC that the PiS leader believed the museum would “jeopardise Polish historical uniqueness, martyrdom and heroism” by presenting Polish history alongside that of other nations.

    PiS came to power in October 2015, when construction of the museum was almost complete.

    In an attempt to seize control, the government established a shell museum in Gdansk and in April 2017 merged the Museum of the Second World War into it.

    Ousting Mr Machcewicz, they appointed a new director who began to oversee changes to the main exhibition in early November.

    “They will try to make it more Polish, whatever that means, by adding some new elements,” Mr Machcewicz said.

    A spokesman for the museum said any changes are designed to “complete the message” of the main exhibition by “showing the heroes who dedicated their lives to defending their homeland.”

    The Polish point of view “is not represented enough” and “needs to be balanced to show the actual victims and aggressors” in the war, he said.

    The fate of Gdansk’s museum is a microcosm of a broader struggle across Europe between those who would come to terms with the past and those who ignore or revise it.

    The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk opened last year
    The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk opened last year (Photo: Getty Images)

    Not long after assuming the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron went further than any of his predecessors in assuming national responsibility for the Holocaust. This included the Vel d’Hiv roundup, when French police arrested more than 13,000 Jews over two days in July 1942.

    “It was indeed France that organised this,” Mr Macron said last July, adding that “not a single German” was involved.

    The collaborationist Vichy regime, he continued, “was the government and the administration of France.”

    But far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon attacked the president, arguing it was not in his power to “assign the French people the identity of an executioner. No, no, Vichy is not France!”

     “France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” was the verdict of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

    In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party is leading a campaign against US philanthropist George Soros widely considered to be antisemitic, the image of collaborationist wartime leader Miklós Horthy has undergone a rehabilitation.

    Posters attacking George Soros appeared around the Hungarian capital Budapest in the summer of 2017
    Posters attacking George Soros appeared around the Hungarian capital Budapest in the summer of 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)

    Mr Orbán called Horthy an “exceptional statesman” last year.

    And in Poland itself, PiS has orchestrated attacks on Holocaust scholars like Jan T. Gross, whose book Neighbours highlighted the role of ordinary Poles in the massacre of Jews in the eastern town of Jedwabne.

    “The country is experiencing a backlash against historical self-criticism some find traumatic,” Mr Machcewicz said.

    In the Gdansk museum, one main exhibit has already changed: a movie illustrating the long-term consequences of war was replaced with an animated film focused on the Polish experience of the twentieth century.

    It is, Mr Machcewicz says, representative of a wider trend in Poland: “a sharp isolationist, xenophobic reaction” against Europe and a turn towards isolationism.

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