World War II ended on September 2, 1945, but in Poland, painful war memories are alive and well, deeply integrated into the national identity and state attitude towards the preservation of history.
Through a variety of educational efforts, Poland’s conservative government has worked over the past year to highlight this history and the unique tribulations faced by the country in WWII. Amidst accusations of rewriting history, the Polish government strives to bring a forgotten past to light and to give Poland a new avenue to share and publicize its historical experience.
A Narrative Forgotten
From the outset of WWII, Poland was subject to numerous hardships that permanently altered its historical trajectory. Despite a variety of assurances and agreements, neither Great Britain nor France provided assistance when Poland came under German and Soviet attack. Abandoned and with few resources, Poland quickly became the base for Germany’s “Final Solution” of Jewish extermination, the Russian slaughter of Polish citizens, and countless other war crimes and acts of violence. Six extermination camps were built by Germans on Polish soil, and over six million Polish citizens perished.
After the war, Polandwas converted to a Soviet satellite state under the Yalta Conference, and left to forty years of Soviet oppression. Polish sovereignty was crushed, free speech crippled, and countless war histories banned from public mention and subjected to propagandist reinvention. The Polish voice was completely silenced, left to simmer under years of forced Soviet appeasement and political maneuvering.
Even after the triumph of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and the fall of communism, the past remained untold, swept aside in favor of progress. When the government began pursuing policies of European integration, a new ideology was put forward, one of reconciliation and mending ties with former aggressors, particularly Germany.
However, in 2015, the tide turned. The election of the conservative Law and Justice Party inspired a renewed effort to bring the national narrative back to the frontline.
The Museum: Choosing Narratives
In March of 2017, the expansive, $144 million Museum of the Second World War opened in Gdansk, Poland, only to rapidly become the center of political controversy.
Showcasing a multi-dimensional perspective of the war and bringing together unique stories from across the continent, the permanent exhibition begins with the “Road to War,” discussing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as the Italo-German Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. “Horrors of War” illuminates the Holocaust, daily suffering and forced migration in occupied territories, and the pogrom carried out by Polish citizens under German supervision in the town of Jedwabne.
In response to the museum, the ruling Law and Justice party voiced opposition to the universalistic prioritization of the international war narrative over the Polish national experience, particularly the substantial focus on foreign war stories and the darker elements of Poland’s past. The government proposed and was granted the ability to merge the museum with a neighboring, yet-to-be-built war museum, allowing it to reform the initial museum’s direction.
This shift generated substantial discontent in the Western media. The New York Times relayed, “the right-wing Law and Justice Party has tapped into populist discontent by depicting the country as a noble victim, besieged by enemies both past and present.” Newsweek echoed these sentiments, declaring that the “Law and Justice party fears [the museum] will present an insufficiently nationalist view of Poland’s wartime experience.” To many outside observers, the ruling government appears to be a self-interested body working to suppress historical accuracy and implement a nationalist agenda.
Contrary to media assumptions, however, the government’s concerns for historical accuracy are reasonable. In a distinct misrepresentation of fact, President Obama referred to “Polish death camps” in 2012 while awarding a posthumous medal of freedom to revered Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, despite the fact that death camps were built by Germans on Polish soil. This year, German broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen reluctantly, and only after court pressure, apologized for using “Polish death camps” in a promotional trailer for a documentary on Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Polish history has been maligned consistently over the course of the last few years, and the so-called “victim narrative” is thus neither unexpected nor unfounded.
While Press Secretary for the Polish Teachers’ Association in America in Chicago and historical expert Anna Rosa sees the “victim narrative” as impeding progress in Poland, she nevertheless advocates for accuracy in historical representation. “[The phrase] ‘Polish death camps’ comes from a place of ignorance and simplification. The Polish people did not build the death camps and they did not carry out the Holocaust. The only way we can remedy historical representation is through education—education about Poland, about Poland’s successes and triumphs,” she told the HPR.
Lucie Bucki, coordinator at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, shared Rosa’s sentiments. “How the Second World War progressed in Poland, I have never encountered this in any school textbook. The forced migrations of Poles to Siberia, the war experience, it’s an unknown history, even sometimes among ordinary Poles,” Bucki told the HPR. She emphasized the importance of education in remedying these misconceptions. “Education is the absolute key. Poland has centuries of rich history, and it deserves more space in the textbooks, more light to its role in history.”
The Law and Justice government, in its own way, is doing just that through its policies in Poland. It recently outlawed the use of the phrase “Polish death camps.” The Auschwitz state museum created an app that auto-corrects anyone who types the phrase. This year, a Polish activist group drove a billboard across Europe with the message, “Death Camps were Nazi German.” Remedying and educating, not rewriting history, is the government’s primary intention.
Of course, this does not excuse the government’s reluctance in recognizing the role of Polish citizens in events like the 1941 massacre of the Jews in Jedwabne. Antisemitism did exist in Poland, and it should not be ignored. However, it is notable that 6,706 Poles, more people than of any other nation, are listed under Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations in recognition of their assistance to Jews during World War II.
Over six million Polish citizens, both Jewish and ethnically Polish, perished over the course of World War II. It is this narrative that the government hopes to protect by refocusing the Museum of the Second World War on the Polish experience. It fears that a museum providing only a general, multi-national overview of WWII will overshadow the uniquely Polish aspects of the conflict. Although the Law and Justice government may blunder and present questionable proposals while redesigning the museum, it is not rewriting history. It is bringing the Polish experience of WWII to light—an experience that deserves to be heard, just as much as that of any other nation.
Image source: Wikimedia/Jroepstorff