1989 Generation Initiative

Poland’s PiS government has recently taken control of a museum in Gdańsk in an attempt to redefine its focus and the history it tells. Why this can be seen as nothing more than yet another populist move by the PiS government, and a further disconcerting sign of Europe’s rising nationalism.

By Emilie Naulot, external 89er

‘Some of the most urgent democratic deficits in today’s Europe can be found within a number of EU Member-States’, wrote Jan-Werner Müller recently in an academic journal on the subject of the threats posed by the Hungarian and Polish governments on democracy and the rule of law in the European Union[1].

Once again, his unfortunate statement has proved true. On 24th January, a judgement from the Polish Supreme Administrative Court authorised the Law and Justice (PiS) government to redirect the narrative of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, surrendering the more international, historical narrative to one of national suffering and heroism.

The Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, Poland, was an initiative of the current President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, back when he was Prime Minister in 2007. He appointed Dr. Pawel Machcewicz as the museum’s director, who chose to design an exhibition dedicated, who focused on the fate of civilians during WWII. This exhibit would have looked at civilians from all over the world, extending beyond Poland to Japan, Russia, and Britain.

It was the inclusive nature of Machcewicz’s exhibition that irked the ruling PiS party; government officials criticised the exhibition for being insufficiently ‘Polish’. According to the Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski, the spirit of the display did not conform to the party’s ‘historical policy’ – a historical nationalism that aims to reinforce Polish national identity. It did not emphasise enough the importance of Poland’s history, portraying the Polish people as the victim of the German and Soviet totalitarian regimes, who yet defended their land heroically.

Historical nationalism and historical revisionism are closely linked, the latter a strategy employed by many European populist parties. Since 1987 the former leader of the French Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has denied the existence of the gas chambers in the concentration camps; in 2012 the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, made a comparison between the protests against a dance ball organised by his party on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the persecution of the Jews during WWII. In 2014 the Hungarian government erected a WWII memorial representing Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel attacked by a German Eagle, completely omitting the collaborative role played by the Hungarian state. Disregarding historical fact in exchange for an emotional, overly nationalist narrative is an important feature of far-right populist politics. It is also a strategy to gain the support of segments of the population that have been weakened by globalisation; such discourse manages to stimulate feelings of pride and empowerment, as well as feelings of national distinctiveness and opposition to the Union.

Obviously Piotr Glinski could not dismiss Dr. Pawel Machcewicz for not being ‘Polish’ enough. But Piotr Glinski is well-advised. He has instead simply seized control of the museum and the seizure approved by the Administrative Supreme Court. Polish authorities aimed to merge the Museum of the Second World War with another yet-to-be built museum in Gdansk, the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939. Dr. Pawel Machcewicz, hoping to safeguard the independence of his exhibition, sued the government for its decision. The project was suspended after a judgement from the Provincial Administrative Court in Warsaw, but subsequently on 24th January, the Supreme Administrative Court overruled that ruling, entrusting the direction of the new cultural institution to a director carefully selected by PiS.

It’s important here to reiterate the doubts that have been raised regarding the independence of the Polish judicial system since PiS came to power in late 2015.

The change in direction of the Museum of the Second World War is not an insignificant anecdote confined to cultural circles. It has much wider implications. What Piotr Glinski and the whole PiS government are threatening is not simply the opening of yet another museum on WWII. The museum also represents our collective transnational memory of WWII, and Poles’ freedom of expression. It represents the forging of a post-national identity, European or global, a transnational civil society, the European project, and peace itself.

The EU was founded in the 1950s to overcome aggressive nationalism and build a durable peace on the European continent. The Polish government attempts to twist the lessons of WWII, having completely failed to learn them. Piotr Glinski, Andrzej Duda, and their ministerial colleagues might have forgotten that a government that controls the judiciary, that manipulates historical narratives and that punishes its civil servants for not being patriotic enough is exactly the kind of government that paved the way to the outbreak of WWII in 1939 over questions of the ownership of Danzig – today known as Gdańsk.


[1] J. WERNER MÜLLER (2015), ‘Should the EU protect Democracy and the Rule of Law inside Member States?’, European Law Journal, 21:2, 141-160


Photo: www.gdansk.pl, Gdańsk City Hall

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