The Battle Over the Future of the Museum of the Second World War

The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, 9 years in the making and only opened on March 23rd, finds itself at the centre of a fierce and emotionally charged political battle which threatens to destroy a quite remarkable exhibition before many people have even managed to beat the queues to get to see it.

The museum has found itself at the centre of controversy during the past 18 months since the government of Law & Justice (PiS) was elected in October 2015. The new government controversially accused the designers, benefactors and most of all the museum’s director of underplaying the role, suffering and heroism of Poles and Poland in World War II. The museum, initiated by Gdansk-born, former Prime Minister and current President of the European Council, Donald Tusk had taken nearly a decade to build on wasteland between the old town and the shipyards and had combined the work of both Polish and international historians to create a quite jaw-dropping exhibition which shows how WWII came about, beginning on September 1st 1939 when Germany attacked the Polish Military Transport Depot on Westerplatte, then part of the Free City of Danzig/Gdansk, and then exploded across Europe and beyond. This first battle, in the German’s successful attempt to incorporate Danzig/Gdansk into the Nazi Reich, resulted in the declaration of war by Great Britain and France on Germany and began a near 6-year military conflict which is estimated to have cost the lives of 55 million people worldwide. Poland suffered terribly and is estimated to have lost 6 million of its citizens during the conflict before finding itself locked behind the Iron Curtain for a further 44 years as a result of the post-war settlement agreed at Yalta.

A 12-year Polish girl screams after her sister is senselessly shot by a German plane while picking potatoes. Original photo by Julien Bryan

The story of World War II is a horrendous, tragic, equally heroic and treacherous story in parts and affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Poland’s story is particularly tragic and, it might be argued, not known well enough by many outside of the country even today. The aim of the creators of the new museum has been to tell Poland’s story, not in isolation, but rather as one part of the story of the whole conflict. It was argued from the very start that the exhibition should try to tell the story of the war through the experiences of individuals from across the globe including, but not exclusively, Poland.

In my opinion, it does that remarkably well and there is absolutely no possibility that anyone visiting the exhibition can come away without having learned more about Poland, the heroism of both its military and civilian population; the huge and vital contribution they made to the ultimate victory of the anti-fascist allies; or the incredible suffering visited on them during and then after the conflict. To understand the exhibition is to understand the story of 20th century Poland.

It has therefore been incredible to see the way the museum has constantly come under attack from politicians in the ruling party in recent years. It is even more incredible when you learn that none of those attacking the exhibition have actually visited it yet. Invitations to the Minister of Culture, Piotr Glinski, are reported to have been ignored with Mr. Glinski not even responding to the invitation to the official opening let alone attending. Instead the government, faced with legal obstacles in their attempt to make the museum an exhibition on the World War in Poland, came up with an idea to create a new museum, The Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939, and then to attempt to merge it with the existing museum so they in effect could take control of it and replace the director and change the exhibition. This resulted in a series of court cases which saw the government’s attempts to merge the museums (note that not a sod has yet been turned in the construction of this second museum) blocked by the Polish courts. That was until today (April 5th, 2017) when the Supreme Administrative Court in Warsaw (Naczelny Sąd Administracyjny w Warszawie) overturned the decisions to block the merger by lower courts and gave a final ruling allowing it to go ahead. The government, via the Ministry of Culture (or the Ministry of Culture and National Identity to give it its full title) can now go ahead and merge the museums making the existing and functioning museum a part of a new and yet unbuilt museum which has a different set of aims. It is likely that the new museum will be found to be too costly to build and the existing museum will be altered to reflect the aims of the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939, effectively making it a museum about a much narrower subject.

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Credit: Museum of the Second World War

While it is essential that any museum about WWII in Gdansk tells the story of Poland in 1939-45, it is absolutely appalling that two groups of Polish historians and politicians have spent so long fighting amongst each other over whose interpretation of World War II should be presented. Aside from anything else, it is embarrassing that the creation of such a magnificent building and, I’ll say again, jaw-droppingly good, historical exhibition should be overshadowed by this controversy. Without doubt, the fact that the project was initiated by Donald Tusk, a man detested by the current government and previously accused of coming from a family with German sympathies (his grandfather was, like more than 500,000 Polish men from areas like Pomerania and Silesia, conscripted into the German armed services) has fuelled a lot of the resentment towards the museum and particular its director, Pawel Machcewicz, a friend of Donald Tusk. The fact that so much time, money and energy has been spent on trying to sabotage this remarkable achievement should tell you a lot about the current government and their blinkered view of the world, their small-mindedness and their mean-spiritedness.

With the balance of power now having shifted away from the museum’s board and back to the Minister of Culture, supporters of the museum are waiting to see what the next move is likely to be. Much can probably be gleaned from a statement issued by the Ministry of Culture and National Identity following the Supreme Court’s decision.

“On April 5, the Supreme Administrative Court (NSA) in Warsaw issued a decision on the execution of the order of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage concerning the merger of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk and the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939. Thanks to the decision of the NSA, the decision of the Minister of Culture and National Identity, Prof. Piotr Gliński of September 23, 2016, about the merger of the Museum of the Second World War and the Museum of the Westerplatte and the Defensive War of 1939 into a single museum becomes possible. The operation of two museums with similar themes and profiles in one city was not justified on economic or organisational grounds. The merger of both institutions will take place immediately and will signify a significant increase in their potential.”

The battle over the museum threatens to run and run with politicians opposed to the government’s decision promising that they will wait and observe what happens next before deciding on a plan of action. One possible scenario is that the city of Gdansk may take legal action to defend the existing exhibition as is its right due to it having donated, for free, the land on which the museum has been built.

Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz (Credit: Grzegorz Mehring,

Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz said “For now the city is watching the ministry. If there is an effective two-way link between the two museums, I will look at its work. I will look at whether donors are willing to donate the land at Walowa Street in Gdansk. Today I will not say whether we will go to court, my reactions will depend on the behaviour of the new leadership of the museum and the Minister of Culture. This suspension can take months, he emphasized. “The donor has the right, as long as he lives, to observe what his donation is going on. I am guided by the good of the museum and the will expressed by the Gdańsk City Council in an act authorising the transfer of land for the construction of the museum. I, or my successors, will watch that the museum does not go against the will expressed by the donor.”

Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz, Credit: Krzysztof Mystkowski/KFP

Pawel Machcewicz, the museum’s soon to be former-director told the press

“The multi-year mandates of museum directors were supposed to guarantee the autonomy of the directors of cultural institutions vis-à-vis the world of politics and the culture minister. Here it turns out that unfortunately they have found a way to break this mandate. From the start the main goal has been the merger of museums. We were able to complete the construction of the museum, build the exhibition and open it, for which I would like to thank all the staff of the museum who, in recent months, worked extremely hard under great stress, not knowing what awaited us the next day. We would also like to thank the donors who have given us the most precious memorabilia of their lives and who are co-creators of the exhibition.

“I would like to appeal to the Minister of Culture not to change the exhibition, which should be evaluated by its visitors. Let’s give Poles and foreigners a chance to view it. And this is my main message and appeal to the Minister of Culture. The NSA ruling is final, we have no legal right (to appeal). How it will look in the end, we do not know. The Ministry did not inform us of its plans. We can conclude by analogy with what happened earlier in regards the liquidation of the museum. I assume that within a few days there will be a team led by Zbigniew Warwra, the minister’s proxy, who will begin assessing our financial situation. I assume that our museum will exist in its present shape until April 30th, because it cannot stop operating in the middle of the month.”

We suggest that you see the exhibition in its current form as soon as you can. It might not remain in its current format for too long.

Added 6/4/17- Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz was today replaced by Dr. Karol Nawrocki, who was previously the head of the Education Department at the Gdansk branch of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Following his appointment, Dr Nawrocki told journalists,

“I will carry out the mission so that the current MIIWW (Museum of the Second World War) and the Westerplatte Museum in a symbiotic way, already as one institution, cooperate with each other, First and foremost, I want to ensure that the MIIWW functions in the same way as it has done so far and I invite all Gdansk residents and visitors from Poland and abroad to visit the exhibition, which will be open as before.

It is obvious that the scientific work is subject to review, by the public as well, so I do not confine myself to the fact that scientists and the public will point to things that in the future need to be improved or changed. I am not currently talking legal issues here. Setting a narrative, indicating that nothing can be changed, is inappropriate. However, as of today I do not come with the task of changing anything in this exhibition or closing it.

The donors’ memorabilia in the museum remains safe and there will be a lot more of it with the joining with the Westerplatte Museum. I appeal to the donors that they have nothing to fear, I am the guarantee, that the souvenirs will be used well here” Dr Nawrocki emphasised.

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