Interviewer: Monika Heinemann

The current Polish government’s policy on history has been criticized repeatedly in recent years, both domestically and abroad. The amendment made in January 2018 to the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), known as the “Holocaust Law” in international media, has had a particular resonance beyond the borders of the country. How do you gauge the significance of this legislation for the perspective on twentieth-century Polish history disseminated by the institute?

As a historian and as a citizen of Poland I am against the new legislation. It brings great harm to my country, as it might end up limiting the freedom to explore and discuss important and sensitive historical issues. In theory, research and art are exempted from prosecution under this law, but the dissemination of research can be prosecuted. So if an historian publishes an article in a widely circulated newspaper or gives an interview, he or she may be liable to criminal prosecution. Taking into account the authoritarian inclinations of the current Polish government and its strong interest in historical issues, such an outcome cannot be ruled out. It said a lot when government representatives openly admitted during the legislative process that the new law could be used against Jan Tomasz Gross, the author of Neighbors – a book about the 1941 pogrom carried out by Poles in the village of Jedwabne against their Jewish fellow citizens – and other publications about antisemitism in Poland. As an historian, I have been critical of many of Gross’s theses and have frequently taken issue with them in print; however, I will never countenance a situation in which such opinions could be silenced by the law and their authors intimidated by prosecutors.

As far as the Institute of National Remembrance is concerned, during the last two years it has become a very politicized institution, very close to the Law and Justice party, and in fact is now one of the government’s main tools for politically instrumentalizing history. Many nonpartisan historians who refused to accept this situation have been purged. Furthermore, the IPN has a budget and organizational structure that far exceeds the resources of the universities and the Polish Academy of Sciences; and this threatens to seriously distort narratives concerning Polish history in the twentieth century. One possible example is the campaign against Lech Wałęsa, which downplayed his role in the workers’ strikes of August 1980 and in the Solidarity movement, insinuating that he was “controlled” by the Communists the entire time.

One of the thematic focal points of the government’s current history policy is World War II and the postwar period, with special emphasis put on commemorating the so-called cursed soldiers, the anti-Communist underground of the years 1944 to 1963. Museums are an important medium in this context, and the Museum of the Second World War in Gdan¥sk that you headed until April 2017 is regarded as an institution of critical importance in the sphere of cultural politics. The legally questionable dismissal of the board of directors and the attacks against the museum that preceded it led to worldwide condemnation. What is the background to this bitter conflict?

The concept of the Museum of the Second World War was attacked by right-wing politicians in Poland from the very beginning. Even in 2008, when the concept was made public, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party, declared that it was an attempt by Polish and European liberal elites “to destroy the national identity of the Polish nation.” The idea of presenting Polish history as part of European history was interpreted as a threat to the uniqueness of the Polish experience, a slight to our heroism and suffering. They claimed that to present the wartime experiences of other nations alongside the Polish experience would jeopardize the exceptional status of the Polish nation. In that respect, the attacks against the Museum of the Second World War can be seen as part and parcel of the anti-European, isolationist, nationalistic, and even xenophobic tendencies that have been growing in many European countries (and also in the United States) and which in Poland prevailed in 2015 with the electoral victory of the Law and Justice Party.

The second set of attacks against the Museum of the Second World War concerned its “civilian” character. From the start, my collaborators and I declared that while we were creating a museum of the war, it was not to be a military museum. World War II was different from earlier wars in that it affected mostly civilians. In the Polish case this is especially striking: of the 5.5 million Polish citizens who died between 1939 and 1945, approximately 95% were civilians, both Polish Jews and ethnic Poles. Still, the Museum was criticized for being “pacifistic” and “pseudo-universalistic.” We were accused of creating an “anti-war museum,” whereas our critics maintained that war could be “a positive experience” and that it could “shape young people’s character in a creative and patriotic way.” The latest set of accusations claimed that we did not include enough material about the Polish Catholic Church and about Poles who saved Jews. Needless to say, these topics were indeed represented in our exhibition, yet they were not emphasized enough for our critics, which only reflects the current atmosphere in Poland.

Apart from underscoring the clash between divergent visions of history and historical sensitivities, this controversy also reflects something fundamental about the relationship between the field of history and its institutions, on the one hand, and politicians on the other. Jarosław Kaczyński stated many times that when his party assumed power it would also take over the Museum of the Second World War and change its permanent exhibition to “reflect the Polish point of view.” He never defined what exactly this “Polish point of view” was, but the statement clearly demonstrates his view that only one political party can and should decide this issue. After Law and Justice came to power in autumn 2015, the Minister of Culture declared in parliament that his party now had a democratic mandate to change the permanent exhibition in the Museum of the Second World War as well as exhibitions in any other Polish museum. The controversy surrounding our museum thus went right to the heart of the issue of history and culture being independent from politics.

We managed to open the Museum of the Second World War in March 2017 with the exhibition exactly as we planned it, without any changes imposed by the government. Two weeks after the opening, however, and after a long legal battle, the Supreme Administrative Court did let the government take control of the Museum. Its ruling stated that the legal controversy was beyond the jurisdiction of the administrative courts; many commentators, however, saw the court as simply evading a very sensitive case. The Museum was instantly purged of those historians who had created the exhibition. Further, Jarosław Kaczyński stated in a TV interview that the Museum of the Second World War had never been part of Polish politics of history but that it was imposed upon Poland by Germany, as part of its own politics of history, that it was “a gift from Donald Tusk to Angela Merkel.” In the meantime, the new director has started to introduce changes into the permanent display. I and three of the other primary curators are suing him now for copyright infringement. Thus the conflict is still ongoing. Certainly, it has been the most important history controversy in Poland in recent years and has revealed deep cultural divisions.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed the establishment of other Polish institutions related to the politics of history. November 2017 saw the founding of an “Institute for Solidarity and Bravery,” which has been described in the press as a “Polish Yad Vashem.” Most recently, the Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage announced his intention to open a New York branch of the Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. What does the government hope to achieve with these measures?

In my opinion, these are clear examples of the political exploitation of history. All these new museums and institutes are supposed to convey the one-sided vision of history promoted by the current government. This approach focuses only on the glorious and heroic parts of our history, while suppressing all the sensitive issues, like Jedwabne. Instead of critical, analytical perspectives, one should expect historical propaganda from them. One instructive example is a cartoon about Poles’ historical experiences of the war beginning in 1939 (titled “Unconquered,” the cartoon is available on Youtube with English subtitles). This can now be viewed at the end of the Gdańsk exhibition, replacing the original film that showed wars and conflicts after 1945 on a global scale. Such historical propaganda is just another example of the same “politics of history” that brought about the new IPN legislation, which aims to suppress exploration of the less-glorious parts of Polish history.

What impact does the current polarization of debate about politics and history have on the work and prospective work of historians in Poland, especially of junior scholars?

Historians in Poland nowadays are under increasing pressure. The government, state-run media, and a good part of public opinion expect them to contribute to this official “politics of history” and bolster “national pride.” The new legislation is a clear indication of this and a warning that it is better to avoid sensitive issues in one’s research and career strategies. The universities and the Polish Academy of Sciences are still independent of the government, but they are underfunded. Those who wish to be involved in public history have either to affirm the official narrative, which might bring them concrete gains, or to oppose it, which exposes them to professional risks, e.g. reducing the likelihood of securing government funding for research and publications.

What are your plans now, following your museum adventure?

During the academic year 2017 – 2018 I am a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The following academic year I will spend as a fellow of the Imre Kertész Kolleg at Jena University. I am working on a comparative study of retributive justice after World War II and following the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and the 1980s. In the meantime, I have written a book about my experience with and the controversy over the Museum of the Second World War. It was published in Poland in December 2017, and the German translation came out in May 2018 (Der umkämpfte Krieg: Das Museum des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Danzig. Entstehung und Streit, Wiesbaden).

Thank you very much!



Paweł Machcewicz

Paweł Machcewicz is an historian and professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Between 2008 and 2017 he was the founding director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. He has taught at Warsaw University and the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. Further, he is a co-founder of the Institute of National Remembrance and directed its research and education department from 2000 to 2006. In this capacity he edited and co-authored the two-volume series WokÛł Jedwabnego (Jedwabne and Beyond; in German: Der Beginn der Vernichtung. Zum Mord an den Juden in Jedwabne und Umgebung in Sommer 1941. Neue Forschungsergebnisse polnischer Historiker; Osnabrück 2004). His many publications include Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Washington, DC, Stanford 2009) and Poland’s War on Radio Free Europe, 1950 – 1989 (Stanford 2014)

Monika Heinemann (interviewer)

Monika Heinemann has been a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Leipzig since 2015. Between 2007 and 2015 she worked at the Collegium Carolinum in Munich and headed the German office of the German-Czech and German-Slovak Historians Commission. In her 2017 PhD thesis Krieg und Kriegserinnerung im Museum, she analyzes the musealization of World War II in Poland since the 1980s. Her research interests include memory cultures in Eastern Europe, museology, and Polish-Jewish relations in the twentieth century.