Public Lecture
Museums and Memory Politics
Pawel Machewicz describes the genesis and alleged ideological sabotage of Gdansk's Museum of the Second World War
The Director
Last March a museum opened that, over the course of its relatively short existence (so far), has monopolized the center of political attention in Poland. It's subject: the second world war. How we remember it. Which narratives are told. Which ones compete. Which parties are both victims and perpetrators. Who's a perpetrator yet also a victim. Touchy stuff.

We'll be heading there ourselves this coming weekend, but tonight we're sitting with its former (ousted) director Pawel Machewicz. The entire project was originally put together under his supervision. He wrote a book about the process and, if tonight's talk is any indication, it seems to read a bit like a thriller.

The moderator for the evening, Andriy Portnov, admits that we'll be hearing about things before seeing them with our own eyes, but we'll have a chance to form our own opinions later. "Perhaps not ideal," he grins, "but why not!" We'll be there soon enough ourselves.

By 'there' I mean Gdansk, a coastal city perched on the Polish edge of the Baltic Sea. Normally it happens that cities like Warsaw or Krakow are the ones driving historical debates in the country, but Gdansk has its own strange track record. It's been in and out of different borders much like the rest of this part of Europe: Prussia, a free city (Danzig), Germany, Poland. And now it's at the center of a fight over who gets to decide what gets remembered, or forgotten, when it comes to the continent's defining war.

The former director tells us that he wrote the book not just to reconstruct the museum's story, but to place it in a broader background – not just in terms of memory conflicts in Poland, but also within the bigger European and global contexts of the tension between histories, culture and the political world. Its central conflict, between nationalism and globalism (or, as he puts it, isolationism and a more open approach to history and culture), is one playing out across the world.

"So," he says, "from the beginning."

The Idea
It started with an article he published in a large, liberal-leaning Polish daily in 2007 – in it, he put forward two reasons why a WWII museum should be done and done in Poland.

The first had to do with ongoing European integration. Poland and a number of former Communist countries entered the EU in 2004, but he noticed that narratives about the second world war were still completely different in the west than in the east of the continent. Key events were remembered in quite diverging ways. He found there was limited knowledge in West Europe about the eastern experience: how brutal the German occupation really was, the Soviet participation in aggression against Poland, the annexation of the Baltics, the Polish/Ukrainian conflict, the number of Soviet casualties. But most importantly, the end of the war meant something completely different: for the west it was liberation, for the east it was anything but.

So he wrote that, if we want to start integrating these narratives together, we should create a museum with an ambition to tell the whole story of the experience. Voices from both east and west.

The second reason had to do with Polish-German relations. In 2007, two years after the right-wing Law and Justice party helped form a coalition (the former director, for reasons down below, really really doesn't like them), relations with Germany were in quite bad shape. In Poland there was a growing concern about the increasing attention paid to German civilians and how they suffered in connection the war – how they were expelled from Poland after the fall of Hitler, for example. There was an organization called the Center Against Expulsions that aimed to tell the stories of displaced Germans, and this threatened the Polish idea of themselves having been the victim. The center will be opened in 2019 or 2020.

But, in his article, the former director says that Polish society shouldn't reject German ideas and positions – we should preserve memories on all sides, even from the expulsions. We would just need to put them in a much broader context so we can see the historical links between them. He didn't expect to get much of a response when he published it (most historians don't). What he did get was a note from certain powerful supporters.

Said supporter (I forget the name) asked the former director to create a memorandum on what such a museum could be like. What exhibitions it could have, what steps would need to be taken. The supporter wanted new ideas, wanted more integration – but most of all he wanted to leave history to historians instead of to other politicians.

The former director didn't really know what to do at first, but eventually realized this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and gathered a team. At the end of 2008 they published a concept paper, just a short document, in which they outlined the museum's mission and what they feel should be included. The central part being the integration of different narratives to help fill out the dominant Western narratives. It wouldn't be a military museum exclusively, and a large focus would be on civilians – in Poland alone, 90% of casualties weren't soldiers.
The Backlash
A slew of journalists and historians, identified by the former director as right-wing, accused the project of being patriotic. By putting Poland in the European context, they argued, we lose a sense of Poland's distinct experience of the war. Like the subordination of national interests to the EU, Poland's war memory will be obscured even within its borders. It's not Polish enough. Not heroic enough. It puts the perpetrators on the same level of the victims. It promotes an artificially constructed European identity above the Polish one. This seems a puppet initiative from bureaucrats in Berlin or Brussels. And so on.
Tangent: While listening, I'm a bit disturbed that the entire thing is cast in an enlightened-cosmopolitanism vs. retrograde nationalism light. It repeats a very particular kind of narrative that sometimes only supports cultural conflict and seeing the other (in this case, the people he calls nationalists or patriots) in a very limited, negative light. It feels, sometimes, like there's another side of the story that's, ironically, not integrated here.
It even got to the point that the man behind the Law and Justice party, Kaczyński, started getting involved – he said that the focus on German civilians is another sign of German control over the liberal government. It's an attempt to disintegrate the Polish nation, or even the idea of nationhood. The museum, in his words, was a threat to the country's national identity.

But the museum kept plugging along in terms of design and construction, but it took a number of years and it had to survive the results of the 2015 national election. The Law and Justice party got in and, as part of their platform, said that they would change the museum to, finally, reflect the Polish point of view. "But who," the former director says, "gives Kaczyński the right to define exactly that that view is?"

But museum supporters knew this was coming and took steps against it – they designed contract that, if anything were to be changed or stopped, would cost major money from the Polish state. High financial losses. And the former director, at that time the real director, couldn't be fired without breaking the law. So the Law and Justice party had to think of something else to do.

What they ended up deciding on was the creation of a new museum on the site of a former garrison – the building itself was involved in the beginning of the Polish part of the war and so had historical significance. But by 'opening' they meant having it just on paper – there was no address, exhibitions, employees, or phone number. It existed purely in the bureaucracy as a ghost museum, also dedicated to WWII. And then a few months later, in April 2016, the minister of culture said it didn't make sense for two war museums to exist in Gdansk. They would be joined, each one liquidated, and a new one would be formed in its place.

And, of course, a new museum needed a new director. While it would have been against the law to fire the old director, it isn't strictly 'firing' if your museum disappears into legal smoke.

This would also give them time to redesign the exhibitions before they were finished in 2017, drastically changing the nature of the museum itself. But there was a flaw: Polish law demanded a delay of at least three months. And then the former museum started the appeals, trying to gain as much time as possible to finish and open the complex. The Law and Justice party, now the national gov't, thought that they'd be getting the keys right away, but technicality after technicality (and a large number of loopholes) prevented them from taking full control. The last bit of time came from the administrative court, which upheld the delays and gave the last remaining time to install everything else and open the museum in 2017.

People came from all over Poland to see just what the hell this place was about – 300,000 visitors in just the first few months. Demonstrations in support of the autonomy of culture from the gov't. Demonstrations in support of autonomy of national culture from the European project. It wasn't 100% ready yet but the last touches were put into place after the opening and, in April 2017, the highest courts said the administrative court couldn't uphold the delay and the decision was overturned. The museum was formally liquidated and disappeared, leaving only a gorgeous complex of bricks, mortar and six thousand square feet of exhibition.

The former director became a former director, and the first changes only started coming in after six months. That meant, for the original team, six months of intactness, and crowds of people saw the original shape of the exhibition. The original changes were technically minor ("Although nothing is minor," he said), removing a film that showed the consequences of the war (the Balkans, USSR, fall of Communist Europe) and replaced it with a patriotic one. Numbers saying that there were partisans in other parts of Europe than Poland were removed. More elements were added about Poles saving Jews, as well as focusing on the suffering of Catholic priests.

The legal battle still continues, but quite a bit of damage is done. He hopes, though, to preserve the history of the museum itself. When we get there on Saturday, he says, we need to know that we're not just in a museum, not just in a building documenting history. We're in the middle of a moment of history itself, a clash of ideas about how we remember, what gets carried into the present. What will be carried into the future.