Changing the Historical Record

Gdánsk’s Museum of the Second World War

Located at the intersection of two channels emanating from the scenic Motława River, Gdánsk’s recently opened Museum of the Second World War has quickly become one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

WWII lives here. Gdańsk, January 2019.

It is an architectural tour de force, evoking a bunker in free fall, its tilted red-cement and glass exterior complementing the earth-coloured facades and sturdy brick churches that give Gdánsk’s city centre its old-European flair.

A short walk from the city’s largely rebuilt medieval riverfront, the WWII museum is a reminder of just how pivotal a role this small port city has played in the large events of the last century. The city of Lech Walesa and Solidarnósc was also the very place where the most destructive war in human history got going.

The war that Hitler started. The war where six million Jews were murdered and millions more killed or subjugated by fascism before the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe from the German genocide machine. Or so you thought.

Take the elevator three floors down to this subterranean exhibit, and you’re told a story that one author has aptly referred to as a Polish “national master narrative”.

The very first text you encounter as you enter the exhibition area sums it up bracingly: “The Second World War was the most tragic conflict in the history of humanity. It was launched by the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union, which cooperated with each other.”

The Gdánsk museum exhibition is visually stunning, an elegantly managed mixture of audio-visuals, texts and artefacts telling the history of the war largely through the lens of human suffering.

Perhaps most impressive are large walls where original documentary footage of events such as the sieges of Warsaw and Leningrad are projected. There are of course also rooms devoted to the Jewish Holocaust. But the politics of the museum are transparently nationalist, portraying Poland as heroic victim and fighter, if not as a virtually unblemished “Christ among the nations.”

You’ll look long and hard to find material, for instance, on pre-war Polish Antisemitism, Polish government connivance with Nazi Germany before 1939, or a full portrayal of the authoritarianism of the Pilsudski dictatorship.

The Polish-Soviet War of 1920 is portrayed as an affair in which “the young Polish state defended its independence”, after which “its two largest neighbours—Germany and the Soviet Union—dreamed of revenge and the destruction of the Versailles order”.

In 1926, we’re told, “Jósef Pilsudski staged a coup and instituted sanacja, a healing of the state. His reforms restricted civil liberties, and the government became more authoritarian. But the Sejm, political parties and opposition newspapers continued to function.” Not a word for the three thousand victims of Pilsudski’s Bereza Kartuska concentration camp or what many historians see as his campaign of territorial expansion east into Ukraine.

Typical is the way the museum handles Poland’s opportunistic land grab in Czech Silesia after the Munich Agreement in 1938, which made the Polish government the short-lived accomplice of its soon-to-be Nazi invaders.

Instead of offering a self-critical or even neutral account, a lonely plaque sandwiched between others devoted to Hitler’s territorial outrages reads:

“After Czechoslovakia accepted the Munich diktat, on 30 September 1939 Poland demanded Zaolzie, the area of Cieszyn Silesia inhabited mostly by Poles, which the Czechoslovak army had taken in 1919. The Prague government yielded to the pressure, and on 2 October Poland occupied the disputed region, contributing to the partition of Czechoslovakia.”

But the main pillar of the Gdánsk museum’s master narrative is anti-Communism, in particular, the idea of the moral and political equivalence of the “two totalitarianisms”. The museum is full of images and iconography equating Soviet and Nazi crimes, including a hallway draped bombastically with Soviet and Nazi flags on either side.

Surrounded by fascists. Museum of the Second World War, Gdánsk.

The exhibition begins with a series of rooms, each dramatically representing one of the purported instigators of the war, in chronological order. First—one senses, not just chronologically—is the room dedicated to Communism.

There we learn, in the two-dimensional prose of a McCarthy-era pamphlet, that “the power system perpetuated in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was based on terror, which was the main tool for the communist party to stay in power”.

This contrasts sharply with the next room, dedicated to Italian fascism. Here we find a sleek crimson automobile (the colour of Mussolini’s Alfa Romeo parade cars), presumably embodying some combination of fascist aesthetics, industrial growth and modernity.

Mussolini in Polish. Gdánsk, January 2020.

And, we’re told rather blandly that the “National Fascist Party (NPF) became the sole legal political organization. Mussolini and the Fascist Grand Council made all the important decisions.” 

There is no conjoining of the words “fascism” and “terror.”

Pride of place in that part of the exhibition tracing the origins of the war goes to one event, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. A photocopy of the type-written secret protocol dividing Poland into Nazi and Soviet spheres hangs on a wall near photos where German and Soviet soldiers are portrayed, not as tactical allies, but as something like spiritual brothers.

One photo shows “German soldiers welcoming Soviet tank crews with flowers,” while another shows the commanders at a “joint Red Army-Wehrmacht parade in Brest”. In a strange nod to the missing history of prewar Poland, and not without potentially Antisemitic undertones, a text states that it “was painful for Poles to see some Belorussians, Ukrainians and Jews welcome the arriving Red Army and Wehrmacht units. Ethnic conflicts exacerbated significantly”.

It’s not that the Gdánsk museum only offers nationalist propaganda. There are sections devoted to the millions of Soviet soldiers starved to death by the German invaders, to the scorched-earth German campaigns of Operation Barbarossa, as well as to the bombings of cities across Europe, including by allied forces in Germany.

The museum project, which began in 2008 and came to fruition in 2017, was intended, at least in part, as something international and universal in scope, not merely parochial and nationalistic. But in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it fails to achieve this goal.

Much has been made of the conflict between the museum’s first director, Paweł Machcewicz, who was affiliated with Donald Tusk’s centre-right, Euro-friendly Civic Platform Party, and the far-right government since 2015 of the Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (PiS).

In short, the original exhibition wasn’t heroic-nationalist enough for the PiS, and after some wrangling in court and a change in the museum’s direction, alterations were made to reflect their intensified nationalism.

But contrary to fans of the museum, such as advisory board member Timothy Snyder, the original exhibition didn’t just “set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world.“ Polish nationalism was baked in from the beginning, as was the overarching thesis of the two totalitarianisms narrative.

The Gdánsk museum of the Second World War is just one of the most recent additions to a growing culture of two totalitarianisms remembrance of the Second World War. Parallel to the expansion of both the EU and NATO eastward, several countries in what used to be the Soviet sphere have promoted something historian Dovid Katz calls “double genocide revisionism”.

In this telling, Soviet crimes are equal if not greater than Nazi crimes, such that the German Holocaust against the Jews becomes only one symptom of the universal phenomenon, totalitarianism.

Especially pronounced in the Baltic countries, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis once proclaimed, “It is not possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustaches (Hitler’s was shorter).” In another particularly crass formulation, Jarosław Kaczyński himself demanded that the Gdánsk museum portray the “Holocaust that affected the Poles.”

Museums have of course been the perfect medium for the spread of this interpretive framework. As Katz explains: “One of the most important institutions in Eastern Europe is what we might critically call the ‘double genocide museum’. This is a new type of museum where the ‘overall equality’ of Nazi and Soviet crimes is a given, and every exhibit becomes part of the revisionist narrative.

In fact, as the eastern EU and adjacent areas, such as western Ukraine (‘New Europe’), have become home to attractive routes for tourism and Westerners’ roots-seeking, so, too, have ‘Double Genocide museums’.”

In addition to the Gdánsk museum, Central and East European institutions promoting this view include the Budapest House of Terror Museum, the Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn (Estonia), the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940–1991, the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, and the Lonsky (or Lontsky) Street Prison National Memorial Museum in Lviv (Ukraine).

Questions about who was to blame for the Second World War and whose war crimes were the greatest have recently fuelled high-profile diplomatic disputes between Russia and Poland. The conservative governments of both countries have gone so far as to criminalizeunpatriotic” interpretations of their respective roles in the war.

At the same time, the two totalitarianisms, or double genocide interpretation of World War II is ascendant in Europe. The idea has taken on a polemical function in the ever-more-entrenched New Cold War between Russia and NATO, and the EU, as a whole.

The concept’s spread to museums beyond Eastern Europe is, as Katz puts it, “a direct result of the rhetoric of the idea that European unity and peace require a ‘common history’, which has become ‘Euro-speak’ for ‘Everybody has to now agree with the Red-equals-Brown model of the Baltic and other Eastern European states if there is to be unity in Europe [against Russia].’”

It would go beyond the scope of this article to trace the long history of this idea from its inception in the Cold War through its post-Cold-War formalization in instances like the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism of 2008 and multiple resolutions of the European Parliament.

The latest, a 2019 EU Parliamentary resolution on The Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe, was spearheaded by Polish MEPs and opposed only by the far-left European United Left/Nordic Green Left group (GUE/NGL).

Among other things, this codifies as EU “doctrine” the Gdánsk museum’s (and the Polish government’s) central thesis that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, not German expansionism or Nazi racial supremacism, or Western appeasement, or the economic crisis of the 1930s, was first and foremost the “cause” of the Second World War.

And unsurprisingly, it singles out Russia—and not Russia’s equally nationalist/revisionist neighbours to the West–for its failures of historical memory.

Among the changes effected by the new PiS-affiliated administration to the Gdánsk museum was its conclusion, a final film projection near the exhibition’s exit.

An earlier version drew a connection to the present by showing modern instances of political authoritarianism and brutality in warfare. Instead, what you now see is a tale of Polish moral heroism in the form of a short animated film entitled “The Unconquered.”

“First Germany attacks, then Soviet Russia,” we’re reminded, and the action-movie silhouette of a lone soldier appears—martyred Poland personified—mightily fending off two enormous vice-like blocks of steel. It’s history as a nationalist comic book.

A universalist European culture of remembrance would surely look different than what is on offer at Gdánsk’s stylish World War II museum.

Photographs courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland and Matt Rubenstein. Published under a Creative Commons license.