The populist rewriting of Polish history is a warning to us allRoundup
tags: Poland, history, populism
Estera Flieger is a journalist with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Populists treat the past like fast food: they go straight for what’s tasty and comforting for them, leaving aside the bits that might be healthier and more nutritious for all. But the honest study of history is not about making you feel good. Take the case of the second world war and how, 80 years after the invasion of Poland, a dispute in Gdańsk over a museum about the war is playing out.
The populists in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have meddled so much in redrafting the narrative conveyed both by the museum and its main exhibition that four Polish historians involved with the institution’s creation and launch have been left with little choice but to go to court.
The courts are hardly the best place to adjudicate on the lessons of history. Universities, academies, libraries and museums are surely more suited to such debates. So let me explain how things got to this point.
The Gdańsk Museum of the Second World War opened in 2017 to some fanfare; its distinguishing and unconventional features were to be its special focus both on the global context of the war and on the fate of civilians in the bloody conflict. The main exhibition took eight years to put together. The American historian Timothy Snyder called the project a “civilisational achievement” and “perhaps the most ambitious museum devoted to the second world war in any country”.
But the populists who had come to power in Poland’s elections two years earlier found this unbearable, preferring to promote a version of events that would airbrush real history and glorify the nation instead. Soon enough the minister of culture and national heritage, Piotr Gliński, dismissed the Gdańsk museum director, Paweł Machcewicz . A new director, Karol Nawrocki, was duly installed who set about altering the main exhibition – without consulting its authors. The revised approach was to tack closely to government guidelines giving emphasis to a glorification of Polish military actions and to cast Poland as a righteous nation: the museum would be a monument to national martyrology.
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