When a Museum falls prey to politics

Over the last eight years countless families have donated precious documents, photos, and heirlooms to build the best museum about World War II the world would ever see. It was scheduled to open its doors in Gdańsk, Poland, early next year. Unfortunately it seems the public will never actually see this groundbreaking collection.

The reason? The new conservative ‘Law and Justice’ ruling party in Poland decided that the museum had the wrong focus and didn’t express “the Polish point of view.” The highly ambitious project would have covered subjects taking place long before the war, reaching back to the fallout of World War I, and yes, would look far beyond Poland to explain how the worst catastrophe in world history could’ve taken place.

Now the government is planning to open a very different kind of institution, devoted exclusively to the Battle of Westerplatte in 1939, during which Polish soldiers bravely fought off a German offensive on the Baltic coast.  

This heroic subject suits the Law and Justice Party’s nationalistic agenda, but it takes away all that was special about the museum. There are many similar museums about WWII, and almost all limit themselves to a largely national perspective. This simplifies events by adopting the lens of only one people or country. This leads to a narrow understanding a war that touched nearly the entire world, drawing out the best and worse from all sides.  

“World War II remains the crucial conflict of the modern era, but until now no institution has attempted to present it as global public history,” Timothy Snyder writes for the New York Review of Books. The Gdańsk museum was poised to tackle the issues in all of their messy complexity, presenting “wartime societies as groups of individuals who had to make decisions, even when the range of possible choices was limited to bad ones.”

It highlights the difficulty of creating truly global public history, especially when most museums are funded and hosted by individuals, groups, and countries with an agenda. This may be true even with the smallest neighborhood museum funded by a local council, along to other institutions like universities or school systems when politicians and special interests set out to change curricula and textbooks.  

Museums will always play a crucial role in the telling of history, as they provide access to historical documents and artifacts. A well curated exhibition can enlighten, entertain, and engender passion for history like nothing else. They offer education and interpretation in a physical environment which can be a magical thing. We all remember our favorite museums from when we were children.

The the newly planned museum will cover a short period of 1939, and surely generate a strong sense of respect for the Poles that sacrificed their lives to fight Nazi invaders. But the museum that you will never get to see also dared to reveal the ugly and the shameful alongside the heroism, both in Poland and beyond. It could do this precisely because it adopted a global perspective, providing context and comparison to events that would be incomprehensible when considered in isolation.

This wider perspective meant talking about Polish collaboration in Nazi and Soviet crimes, integrated into a broader theme about collaboration in other countries. The bombing of civilians included the events we are probably mostly familiar with–Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki–but also the Italian bombings of Ethiopian civilians and German raids during the Spanish Civil War that set the stage for these later attacks. Not to mention bringing to light German bombings of Polish civilian targets–a little-known fact that is now condemned to obscurity by the Polish government itself.

The museum was going to highlight other forgotten crimes. One such example: When Hitler broke his alliance with Stalin by invading the Soviet Union, German forces intentionally starved three million Soviet prisoners of war to death. Not only does the museum’s collection bring this mass atrocity to light, but it compares it to the later siege of Leningrad and contextualizes it with related thematic exhibitions about Nazi concerns about food security and their racial theory.

We created Tell History because we wanted to create a truly global public history that couldn’t be interfered with. Unlike a museum, which is inextricably bound to a specific city, country, and people, Tell History is a universal platform that allows people all over the world to share their experiences of history. The unfortunate lesson of Gdańsk is that there are so many people out there who want to share the legacy of their communities, but as we rely heavily on museums to collect and display this information, these voices can be silenced and history can be buried. Tell History incorporates everyone’s story into a global network of citizen historians, taking away the power of governments and special interests who try to forget certain memories or perpetuate national myths.

Truly ambitious projects like the originally planned museum also serve to undo some of the damage done by pop-history and the media.

Recent films such as The Imitation Game give almost exclusive credit to the British, perpetuating a simplified understanding of the war. Few know that the Poles fought at Normandy, or under British command in the battle for Italy in 1944, despite countless films about these episodes of the war.

The Polish government is hiding these and other facts about its own people simply because the whole truth is messy and complicated. But understanding the messy and complicated lessons of the period before, after, and during World War II is necessary for a country that lives at the geopolitical intersection of Russia and Europe.  
We hope that the Law and Justice Party will understand the error of their ways. We also hope that the Tell History team will get to visit the museum. No matter what happens, we invite the Polish people to share their stories with Tell History, a place where the government doesn’t get to decide what the world can see.