Yale’s Timothy Snyder denounces the Polish government for sabotaging the Museum of the Second World War

Historians in the News
tags: WWII, Museum of the Second World War

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale.

In early 2017, Poland was supposed to unveil what is perhaps the most ambitious museum devoted to World War II in any country. A striking cantilevered tower of glass and red cement is now rising above the completed subterranean chamber that will hold the museum’s 37,000 objects. The largest of these—an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a German railway car—had to be installed with the help of cranes during construction. In its exhibitions, the Museum of the Second World War promised to tell the story of the 1930s and 1940s in an entirely new way. Unlike other museums devoted to history’s most devastating war, which tend to begin and end with national history, the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world, through a sprawling collection gathered over the last eight years, and through themes that bring seemingly disparate experiences together. It is hard to think of a more fitting place for such a museum than Poland, whose citizens experienced the worst of the war.

Yet the current Polish government, led by the conservative Law and Justice party, now seems determined to cancel the museum, on the grounds that it does not express “the Polish point of view.” It is hard to interpret this phrase, which in practice seems to mean the suppression of both Polish experience and the history of the war in general. The new government’s gambit has been to replace the nearly completed global museum with an obscure (and as yet entirely non-existent) local one, and then to claim that nothing has really changed. The substitute museum would chronicle the Battle of Westerplatte, where Polish forces resisted the German surprise attack on the Baltic coast for seven days in September 1939. Heroic though it was, substituting this campaign for the entirety of World War II means eliminating the record of how Poles fought for their country and their fellow citizens over the succeeding five-and-a-half years. Such a move also means throwing away a historic opportunity to redefine the world’s understanding of the war.

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. Unlike most comparable museums, the Gdańsk museum does not accept a conventional national history of the war, or follow a patriotic chronology of battle that is convenient for the elaboration of this or that official national memory. It commences well before the German-Soviet attack on Poland in 1939 and even before the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931—events that are usually taken as the starting points of the Europe and Asian conflicts, respectively. Instead, the museum begins with the crisis of world order after World War I: militarism in Japan, Stalinism in the Soviet Union, authoritarianism in Europe (including in Poland itself), fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany. It devotes serious attention to the diplomatic crises of the late 1930s: the struggle for China, the Anschlussof Austria, the partition of Czechoslovakia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact—the 1939 alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that gave Hitler the green light to attack Poland.

As István Deák has stressed in his recent study of the war, Europe on Trial, appeasing Hitler before the war led to collaborating with Hitler during the war; Stalin’s choice to placate Hitler in 1939, he notes, was not exceptional but emblematic. In its impressively sober approach to the issue of collaboration, the Gdansk museum presents wartime societies as groups of individuals who had to make decisions, even when the range of possible choices was limited to bad ones. Some degree of accommodation is an almost universal experience of war, the more so when the occupation is unusual, as these were, in the depth of the occupiers’ political and economic ambitions. That the same populations—including Poland’s—often collaborated with multiple regimes might challenge our intuitions about good and evil and the importance of ideology. But it is also an everyday truth about war that emerges from an approach that takes account of all the different aggressors and occupations. 

Treating the bombing of civilians as a global theme, as the museum does, can unsettle stories of the war that are limited to one national perspective. Germans generally associate the bombing of civilians with the end of the war, with the devastation of German cities like Hamburg and Dresden by British and American air raids. Some Germans use these bombings as a kind of counter-balance to German atrocities in the war. Yet a global history of bombing civilians demonstrates that Italians were doing the same in Ethiopia much earlier, following standard European imperial practice. It was Germany itself that brought the imperial practice of mass bombing of civilians to Europe, during the Spanish civil war and then, massively, during the invasion of Poland. As German forces entered Poland in September 1939, the Luftwaffe experimentally bombed defenseless towns, and killed about 25,000 people in Warsaw alone. The American photographer Julien Bryan, who was in Poland at the time, caught on film German planes strafing fleeing civilians, or simply civilians who were at work in the fields. His camera is in the museum’s collection. But if bombing European cities was a German innovation, Americans will hardly be exonerated in this exhibit, which concludes with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ...

A generation from now no one will care about the political feuds that animate Warsaw today. But it is certain that thousands of Polish families will remember that their precious gifts of family heirlooms were accepted and then refused. And when the cranes come a second time and remove the American tank, the Soviet tank, and the German railway car, dismantling the Polish and international history of the war, this too will leave a lasting impression, as well as some spectacular photographs. Most seriously of all, the effects of suppressing national memory could be of critical importance to Poles in coming decades, and to a global audience that has yet to fully absorb the complicated lessons of World War II. In some measure at least, how rising generations of Poles see themselves, democracy, and Europe will depend on whether they can have ready access to their country’s complicated experience in World War II. The collapse of democracy, the museum’s first theme, could hardly be more salient than it is right now. And the presentation of the conflict as a global tragedy could hardly be more instructive. The preemptive liquidation of the museum is nothing less than a violent blow to the world’s cultural heritage.

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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