Historical truth told differently

With the World War II Museum we have to present our nation’s point of view firmly, much like Israel does. Otherwise we will lose the struggle to preserve the truthful narrative about Poles being the victims of two totalitarian aggressors.

For many years, as a native of Gdansk and as a historian, I have observed the complexities associated with the construction of the World War II Museum. I have had to bite my tongue on more than one occasion, restraining myself from making a public or written response to the measures taken by the management of this virtual centre and its supporters who are pushing nonsense about the universality of the historical message and the Europeanisation of the memory of World War II.

From the very beginning, I wondered that given the return of history, the brutal battle for the memory of the war and its new interpretation, to which the Republic of Poland has remained for years passive and defeated, how it is possible that Poles are using government money in Gdansk to build a museum devoid of a Polish perspective on the tragedy of a total war initiated against the Polish nation by the Germans and Soviets in 1939. However, I have finally decided to speak out after two distinguished historians – Andrzej Nowak and Timothy Snyder – wrote a letter defending the planned World War II Museum.

In the letter written by the two professors on 13 August 2016, I read shocking words: "We both recognize, however, that the exhibition reflects both the historical truth in the dimension of the overall image of the war and Poland’s special place within it. We agree that the World War II Museum, in its present form, would create a unique opportunity for Poles to learn about the war beyond Poland and for foreign visitors to learn about Polish history." These are incredible words!

But the problem lies not in the fact that the exhibition’s details are not real, because at issue here is not a dispute about the originality of a little car from Kalisz in 1939, an erotic and obscene figure of a Soviet soldier or even references to the authoritarian governments in Spain or Poland.

Rather, what is at stake here is the narrative as a whole and the core message, which blurs specific national, state, systemic, personal, human and social blame for causing a conflict whose scale was unprecedented in the history of world wars. 

Claims that “evil” has no nationality or colours, but rather lies inherently in every man and nation, and that natural “good” flows within every human being despite political systems and wars, leads to nothing being “black and white” (a favourite trick used in discussions about the evaluation of historical processes and phenomena).

And where is Poland in all of this? It is easy to find her, she is everywhere, but yet somehow shrouded by fog, split up into pieces in different parts of the exhibition, an ordinary country like any other, not more or less heroic than the others…Among those countries labelled as totalitarian and authoritarian (alongside the Soviets and the Third Reich!), among those countries attacked by Germany and the Soviets, occupied and fighting heroically like the Soviets, French and Yugoslav resistance (statistics on European resistance fighters is provided, according to which Polish resistance efforts look less impressive), and later “liberated” by the Soviets. And this is supposed to be “historical truth”

The philosophy behind the message

The main bone of contention within the dispute about the museum is its universal nature of its message pushed by the directorship. Of course, it stresses the evil doings of the Third Reich because they are impossible to deny, but they do so in a manner that suggests that Nazi Germany merely destroyed the Versailles order and wanted to start a war while the Soviets simply made the most of the situation in 1939.

It follows therefore, that the Soviets are significantly better than the Nazi Germans, which is why Soviet prisoners of war are described as being among the first casualties of the war (who wouldn’t be touched by the image of a Soviet soldier drinking from a puddle?).

Meanwhile, the Siege of Leningrad is portrayed as a leading example of civilian suffering during the war. It is only later – in what is a skewed chronology – that the visitor learns about the bombing of Warsaw! Ironically, the museum’s leadership in Gdansk forgot about the writings of its defender, Timothy Snyder, who a few years ago said that “in reality it was Stalin, and not Hitler, who carried out the first mass ethnic killings in Europe during the inter-war period. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalin’s regime was undoubtedly far more cruel than the Nazis” (Timothy Snyder “Who Killed More?”, The New York Review of Books, 11 April 2011).

Sometimes the universalist vision takes on ugly forms that cause offense and create a nasty aftertaste – such as mocking the tragedy of war by depicting two soldiers, one drinking out of a bottle with a SS emblem on it and the other drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. Another victim of this rescripting of history are the National Armed Forces, as surviving remnants of the Home Army are given the same coverage as the People’s Army, an agent of the Soviet army. It seems that using the criteria for recognizing Poland’s Government in Exile to distinguish between the National Armed Forces and People’s Army would destroy the ideological foundations of universalism.

What is this about?

For someone like me, who believes that the aforementioned battle for historical memory needs to be based on a strong presentation of the national point of view, much like Israel has done, it appears very dangerous to follow a Europeanised or even universal narrative. Doing so will not only hamper efforts to boost Poland’s position as a victim of the aggression by two totalitarian states during World War II – it will lead to the distinction being reduced completely.

Perhaps the objective of the new museum is not to cement Poland’s position on the global memory map it is, as Nowak and Snyder write, to “create a unique chance for Poles to learn about the war beyond Poland’s borders and for foreign visitors to find out about Polish history”.  This could be the case, but if we’re limiting ourselves to such modest goals then why do we need such as massive museum that has cost the government millions, with the personal backing of prime ministers, and numerous employees, complicated bidding processes and at times bizarre competitions, as well as the assistance of seemingly random individuals such as the graphic designers of the Polish edition of “Playboy” and film directors with awards bestowed by Moscow.

Victim of xenophobia

It is not the place to list all the arguments put forward by the critics of the World War II Museum’s permanent exhibition, such as Piotr Niwinski, Piotr Semka, Jan Zaryn and Mariusz Wojtowicz-Podhorski. I agree with many of them, although some of their arguments seem less relevant and others yet appear far-fetched. However, their views cannot be compared to the hysterical tone, often resorting to insult hurling, used by the defenders of the exhibition (“the museum of ordinary people”), the political descendants of March 1968 who – much like Moczar and Gomulka sent cosmopolites to Israel, accuse Deputy Prime Minister Glinski of doing the same with Brussels.

It is particularly undignified to use the anti-Semitic parallel and compare recent events to the anti-Semitic purges made by the Bolsheviks in 1968.  That is one of the reasons that I consider Nowak and Snyder’s defence of the permanent exhibition by Machcewicz and his team to be a mistake. This is despite the fact that I consider Timothy Snyder to be a distinguished historian and the eleven books that he authored about the world war are exemplary. However, it must also be said that during key moments Snyder has also defended Jan Gross and demanded that Poland pay compensation for former Jewish properties taken over after the war – something I consider to be a mistake. A mistake that one of the critics of the museums described as a “stab in the back”. It was also immediately taken up by the directorship of the World War II Museum.

A muddling of roles

Without a doubt, Snyder is in many respects an accomplished historian. He is a talented individual with a knack for finding fresh material in heavily documented historical events. Already at a young age he managed to establish himself as an authority on several issues. Having one’s name printed next to his in a publication is no doubt a great honour – an honour, however, that applies to academic publications rather than his public appearances, which are very political in nature. It follows, that just because a historian is an authority in a certain area, it does not give him the right to apply this title to a completely different subject area.

And this is the case with the appeal, protest at hand, whatever you want to call it. It is also worth pointing out that this is not the first time that Snyder has spoken out in defence of the World War II Museum. He decided to submit the exclusive (it only includes him and Prof. Nowak) protest after giving many interviews and sending letters on the matter.

Snyder and Poland

Snyder is American. Everyone likes Americans – and if they happen to be interested in Poland then this sentiment is increased ten-fold. In Poland, the author of “Bloodlands” is not only regarded with sympathy, but also with great enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that I share. Studying his works closely, however, I always make sure to remember where he is coming from.  Historical works are one thing, but public lectures and media appearances are quite another.

On many occasions, Snyder has become involved in internal Polish disputes. No one can have any doubts about his clear-cut political sympathies and his ties to the previous government as well as to the newspaper linked to the latter, which from the very start made it its mission to preserve the post-communist order. Synder has, of course, every right to do so – those who don’t agree with his political leans can simply ignore them and instead appreciate him for his historical writing.

An example of Snyder’s political meanderings is his response to the rumours that President Duda was planning to strip Jan Groff of his Order of Merit. Even before there was any factional basis for such rumours, Snyder launched a vicious attack on the president, who is not even his own president, implying that the act would carry serious consequences: if the president dares take away the anti-Polish hooligan’s medal then he too would give back his, Snyder said.

By doing so, he made clear that not only does he not hold the distinction in high regard but also that he set out to activate a pan-European campaign exerting pressure through historians, sociologists and others who might be susceptible to the initiative. The message that Snyder wanted to send was clear: Poland will be publicly humiliated, therefore it is better if the Polish leadership resigns from its prerogatives.


The initiative led by Nowak and Snyder that I have criticized is in effect a continuation of earlier efforts to manipulate public opinion through the “historians’ guild”. I myself have fallen prey to similar letters myself. However, the attempt by Nowak and Snyder to “reach agreement over the divide” seems to be self-serving – in the sense that both of them are free to express their opinion and instrumentalise the “international intellectuals” banner.

They also resemble the appeals made by the museum’s “defence camp” which is driven by political factors. It is therefore completely legitimate to ask: why did these two intellectuals feel the need to join forces? No doubt to attract wider media attention and for political purposes. It is an attempt on their part to sway public opinion, the blackmail elements of the Polish government who apparently have other plans for the museum.

On his part, Prof. Andrzej Nowak demonstrated his selflessness. I am convinced that on this occasion he let himself be duped by a circle whose powers of manipulation he was fully aware of.  It is impossible that Prof. Nowak bought into the vision presented in the exhibition, in which Poland’s achievements and sacrifice are reduced to generalized anecdotes about the suffering of “ordinary people” around the world.  


Do Rzeczy Source: Do Rzeczy