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Vol. 39 No. 20 · 19 October 2017
Diary, p.39

Neal Ascherson

In Gdańsk, the walk to the museum takes me past the Patriotic Clothing Store. Two blonde, blue-eyed dolls stand in the window, wearing little T-shirts saying: ‘My parents are 100% Polish.’ They have their wee fists raised in what a visiting journalist from Warsaw suggested, a bit unfairly, was a fascist ‘Heil’. Inside, the shop is small and dour. Racks of grown-up T-shirts with the anchor emblem of the 1944 Warsaw Rising. You can buy Velcro shoulder patches – ‘Death to the Enemies of My Country’ – in red, brown or blue. Further on is the Poczta, a heavy building of red Prussian brick. Here was the Polish Post Office, in the years when Danzig was a Free City under the League of Nations. The Germans besieged it on the first day of the war in 1939, and after the postmen surrendered, shot them all.

From here, the new Museum of the Second World War is visible through the trees. In the middle of a paved plain, a huge scarlet wedge of tile and glass has been driven slantwise into the ground. The display galleries are buried far below, beyond reach of sunlight. The museum commemorates two layers of the Polish past. The first is the one described in the leaflet: the last war, as experienced all over the world. But the second layer is not so obvious. This museum was conceived in another very special period in this nation’s history. In effect, it also commemorates the years after the 1989 fall of communism when Poland seemed to be becoming a normal country.

Normal? That means a people whose nationalism is about escaping from nightmares rather than reliving them, who can bear to see their country’s history as no better and no worse than that of others. Those were good years for many Poles, but not all. The economy galloped like a wild horse; Poland joined the institutions of the world; the young rushed abroad and discovered new lifestyles. The political influence of the Catholic Church, sheet anchor of Polish identity through fifty storm years of war and communism, seemed to be waning.

It didn’t last. The other Poland – rural, pious, the silent losers by reckless neoliberal ‘transformation’ and the collapse of state industry – struck back and returned Poland to government by self-pitying ‘super-patriots’. But the idea of the Gdańsk museum had been conceived in the hopeful years. And it was a noble idea.

Almost all war museums are ‘national’. They show relics of ‘our’ war, with enough reference to the experience of other combatants to provide a context. But the planners of the Gdańsk museum wanted something different, maybe unique. The collection they put together presents the war as a single calamity, as a nuclear winter of humanity whose darkness fell in a thousand different ways on hundreds of different communities and nations. But their motive was not vague, one-world idealism. It was, in part, domestic and political. As one museum official (now forced out) said recently, ‘this great project was meant to be a Polish window to the world.’ In other words, it was intended to help Poland realise that its own appalling sufferings and betrayals in that war were related to other sufferings. In that way, the museum might rescue young people from their parents’ obsession with Poland’s ‘destiny of martyrdom’.

After eight years of preparation, the museum opened in March. But by then Law and Justice (PiS) were back in power. A party of fervent Catholic nationalism, xenophobic and authoritarian in its hatred of both economic and social liberalism, PiS loathed everything the Museum of the Second World War represented. How dare it relativise Poland’s sufferings? Why didn’t it emphasise religion, and show that ‘we Poles are Catholic patriots’? A PiS senator accused the display of ‘left-liberalism’. Why did it show the starvation of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘exceptional’ when Poles were hungry too?

In April, the minister of culture deftly changed the legal status of the museum, allowing him to sack the director and put in pliable men of his own. A roar of protest followed. Everyone expected that the new team would now castrate the whole project by removing exhibits that showed Poland in a poor light. They would replace ‘unhealthy cosmopolitan’ stuff with lists of Polish priests shot by communists. ‘See the show while it lasts,’ was the advice going round Gdańsk.

But it hasn’t happened – not yet. The new director, Karol Nawrocki, said evasively that ‘in the world of research, there has to be openness to opinions and criticisms, so talk that nothing can be changed is inappropriate.’ And yet so far almost nothing has changed. ‘No plans for major alteration,’ Nawrocki’s deputy, Grzegorz Berendt, told me, ‘Only adjustments.’ What might that mean? Well, it should be mentioned that the Nazi Hunger Plan aimed to exterminate Poles as well as Jews. The uniform of extreme right-wing resistance groups should be shown with the others. Not enough about Poles killed in territories annexed by the Reich …

It’s the absence of conventional heroism, I think, that the super-patriots find most disconcerting. In the immense exhibition labyrinth (which needs two days to navigate) there are the faces of many desperately brave men and women. But for once the main emphasis isn’t on campaigns, ‘the story of the war’, soldiers and soldiering. All that stuff can be clicked on in the electronic display cabinets. But this museum is about war seen as disaster, misery, ruin, loss rather than as some purposeful struggle ending in victory or defeat. There is a whole room devoted to the three million Russian prisoners starved to death by the Nazis, but much less space for the battles of Kursk or Stalingrad. At the start of the visit, you stand in a prewar Polish street, with its groceries and newspaper shops. At the end, you enter what might be the same street six years later: a vast, gutted shell with charred window-holes, and a Soviet tank abandoned on a heap of rubble. Victory?

War museums in fortunate countries say: ‘It was terrible, there were tragic losses, but we won in the end.’ It’s different here. Poland was on the winning side but lost the war. In the Gdańsk museum, there’s no happy ending: only the betrayal of Poland to Stalin, the start of the Cold War, a wall down the middle of the final room. A film shows all the savageries that followed peace: Hungary, Vietnam, the murders of the Kennedys, Poland’s anti-Semitic purge in 1968 (it’s said that the Warsaw hyper-patriots hate that film more than anything).

It’s universal, and yet it’s the war seen through a Polish lens. Why not? The war began a few hundred yards away from the museum site, on that September morning when the guns of the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein suddenly opened fire. Inevitably, the Katyń massacre and the Warsaw Rising get more space than the Americans in the Pacific or the Normandy landings. But when you leave the museum, you realise that Katyń and Warsaw have been used to prepare you for Dresden and Hiroshima.

Of course it’s not patriotic enough for the critics. It doesn’t hide or excuse Poland’s hyena-like seizure of Teschen from Czechoslovakia, as that country lay helpless after Munich. It’s honest about the way some Poles sold fugitive Jews to the Nazis. It shows the blackened keys left by the Jews of Jedwabne, after their Polish neighbours murdered them and plundered their homes. It reminds young visitors born since 1989 that not only stainless Catholics but also Polish communists died for their country.

War is not the same as wartime. In wartime there is more silence than uproar, more dogged waiting than running about, more resignation than rage. There are things you don’t say and questions you don’t ask. There are absurd men and women telling you what you can’t eat and where you can’t go. That’s hard for museums to show. They can show you some of the lies: the fake news, the doctored film, the phoney triumphalism of politicians. They are less good at recording the postwar fakery, the rapid construction of false memory about the conflict.

Gdańsk is a good place to ask yourself what you really remember, as opposed to what you have been persuaded to remember. Up to 1939 Danzig was a superb Hanseatic port city, mostly German with Polish and Jewish minorities. Then the RAF struck it with obliterating force. Then the Red Army stormed it, sacked it and set the ancient town on fire. When the mass rape and slaughter were over, the surviving Germans were expelled. Nothing much of the old centre remained, beyond fangs of brickwork and roofless towers. But the incoming Poles decided to reinvent Gdańsk as an exact replica of Danzig. On my first visits, they were still working on it: Renaissance façades with thin air behind them. This time, I suddenly realised that beautiful, glittering Gdańsk had been completed. The new bricks and stucco had even begun to weather becomingly. Yes, historic Gdańsk was looking even older than before.

Poles use time as an elastic bandage. They make it cover holes and wounds. In Gdańsk, the tall three-crosses monument to shipyard workers murdered by the militia in 1970 after going on strike went up in 1980, but in 1982 a friend told me: ‘It’s always been there, somehow.’ The guide in the Royal Castle in Warsaw says: ‘If you look out of this window, you can see the only Renaissance doorway to survive the baroque reconstruction.’ The castle was dynamited to dust by the Nazis – an empty space for thirty years. But ‘it was always there, somehow.’ Just invisible for a while.

This Polish government pursues ‘the politics of memory’. That means the manufacture of false memory. They want to replace most people’s version of the past with a different one that isn’t even a good replica. For instance, the peaceful overthrow of communism in 1989 didn’t actually happen. It was fake news. It was all a charade to ensure that the Red elite and their Russian paymasters kept control under a new title. So Poland still awaits its genuine liberation. As for the Smolensk air crash in 2010, which killed President Lech Kaczyński and his retinue, this is now commemorated monthly as an assassination by Russian agents. Bodies are being exhumed to look for traces of a bomb, although the initial inquiries showed clearly that the cause was pilot error – a reckless attempt at landing in fog. Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council but Polish prime minister at the time, is accused of treason for not pursuing the conspiracy with enough energy – but then, it’s hinted, maybe he knew all along what was going to happen …

This is all so mad that most other Europeans would call the paramedics and tell them to bring the extra large syringes. But in Poland it’s not so simple. Memory – verifiable – recalls that Poles had persecution mania because they were persecuted, that they lapped up conspiracy myths because they were conspired against. The old Messianism doctrine preached that Poland was the collective reincarnation of Christ – and hadn’t it often happened that all the other nations scorned Poland and gambled for its clothing as it was nailed to the cross? The politics of memory are an attempt to move Poland back into those shadows, where history is an endless cycle of righteousness and victimhood.

The dolls in the shop window say they are 100 per cent Polish. In that case, there’s a woman featured in a film in the museum who is 150 per cent. As a tiny ‘Nordic-looking’ child, she was kidnapped by the Nazis who exterminated her village and sent her to the Reich. There she was placed with a loving family who assumed she was a German war orphan. But in 1946, a surviving relative managed to track her down. By now speaking only German, she was dragged away from her foster mother and pushed onto a train full of liberated prisoners heading home. Why did they all weep and cheer when the train crossed the frontier? What was this ‘Polska’ word they were shouting? Then came a terrifying family reunion, a strange language, a new story which they said was her old story. But she made herself grow back into this nation – ‘somehow’. And today she speaks as a wise old Polish lady, who happens to carry inside her an inoperable splinter of grief. I thought her more authentic than all the dolls and demagogues who call themselves ‘true Poles’.

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© Ryszard Stemplowski