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Culture

Poland debates approach to new World War II museum

The World War II museum's construction and exhibition are more or less finished, but the Polish government said it's not "national" enough. A court decision has kept the director in his post and could save the museum.

Museum director Pawel Machcewicz had just struck a pose for a farewell photo. Fans of the museum had placed a symbolic barrier in front of the museum gates - with the aim, they said, of warding off "attacks on cultural institutions." Then, suddenly came the good news from the courts in Warsaw: The director did not have to vacate his post, as feared, on February 1, and the museum could continue on its mission. These are the latest scenes from the combative drama concerning the prestigious Museum of the Second World War in Poland.

World War II began in Gdansk. Summit conferences to recall the war have regularly occured in the Polish port on the Baltic Sea. So in 2008, the Polish government - at the time led by Donald Tusk, who hails from Gdansk - thought it was high time to build a major museum there. And that is precisely part of the problem: The new, conservative government of the Law and Justive Party (PiS) has criticized the entire concept, aiming to massively alter the nearly completed museum and oust founding director Machcewicz after eight years of work.

One of the largest cultural investments after 1989

Pawel Machcewicz (picture alliance/dpa/A. Warzawa)

Pawel Machcewicz laying the cornerstone of the museum in 2012

Yet it's been a labor of love by the distinguished historian Machcewicz and his team - and one of the largest cultural investments in Poland since 1989, with the new building tagged at 104 million euros ($111 million).

The architecture, created by the firm Kwadrat, is grabbing - soaring up at an angle of 56 degrees. The collection includes everything from battle tanks to family keepsakes and the ship bell of the "Wilhelm Gustloff" that sank in 1945 carrying refugees. The many items of the collection and those on loan illustrate war and occupation, everyday life and resistance from across Europe.

The museum focus is intended to be on the fate of the civilian population as, according to Machcewicz, Poland lost five million civilians and 200,000 soldiers in the war. A catalogue, in Polish and English, has also already been completed.

Just as the museum was nearly finished, critics reared their heads. Piotr Glinski, culture minister of Poland's conservative government, demanded three different appraisal reports - all of which came to the conclusion that too much emphasis was being placed on the "human misfortune" of the war while "people's inurement " as the result of the war was being ignored.

One of the appraisers, conservative historian Jan Zaryn, wrote that the museum's approach bespeaks "pseudo-universalism." More attention should have paid to Poland itself and its "freedom-loving," proud population, he said. In addition, he noted construction deficits in the building.

Court orders stop to compulsory museum merger 

As a result, Minister Glinski called for the museum to merge with another institution, which is not really a museum at all, but more of a relatively tiny memorial to the Battle of Westerplatte. This was the first battle of the war in September 1939, where Polish soldiers were able to put up the greatest resistance to the Nazi Wehrmacht.

Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk (Muzeum1939.pl)

The dramatic building features a 56-degree tilt

Such a move would be a way for the government to oust Machcewicz and redesign the museum. However, a Warsaw court ordered an injunction to stop the compulsory merger, a decision that was reconfirmed earlier this week. The culture ministry plans to appeal the outcome.

The city of Gdansk, which itself has a liberal-led government, has supported Machcewicz and the museum's other founders. Following the submission of more than 1,000 petitions, Adam Bodnar, Poland's official spokesman for civil liberties, has also responded. He criticized the aimed merger of the museums as it transgresses the law governing cultural activities: The hasty construction of the Westerplatte Museum, which would then "merge" with the Museum of the Second World War, would not be a prudent approach to dealing with budget funds, which the government is required to uphold, he said.

Furthermore, he added that the minister's methods were an impermissible intrusion into a municipality's competencies.

Machcewicz, for his part, is relieved following the latest court decision. He has set his sights on the beginning of March for the museum's opening and then, "everyone can form their own opinions," said the strident director. For now, a final verdict on the matter is not realistically expected for another two to three months.

 

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