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Polish government wins World War II museum case

January 25, 2017

A Polish court has ruled the governing Law and Justice Party can take control of a major new World War II museum in Gdansk, paving the way for a reframing of history to suit the nationalist party's ideological agenda.

Museen 2017 - Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk
Image: Muzeum1939.pl

The case centers on the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which after nearly a decade of preparations was set to open in the next couple weeks.

The museum tells the story of World War II by including all the nations involved in the conflict, with a particular focus on civilian suffering instead of military campaigns. Several prominent historians were behind the development of the museum, considered by some as one of the best efforts to explain the global context of the war. 

But the PiS has opposed the international angle of the war explained at the museum, preferring instead that it focus on Polish suffering and heroic resistance to Nazi Germany. It is a stance in line with the party's efforts to use the power of the state to develop stronger nationalism and pride.

Shortly after the PiS swept to power in late 2015, Culture Minister Piotr Glinski tried to take over the museum by merging it with the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939, which has not even been built.

Not Polish enough

The legal maneuver was designed to push out the museum's director, Pawel Machcewicz.

"We are being attacked as a museum that is not Polish enough," Machcewicz said Monday. "It's very unusual for the creation of a historical exhibit to encounter such huge pressure from the government."

The Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Tuesday in favor of the party, effectively allowing it to remove Machcewicz and change the exhibition or delay its opening.

The Culture Ministry said in a statement after the court verdict that on February 1 "a new cultural institution will be created - the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. The combination of both Gdansk institutions with a similar business profile will optimize costs ... and strengthen their positions on the museum map of Poland and the world."

Machcewicz said he plans to keep fighting for the survival of the exhibition, even though he will now be sacked.

"The culture minister can come with heavy equipment and destroy an exhibition that cost 50 million zlotys ($12 million). But he can't just change some elements, because the exhibition is like a book that is protected by copyright laws," Machcewicz said. "And I am ready to sue the minister if he tries to change the exhibition."

Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk
The museum tells the story of World War II by including all the nations involved in the conflictImage: Muzeum1939.pl

World War II maintains an important role in Poland's national identity. The Poles pride themselves on their resistance to Nazi Germany, both on the battlefield and in the underground.

They are also sensitive to terms like concentration camps in Poland, and point out that the camps were German Nazi death camps on occupied Polish territory.

There is also a view that the Polish war experience, and its hardship under the Soviets, has not been fully recognized.

Since coming to power, PiS has pushed through legislation that critics say undermines the rule of law, free media, women's rights and democracy.

cw/cmk (AP)

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