Warsaw, Poland – A court paved the way Wednesday for Poland’s government to take control of a new World War II museum that has been the focus of a major ideological standoff over how to remember the war.
The conflict has pitted the creators of the Museum of the Second World War — who place Poland’s war experiences in an international context and emphasize the fate of civilian populations — against the nationalistic ruling party, which prefers to focus on Polish suffering and military heroism.
Culture Minister Piotr Glinski sought to take control of the museum last year by merging it with an as-yet unbuilt museum, the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939. Critics of the government described the maneuver as a legal trick aimed at pushing out the managers of the original museum.
The attempt was held up for months in the courts, giving director Pawel Machcewicz time to open the World War II museum to the public in March after more than eight years of development. It is located in Gdansk, where Germany fired some of the war’s opening shots against Poland.
Wednesday’s ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court now paves the way for the Culture Ministry to take control of the Museum of the Second World War.
The ministry said in a statement that the merger of the two institutions would take place “immediately” and will mean “a significant increase of their potential.”
The ministry argues that it is not economically justifiable to operate two state museums on a similar subject in the same city.
Opponents of the ruling Law and Justice party see the step as part of the party’s broader agenda to take control of state institutions and to reshape the nation to conform to its nationalistic worldview.
The museum project was launched in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now one of the European Union’s top leaders. Tusk is a longtime rival of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the ruling party’s leader, and many political observers think Kaczynski’s opposition to the museum is at least partly rooted in that rivalry.
Kaczynski has for years also criticized the museum’s concept and said he preferred a museum that would focus exclusively on Polish suffering and military heroism.
Poland was occupied during the war by both Germany and the Soviet Union and subjected to unthinkable horrors by the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Nearly 6 million Polish citizens were killed.
Many Poles feel that the world has never truly understood the magnitude of their country’s devastation, a belief that has bolstered the views of some museum critics who argue Poland’s tragedy must be told as its own story.
Director Machcewicz, argues that Poland’s wartime suffering, which features heavily in the museum, is much more meaningful, especially to foreign visitors, when placed alongside information about the suffering also inflicted across Europe and beyond.
Machcewicz is expected to lose his position now that the government has been cleared to take control of the Museum of the Second World War.
He expressed satisfaction that he was at least able to open the facility, allowing thousands of visitors to see it before the exhibition is potentially changed. He also appealed to the government not to make big changes to the content, noting that it was the product of many donations from Polish war veterans and others.
“This museum is a record of the living memory and emotion of Poles who entrusted us with this memorabilia,” Machcewicz said on TVN24.