Snyder, Timothy: Poland vs history (Australian comparisons not far beneath)

Timothy Snyder

Poland vs history‘, New York Review of Books, 3 May 2016 updated

In its exhibitions, the Museum of the Second World War [in Gdańsk, Poland] promised to tell the story of the 1930s and 1940s in an entirely new way. Unlike other museums devoted to history’s most devastating war, which tend to begin and end with national history, the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world, through a sprawling collection gathered over the last eight years, and through themes that bring seemingly disparate experiences together.

Poland’s newish (elected October 2015) conservative government, however, seems set to cancel the Gdańsk project because it fails to express ‘the Polish point of view’. The alternative plan is to focus on a small part of Polish war experience in September 1939 rather than, as was intended, to have the museum present World War II as ‘global public history’, going back years before 1939 to show what led up to the actual fighting. There was also an intention to look in detail at wartime societies, including collaboration with occupying forces, common experiences across countries of the effects of bombing on civilian populations, comparative treatment of prisoners of war, the starvation of civilians, the reconstructive effects of war on societies, and the Holocaust, as well as Polish military heroism.

Should the Polish government succeed in thwarting the museum project, Snyder concludes,

the effects of suppressing national memory could be of critical importance to Poles in coming decades, and to a global audience that has yet to fully absorb the complicated lessons of World War II. In some measure at least, how rising generations of Poles see themselves, democracy, and Europe will depend on whether they can have ready access to their country’s complicated experience in World War II.

The word ‘complicated’ is the key. There is a lot more to a country’s war history than deeds of heroism and stoicism, whether these occurred in Poland’s brief Battle of Westerplatte against the Germans in 1939, at Australia’s Kokoda or Long Tan or even on the Western Front in the Great War, where Australia is gung-ho to build the Monash Interpretive Centre, essentially because there is a feeling that ‘the Australian point of view’ hasn’t been heard sufficiently to date. (Honest History has taken the view instead that the Monash Centre is a boastful Aussie boondoggle, the bricks and mortar equivalent of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!’) But then, Australian commemorative institutions, like, it seems, the new Polish government, have always been better at showing how Australians fight rather than why we do and what war does to us.

It is also notable that a country like Poland, which has felt the effects of war on its soil more than most countries have – certainly far more than Australia has, apart from the Frontier Wars – was prepared in Gdańsk, at least for a time, to focus on the broader dimensions of war beyond Polish boundaries. On the other hand, parochial commemoration, sentimentally stressing our boys’ derring-do in uniform, seems to be associated with lack of direct experience of war.

Related material may be found in Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial (which points to that Australo-centric institution’s failure to recognise the world context of our wars), in Oliver Janz’s work on online commemoration in France, Germany and Britain (where the last-named prefers a parochial, heroic take), in Yves Frenette’s piece on how the former Harper Government in Canada tried to conscript Canada’s history to serve a political agenda, and in Margaret MacMillan’s book on the uses and abuses of history. The new regime in Poland is not alone in seeing the political potential of history.

The battle on this continues: see Statement of Advisory Board of the Museum. Still more on this from New York Times, 9 November 2016. Related article about Poland and historians.

David Stephens

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