Interview Debates on Europe | Remembering the Future

Paweł Machcewicz: ‘History should be about the ordinary people, not only about heroes’

In the fourth talk of the Debates on Europe: Budapest & Beyond, historian Joachim von Puttkamer and the director of Gdańsk WWII museum Paweł Machcewicz discuss on history as an instrument to realise current ideological projects in Hungary, Poland and Germany.

Published on 30 June 2021 at 14:59

Across Europe, politicians are increasingly using history as an instrument to realise current ideological projects. In Hungary and Poland, national-illiberal governments keep a firm grip of the narrative and put limits to which histories can be told. In Germany, the function of history is different and the confrontation with the darkest moments of the past has become a way to take responsibility and determines both domestic and European politics.

What is the role of history in identity- and nation-building? How can museums and other institutions of commemoration avoid being instrumentalized and at the same time be relevant in contemporary societies? In the fourth talk of this new series of Debates on Europe, Joachim von Puttkamer (director of the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena) is in conversation with Paweł Machcewicz (founding director of Muzeum II Wojny Światowej in Gdańsk).


Joachim von Puttkamer: The German Bundestag has commissioned two new historical projects, one of which will address the German occupation throughout Europe. Since you already founded a museum in Gdańsk with a very similar focus, the Museum of World War II, what do you think such a museum that deals with the German occupation of Europe should look like – in Berlin?

Paweł Machcewicz: Of these two projects, one is about the German occupation of Europe and another dedicated exclusively to the German occupation of Poland. You ask about this first project. Well, it should be comparative and emphasize the difference between the German occupation of western Europe, which was much milder and less brutal than the occupation of most of eastern Europe. One of the main goals of the museum in Gdansk that I created was to show to European audiences that the occupation of Poland was something completely different than the occupation of France or Denmark. For us in Poland it’s completely obvious, but for most in western Europe it is not quite clear.

Joachim von Puttkamer: I agree, but I was thinking more about the specifics of having such a museum in Berlin and of addressing a different audience. Both you and your museum in Gdansk were criticized for conveying the message that there was as much civilian suffering as there was heroic resistance. Is that a message which would be appropriate for Berlin and a largely German audience as well?

Paweł Machcewicz: What was unique about the Second World War was that it affected mostly civilians, and this was the central perspective that we introduced in the exhibition of the Gdansk museum. We focused not on the military campaigns or even on the military resistance, but on the fate of civilians. In the Polish case, it was even more complicated, because we had a Polish underground state, which was quite a unique phenomenon in occupied Europe. This was the resistance, but not mostly the military resistance, and so I think that if one wants to somehow attract the attention of people nowadays, it shouldn’t be about military accomplishments or even military resistance. Most people haven’t experienced military service because there is no compulsory draft in any European country, perhaps excepting Switzerland. 

If you want to have a visitor feel some sense of closeness to what’s on display at the exhibition, then the story should be mostly about civilians; those involved in the resistance as well as the people who simply suffered from various kinds of repression, bombardments or even starvation. This was the focus of the Gdansk museum, which is one of the reasons why it was so vehemently attacked by the Law and Justice party. Such an approach is the most universal way of explaining the experience of the Second World War and it would be a good idea to try to somehow adopt it in Berlin.

Joachim von Puttkamer: My take on this is somewhat different, Paweł. I think what you did – and I like the way you did it and greatly appreciated it – was specific both to the Polish situation and to the situation in Gdansk at the beginning of World War II, which also obviously had a major place in the exhibition. The discussion in Germany and the conflicts to which this project seeks an answer concern a perceived lack of knowledge in the German population about what German troops actually did. I don’t think there was much of a lack of knowledge among Poles about what German troops did to them, but in Germany people generally do know that German troops occupied most of Europe, although they have very little idea of the extent of crimes in Poland and elsewhere. Conveying knowledge in general, I think, would be a first message. The second difference is that such a museum, if it is in Berlin, must address the specifics of the city.

Paweł Machcewicz: Yes, of course, but it does not preclude the focus on civilians, which is the most important dimension of the war and something that was crucial about the German way of conducting the war. These were not crimes committed, for example, on Polish prisoners of war in 1939, but rather the annihilation of the Polish elites and others, which affected millions of people. I think all of this should be conveyed by the museum in Berlin. Most Germans know enough about the Holocaust because this is a cornerstone of historical and civic education. On the other hand, Germans know close to nothing about the crimes committed by German troops, especially in Poland

Joachim von Puttkamer: If it’s about victims and occupation, it should address the civilian experience of being occupied by a racist and partly annihilating occupational force. Why do you think that the German government embarked on this endeavour now?

Paweł Machcewicz: Well, I think to some extent it has to do with the current state of Polish-German relations. It’s related to Polish public opinion, and especially this policy by our current government, that makes use of anti-German propaganda from time to time, even on government-controlled television. I also think that the German government decided that some sort of dialogue with the Polish right-wing should take place. 

These two projects were somehow interrelated – one museum about the German occupation of Europe and the other about the German occupation of Poland. In my opinion, it’s a gesture by the German government towards the Polish government. One can, however, discuss if it was done in a smart way or if it will really help to improve Polish-German relations. I have some doubts about it.

Joachim von Puttkamer: Even though it was the first impulse, the notion that such a museum could improve Germany’s relations with Europe and placate the current Polish government is futile. And it shouldn’t even be the main intention, placating a specific government, but should be addressed largely to German and European audiences as an example on how Germany deals with its past. 

Paweł Machcewicz: The generation that experienced the war and could even somehow convey their memories to their children is passing away. Moreover, academic knowledge cannot serve as a way of transmitting history to the broader public because people don’t read books anymore, especially books that we historians write. But for some reason, people tend to visit museums in great numbers, so museums have become extremely important for keeping alive the memories of earlier generations. As museums try to be more and more attractive, they become no longer just museums, but entertainment centres. There are certainly some dangers related to this process, but I think this has a lot to do with a generational divide. It’s clear that we need museums, which was one of the reasons why I suggested that we should create the Museum of World War II in Poland. As you said, people know enough about the German atrocities in Poland, but this knowledge is also somehow becoming less concrete, and so we need museums.

Joachim von Puttkamer: But if we both agree that there is a legitimate political and educational agenda behind this German project, what’s the difference between this and what is happening in Poland and Hungary? Doesn’t that further the argument that every government has its democratically legitimized agenda via museums? The current German one is a bit more European-minded, while the Polish and Hungarian governments are more nationally-minded. Are we already falling for the right-wing arguments?

Paweł Machcewicz: Well, you’re absolutely right, museums are to some extent always political because the initiative is usually political, coming as it does from the government, parliament or municipal government and is mostly financed via public funds, at least in Europe. But the question is what happens next. After the museum is founded by politicians, are historians or museum experts allowed to do their job? Or do politicians decide on the content? And this has been a difference between Germany and Poland in recent years – and Hungary in the last decade. As someone who still remembers communism, lived through the 1980s as a student of history and later dealt with the communist period as a historian, I think that one of the fundamental differences between communist Poland and democratic Poland after 1989 was that history and culture became autonomous spheres. No longer did the central committee of the ruling party decide the content of museums or textbooks.

In Poland and Hungary today, we have been experiencing a move back to communist times. Of course, the circumstances are entirely different, with democratic or quasi-democratic institutions existing in both countries. But politicians have decided to meddle in the affairs of museums and their exhibitions. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party, commented on the museum that I created in Gdansk even before it had opened to the public, saying that it does not reflect the Polish point of view, and that he would change this accordingly. Such a situation would be unimaginable in democratic Germany today.

Joachim von Puttkamer: Perhaps today, but if I think of how Helmut Kohl acted, then I can indeed imagine such a situation. But the basic point is that the Polish right – and there is, of course, also a German political, populist right – feels that the sphere of historiography, public history, education and museums is not so autonomous after all since it’s dominated by the other side, by a different camp. And this thinking in camps, ‘us’ versus ’them’  – ’us’ being Polish and ‘them’ not being authentically Polish, for example, as you have experienced – is part of the problem.

Paweł Machcewicz: Politics is to a great extent not about reality at all, but about perceptions of reality. There should be some boundaries to these perceptions, though. If Kaczyński declares publicly that the museum of World War II was not part of the Polish politics of history, but rather part of the German politics of history and therefore imposed by Germany on Poland, then such misperceptions are extremely problematic and it’s my duty as a historian and as a citizen to say it openly, especially since perceptions can have fatal consequences.

Joachim von Puttkamer: I think that all museums are much about the exhibitions temselves, of course, but politically, the real impact is in the debate about the exhibition when it's being developed, about the intention. And then the public, controversial debate about the exhibition when it’s opened. In that respect, one could say that the museum in Gdansk actually fulfilled its main mission, triggering an important debate on the experience of World War II in Poland and Europe, and further debates about World War II.  Now the debate about World War II and about the role of history in general, twentieth-century history in particular, has moved elsewhere. To publications, to aspects of how to address the Holocaust and so on.

Paweł Machcewicz: I agree that this controversy resulted in a great deal of attention to the exhibition of the Gdansk Museum, more attention than I could have ever hoped for. But it was a special sort of attention. The message that was conveyed to Poland and to the world was about the violation of the autonomy of culture, a violation of the autonomy of history by right-wing politicians. It was also about xenophobia, because the attacks against the museum were aimed at this very idea that we can show not only the Polish experience, but also the experience of other nations in one exhibition. This very fact was deemed detrimental to Polish national identity.

But I hoped that this narrative about the war that we presented in Gdansk, that included Polish and east-European experience into the core of the narrative about the war, would also provoke discussions within and beyond Poland about how we interpret the war and to what extent its full image is missing in other museums in western Europe or in the United States. But this didn’t happen. Instead, major European and American media focussed on the story about academic freedom and the autonomy of the Gdansk museum, not on the exhibition itself.

Joachim von Puttkamer: In light of what we’ve witnessed in the last decade, do you think that we're moving somehow closer to what could be a European understanding or rather common controversy about the experience of World War II? I don’t believe in one understanding, but more in the fruitfulness of controversy and having different positions clearly out on the table. Do you see a tendency toward a more European commemoration or memory?

Paweł Machcewicz: On the one hand, yes. I see some developments that to some extent broaden the scope of this European memory of the war. For example, after some former communist countries joined the European Union, members of the European Parliament from Poland and the Baltic states did their best to add their memories of communist dictatorships and Soviet terror to the European commemoration. Sometimes it provoked left-wing resistance among the post-communist members of the European Parliament. But we now have in Europe a day commemorating the victims not of communism, but of the Stalinist regime, 23 August, so there is some progress.

On the other hand, I think that, at least in Poland, we have a backward development, and the museum in Gdansk is a good example. When presenting the initial idea to create this museum, I thought that it would be a sort of centre; not only an exhibition, but an educational centre that would take part in the major European and international discussions about the experience of the war. But with the right-wing takeover of the museum, we now have a Polish museum dealing only with Polish history and polish martyrdom, retreating from international dialogue.  

A chance has been lost, in my opinion. In Poland other policies dominate, sentiments that reject any idea of dialogue about the experience of various nations in the war and in the twentieth century. It's a monologue about how we, the Poles, suffered throughout the twentieth century, how we were heroes. I don’t think that this kind of policy can in any way enrich the European discussion on memory.

Joachim von Puttkamer: The same might be said of Hungary, which in some way has been pioneering this development during the last decade, with the government pushing for an interpretation that sees Hungary as a victim of German occupation and German crimes, rather than focussing on the specific role Hungary as an ally of Germany had throughout most of the war.

Paweł Machcewicz: I absolutely agree. Hungary under Fidesz was a pioneer in terms of using museums as political instruments. A House of Terror was opened in Budapest in 2002 and became a model, a sort of inspiration for the people who created the Warsaw Uprising Museum, this ideal museum for the Law and Justice party. With the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, this era of museums as a political force, a political weapon, started in Poland.

Joachim von Puttkamer: The other country I often have in mind in this context is Russia. I have the impression that much of the discussions we have about what a European memory could look like always ends up in having Russia outside. All talks about what a common understanding of the experience not only of the World War II but also of Communism could look like, of mass crimes committed in the twentieth century, tend to marginalise Russia and consider Russia as something categorically different.

Paweł Machcewicz: Yes, I think that if the developments in Poland and Hungary move in the same direction in the coming years, Russia will be our future. Although, we are still not at the stage of Putin’s policies towards academia or the media, for example, Putin is certainly a source of inspiration for Orbán. In Poland it’s different because in theory the Law and Justice party is very anti-Russian. But, for example, if you watch state news in Poland, so-called public television, you’ll see many examples of anti-German programming but hardly any anti-Russian news. Russia is somehow out of the picture. Our enemy is the European Union and Germany. And I think that what Putin has been doing regarding media – and history – is a source of inspiration for our right wing, although they would never admit that.

Joachim von Puttkamer: We could probably agree that the current situation, at least from our perspective, is not so much about a specific German versus a specific Polish or Hungarian understanding of the role of museums and the role of history in the public sphere. Rather, it’s a matter of a more liberal European, critically-minded approach – also self-critical – versus a more nationalist, assertive approach, which focusses on experiences of victimhood and specific national suffering. Do you see any possibilities of dialogue across these frontlines of the debate? 

Paweł Machcewicz: Well, in Poland I can hardly see any chance of a real dialogue. Poland is an extremely polarized country. Probably, only Hungary is equally polarised throughout Europe. More likely, you can imagine a dialogue between Poland and Germany, but, as I said, it’s not always very optimistic. For example, this idea to create a museum dealing with the German occupation of Poland in Berlin. As far as I know, the German government is not interested in any kind of a broad dialogue, only in dialogue with the Polish government and the people delegated by it.

This is not very optimistic, but rather, on the German side, a return to the tradition of the Ostpolitik of the Social Democrats in the 1970s, who were not interested in dialogue with the Polish opposition, but with the Polish communists. I know that this is a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but this is certainly not the best time for dialogue neither in Poland or nor between Poland and Germany. I hope that better days will come. We must, in any case, try to keep the dialogue amongst historians going, between people who are somehow involved in cultural institutions, which could serve as the basis for something better in the future.

Joachim von Puttkamer: And speaking of the autonomy of scholars, it wouldn’t be so bad if, in the end, these two German projects contribute to an understanding that these controversial issues should be left to historians to discuss rather than politicians setting the agenda. Above all, if these exhibitions contribute in preparing German visitors for the historical experiences with which they will be confronted when they travel abroad, then that would certainly be a good thing. Any German travelling to Poland, northern Norway, France, Serbia or Greece is still in one way or another confronted with the historical memories of the respective societies.

Paweł Machcewicz: I fully agree. We need both these museums in Berlin. Moreover, it usually takes a lot of time to create a museum. I can bet that once these museums are ready to be opened to the public, it will happen in a completely different political atmosphere than we have now. I’m thinking of an atmosphere more open to real dialogue involving all kinds of historians, not only of those close to the ruling parties in Poland and Germany.
Joachim von Puttkamer: So, in spite of all, we're optimistic!

Debates on Europe is a joint project by S. Fischer Stiftung and Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung.

👉 Watch the opening talk, with Timothy Garton Ash.

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