13 May 2016

An interview with Paweł Machcewicz, Director of the Museum of the Second World War

Category: Exhibitions, Editorial notes, XXw, Regional history, Polish historiography, Holocaust, History and film, Discussion, News, Military history


The interview that follows with Prof. Paweł Machcewicz, founding director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, was conducted in Warsaw in March. Professor Machcewicz discussed the development and the aims of the museum, scheduled to open in early 2017.

The interview predates the announcement in April by Minister of Culture and Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński, during review of the museum's core exhibition as the museum's building is finished near the Gdańsk shipyards and waterfront. The project may be reconceived to accommodate a newly announced Museum of Westerplatte and thus focus on the beginning of the Second World War and 1939. Responses to this announcement in the international press have urgently protested proposed changes, and can be found here: Vanessa Gera in US News & World Report, Alex Duval Smith in the Guardian, the Financial Times, Timothy Snyder in New York Review of Books, Vanessa Gera in the Washington Post.


Alan Lockwood: The foreign correspondent William Shirer's Berlin Diary – the basis of his acclaimed The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – has September 1939 entries from the Guild Hall in Gdańsk, or Danzig, when Hitler announced the defeat of Poland there. The following month, after war has been declared by Poland's allies, Shirer is along the German-French border and writes "the train crew told me that not a shot had been fired on this front since the war began." Describe the broader significance of your museum's location in Gdańsk, and how it's developed since it was founded in 2009.

Paweł Machcewicz: One of the main reasons for the museum's location is the symbolic significance of Gdańsk for Polish history, for Polish-German relations and for the Second World War. Gdańsk – and [the Polish-fortified] Westerplatte in Gdańsk – is regarded as the place where the Second World War started, where the first shots were fired.


AL: In Shirer's Berlin Diary, the German military takes the foreign correspondents to Westerplatte on 19 September, and he writes that it looks like Verdun.

PM: That's why this location was pretty obvious, I think. If not in Warsaw, then in Gdańsk – and I think that in Warsaw we have existing historical museums and others that are about to be created. So Gdańsk was a good to choice to emphasize and strengthen the symbolic value of the place where the war started, and where Hitler met armed resistance for the first time.

In our museum, we will show the road to war, the destruction of the interwar Versailles order, the Anschluss in Austria, the destruction of the Czechoslovak state. And we will show that Poland was the first state to stop that process of conquest that had been advancing without engaging armed forces. Also, Gdańsk is a very good location for the museum because we treat Gdańsk as a microcosm for Polish-German relations before the Second World War, as a microcosm for interwar Europe. We will show Polish-German tension in Gdańsk and the rise of the Nazi movement, which was indigenous in Gdańsk – it was not only a Third Reich movement.


AL: The National Socialist party was very popular among the Danzig electorate.

PM: This is interesting: they took over power by legal means, thanks to the victory in the election in 1933. So it was a parallel situation to the situation in the Reich, but was autonomous, in a way. Also, Gdańsk and the Pomerania region is very important because this is where the Nazi German genocide started.


AL: With the first concentration camp outside Germany, at Stuthoff?

PM: Not only that. Stuthoff is important and was a concentration camp for Poles, mostly for the Polish intelligentsia of the Free City of Danzig. It was created in the first days of September 1939.

Something that's even more important but often overlooked in Europe and also in Poland is the extent and rapid pace of German terror against the Polish population, which started in the Pomerania district even in autumn 1939. This was the first genocide implemented by the Nazi authorities; approximately 50,000 or even 60,000 Poles were murdered by the end of 1939. The great majority, around 40,000 of them, were murdered in Pomerania. These were members of the intelligentsia, Polish political activists, clergy. Places where they were murdered include Piaśnica, Tuchola, Las Szpęgawski. We want to emphasize Pomerania as a sort of heart of darkness, if you know this book by Joseph Conrad about Congo. Pomerania was also a heart of darkness for the Europe conquered by Nazi Germany.

Another dimension we want to emphasize is the extermination of handicapped people, the mentally and physically handicapped, which also started in Pomerania. As you may know, Hitler signed the order to exterminate the mentally and physically handicapped in October 1939, then backdated it to the first of September, to emphasize that the beginning of the war opened the way to the annihilation of social groups which he deemed unnnecessary to exist, harmful and so on. We show the extermination of thousands of patients in mental hospitals in Pomerania, and also patients from the Reich who were brought to Pomerania then executed there. For example, we have an very moving artifact to exhibit, a wheelchair from the mental hospital in Kocborowo, which was close to Gdańsk, where thousands of patients were killed, both from this hospital and patients brought from hospitals in the Reich.


AL: Is this the euthenasia program from which officers who were directing it then moved on to become key figures in Operation Reinhardt, the death camps in eastern Poland?

PM: Yes. That is why this is a very important stage in our narrative. One of the most important messages of our museum will be to show that one should understand Nazi terror as a whole, in its entirety. First, one should look at the terror against Poles, started already in 1939, and terror against the mentally and physically handicapped, because later it developed into the extermination of the Jews. The same teams of murderers moved mostly to eastern Poland, to the Lublin region, and founded Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełzec, the death camps in which Polish Jewry were murdered in Aktion Reinhardt.


AL: In which the mechanisms that had been approved by the German leadership and enacted in Pomerania were expanded, in terrible ways.

PM: Exactly. Also, I would add an observation to the explanation of why [the museum is in] Gdańsk: that terror against Poles and discrimination against Poles were much harder in the territories annexed to the Reich. In the Pomerania, Wielkopolska and Silesia regions [of Poland], much more so than in the so-called General Government [Polish regions occupied by the Germans but not annexed].

The interesting thing is that Polish national memory focuses mostly on narratives about the war from the General Government: the Warsaw Uprising, the Polish underground state. So the paradoxical result of such a focus is that the experience of millions of Poles of extreme hardship and discrimination and terror in Pomerania and other territories annexed to the Reich is very often overlooked. We want to somehow regain the right balance in the overall image of the Second World War and of the German occupation and terror.


AL: Has this predominant focus in historical memory that you're describing, and this division, been impacted by postwar migrations, shifting populations coming into these formerly annexed regions from which the ethnic German populations were expelled? 

PM: Yes, to some extent. Because those Poles who were expelled from eastern territories taken over by the Soviet Union often settled in Gdańsk and Toruń, for example, and also in Wrocław. But I must say that living in Gdańsk for years while working on the museum, I encounter many people who have vivid memories of their families who underwent the hardships of the German occupation, whose grandfathers were drafted into the Wehrmacht.

And also very painful and sometimes embarrassing stories – even today – of families who were forced to sign the Volksdeutsche lists, under very strong pressure. Very often, refusal to sign these lists could bring about forced resettlement or even imprisonment in a concentration camp. This part of the experience is not very well understood by people from Warsaw, for example. I was born in Warsaw, I lived in Warsaw for the biggest part of my life, and for me, moving to Gdańsk was also a discovery of a different layer of Polish historical memory – a layer that is not less important than the layer that was somehow created from the Warsaw perspective or the perspective of the General Government.


AL: After years of progress, the museum is close to announcing its opening date. How has your team come together, and how have you managed approvals on the part of the government to green-light your project?

PM: The beginning would be my article published in the Polish press, in Gazeta Wyborcza, in November 2007. You can find this article online, or I republished it in my book Spory o historię 2000–2011. I put forward the argument that it's high time for Poland to create a narrative about the Second World War that can become a part of the dominant Western European or western world narratives about the war. I argued that during the Cold War, the dominant world narratives about the Second World War were shaped in the west, and our part of Europe, part of the Soviet bloc, was separated. That's why our experience, which was different from the experience of Western Europe and the United States–.


AL: Very different.

PM: –was marginalized. For example, our experience was different because the German occupation was much more brutal in Poland and the east than in Western Europe. Poland experienced not only the aggression and occupation by Germany, but also by the Soviet Union. The end of the war did not mean only liberation, for Poland and for our part of Europe, as it did for Western Europe. It meant an end of German occupation but the beginning of new enslavement to the Soviet Union. 


AL: Halik Kochanski states in her English-language history of Poland in the Second World War that 1945 is acknowledged worldwide as the end of the Second World War – but that there are crucial durational differences for Poland [The Eagle Unbowed, 2012].

PM: This was one main argument I put in this article for creating the Museum of the Second World War.

The second argument concerned the state at that time of Polish-German relations. You perhaps recall the tension in Polish-German relations due to the initiative by the German Union of the Expellees, supported to some extent by part of German public opinion and part of the German government, to focus on the sufferings of the so called German expellees – Wypędzenia, though we don't usually use this term in Polish, we use the term Przesiedlenia [deportees, or the resettled]. I argued that instead of being closed in this stalemate between Poland and Germany, focusing on the resettlements of Germans after the war, we should create a museum which would present an overall story of the Second World War, including the roots of the war, the German occupation and terror in Poland. Only against this broader historical background would the significance of forced resettlements of Germans from Poland, and also from Czechoslovakia after the war, become understandable and placed in the right context.

Shortly after that, I was contacted by advisers of the new Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk – this was just after the change of government in Poland. Tusk decided that this was perhaps a right way to emphasize the Polish perspective in the European context. I was first asked to prepare a concept of the museum, with suggestions of how the museum should be created. This concept was published, and is available on the museum website, also in English. I was then offered the position of the prime minister's plenipotentiary for the museum, before the museum was founded. After some hesitation, I accepted this offer. Before the museum was founded, as the prime minister's plenipotentiary, I worked on the concept and started to create a team.


AL: Who were you calling upon, which historian colleagues?

PM: The first people who worked with me on the concept before the museum as an institution was created were a historian from Warsaw University, Dr. Piotr Majewski, the co-author of the published concept of the museum, and Dr. Janusz Marszalec, a Polish historian I knew from the time I worked at the Institute of National Remembrance [IPN]. We invited another distinguished Polish historian to join the team, Prof. Rafał Wnuk from the Catholic University in Lublin [KUL], whom I'd also known from IPN. The four of us contributed essentially to the concept of the museum.

In December 2008, the museum was formally founded. I became the director and had a budget to employ other people, so I started to create the team. Now there are around fifty people working in the museum, in addition to historians we have secretaries, administration, financial services and also ten engineers we employed to run the construction site.


AL: The new building's distinctive above ground / below ground design, that's nearing completion and busy with construction crews not far from the shipyards in Gdańsk.

PM: Exactly. But the core of the team is composed of historians who work in the museum, about fifteen historians who from the very beginning worked on the project and cooperated with the design company that won the open competition for the design of the exhibition. This is the Belgian company Tempora. This team created the exhibition of the museum, which is ready and is being produced and installed at the museum site. Some large-scale artifacts had to be put inside before we closed the roof: tanks, and a railway cattle car that is a key artifact for the section on Nazi terror and extermination.


AL: At a conference at the POLIN museum in 2015 that you participated in, you cited that cattle car as a fulcrum point in terms of the scenography.

Were there other historians outside the team and even outside Poland with whom you've been consulting? What issues have arisen in terms of making decisions on how the museum would tell its story, its scenography?

PM: We've involved dozens of historians from Poland and from outside Poland to cooperate with us. In the first stage, the first year of our activities, there were more than forty historians and museums committed to preparing so-called expert theses – perhaps "reports" is the English word. For example, on how to present the topic of the Warsaw Uprising: this analysis, this guidance, we got from the Warsaw Uprising Museum. From the Auschwitz Museum we got such a report on how to present the Auschwitz topic. From others, we got analyses on how to present slave labor, forced deportations during the war, how to present the Polish underground state. All these reports are collected and can be made public upon request.

Also, I invited about a dozen historians from various countries to be on our advisory board. Their names can be found on our website – for example, Norman Davies from the UK, Timothy Snyder from the US, Pavel Polian from Russia, Ulrich Herbert from Germany, the late Israel Gutman from Yad Vashem, Henry Rousso from France. This advisory council met about twice a year and these distinguished historians discussed key topics for our exhibition – for example, the Holocaust. Again, we have the minutes for all these minutes, and they can be made public upon request.

It was a fascinating process of discussion, sometimes confrontation. But I must say that, in a way [laughs], it was easier than I expected. My positive experience is that while you have extremely severe political and ideological discussions regarding history, and also the history of the Second World War in Poland and probably elsewhere – when you discuss these among scholars, sometimes of course they differ, this is obvious, yet you can reach a satisfactory solution. The advisory council has approved the project of our exhibition, so we never faced differences of opinion that were impossible to reconcile.


AL: Have the resolutions and decisions on the part of your team, in its historical view and with the input of the advisory committee, have those decisions met with the approval of the political authorities in Poland today? Have there been further conflicts there?

PM: This is a very long story, I don't know how far, how deep you want to go into this dimension of our project....


AL: The point of the question is that years of development have been accomplished by your team, the museum building nears completion, and the change of the government is a reality. They need to approve or dispute aspects in these final stages of development. Those are in crucial ways very different issues from reconciling views between historians.

PM: There's a history of discussions and controversies around our museum. Our initial concept, when it was made public back in 2008, was criticized by some authors and historians, who presumably define themselves as conservative and national-oriented. I mention this discussion in Spory o historię. Also, this concept was criticized by the Law and Justice party [voted into power in autumn 2015] as too European, too universalistic. They've argued that the museum, which is being created in Poland, should focus predominantly or exclusively on the Polish history, and not on the whole overall image of the Second World War.

Basically, this argument was perpetuated and repeated over the years. Now our exhibition – it's not a concept anymore, it's an exhibition – is under review by the minister of culture. I hope I will be able to convince the minister of culture that the aim of this museum is to introduce the Polish experience into the overall narrative of the Second World War. This was the task and the goal of the museum, as I've tried to explain here in our interview.


AL: And, from a non-Polish perspective, a very needed endeavor.

PM: I also try to convince my interlocutors in the government – I am the director, I try to convince the minister of culture – that one can not tell the story of the Second World War and of Poland and the Second World War without mentioning other countries that were invaded by the Soviet Union and occupied by Nazi Germany. We had allies and enemies.  If we want other people from other countries to understand specific feature – for example, the Polish underground state – we have to make comparisons between the Polish underground state and the Polish resistance to the resistance in other countries. To me, this is obvious. Otherwise, our specific situation would simply be not understood.


AL: As I understand things, by 1944 or even earlier, high-ranking German officials had been tasked with studying the Polish underground state's organization – not only to continue battling it but because, losing the war, the German leadership anticipated having to form their own resistance in the future. 

Two cases seem relevant in considering how needed the Polish historical perspective is in our comprehension of the Second World War. In 2016, some half dozen Polish theater productions are traveling to China, each developed from a Second World War story. This contemporary Polish approach to historical storytelling may be seen to reflect your museum project – and it's happening before Chinese audiences, who have their own narratives of the Second World War, which again are largely neglected in the west. The other case is the historical novel The Kindly Ones, published to popular and critical acclaim in France in 2006 and narrated by an SS officer active in the east – which was then a publishing debacle in the US. That comparison again indicates a general lack of emphasis in the English-language world on the Eastern Front.

As we conclude, may I ask if two persons figure in the exhibition narrative? Jan Karski is promoted today as "the man who tried to stop the Holocaust," which seems to neglect his mission to alert the west to Poland's capacity to resume independence once Germany was defeated. And Witold Pilecki, after his military activities for the underground state, became a casualty of conflicting postwar allegiances in 1948. 

PM: Karski is one of the icons in our exhibition. What I mean by icon is that we selected around thirty important personalities from various countries somehow to highlight issues, and devote special installations to them. In the case of Karski, we show excerpts from Shoah, not only from the Lanzmann film but from background materials, not all of which were included in the final version. We present Karski telling the stories of his meetings with President Roosevelt, with Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court. We also present an original copy of the book by Karski, Story of a Secret State.


AL: Which had been a best-seller in 1944 in the States, with over 400,000 copies sold.

PM: Pilecki is presented in the part of the exhibition about Auschwitz, because this is the most important part of his story to us.

Perhaps it would be a good conclusion to speak of what stage we are out right now. This is the moment when all levels and dimensions of working on the museum come together. We started from the concept of the museum, then worked with the designers to transform our historical concepts into the language of design, artifacts and so on. The third dimension was architecture. When we announced the architecture competition, we already had the concept for the exhibition. It was a very deliberate, step by step procedure.


AL: So the architecture firms developing competition entries for the museum building could utilize your exhibition plan?

PM: Exactly. I've visited brilliant museums with brilliant architecture, but the shape of the architecture, the internal space, is not ideal for the exhibition. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example: a brilliant building, but when you go inside, there are lots of rather small rooms and the exhibition is very fragmented.

We wanted to do it in a different way: first, the concept of the exhibition, then the design of the exhibition, generally. And then the architecture. It's very complicated, combining the historical concept, ambitions and imaginations of exhibition designers, and realities of the building from the point of view of architects. Now we've overcome hopefully all these obstacles and are to finish the construction and the installation of the exhibition in November.              

The exhibition is being produced, with some elements already installed on the site. As far as the historical material is concerned, we're still at work on the content of multimedia: films and multimedia presentations which can be installed at the very last stage. Then we need about two months to get all permissions, for example from the fire department, to open the museum.

Basically, if we don't encounter unexpected events, we should be able to open the museum and have the first visitors in January 2017. This is the very last stage of our process, and I hope it will not be interfered with by any external factors.


New publications

Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present: History, Representation, and Memory

Historical Movies

Google Cultural Institute helps the Polish History Museum reach a global audience