“I wanted to include the East European experience into the Western narrative about WWII” – An Interview with Paweł Machcewicz

Paweł Machcewicz is currently Professor of History at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences and was previously Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2017-2018). He was the founding director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk and was dismissed from this position by the Law and Justice government in April 2017, immediately after the opening of the Museum. Paweł Machcewicz’s main works include “Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956” (2009), “Poland`s War on Radio Free Europe, 1950-1989” (2014) and “Der Beginn der Vernichtung. Zum Mord an den Juden in Jedwabne und Umgebung im Sommer 1941. Neue Forschungsergebnisse polnischer Historiker”. His most recent book “Der umkämpfte Krieg: Das Museum des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Danzig. Enstehung und Streit (2018) describes the history of creating the Museum of the Second World in Gdańsk and controversies it evoked.

Professor Machcewicz, what does it mean to you to be a public historian? How does it influence your research?

Paweł Machcewicz. Photo: private

It is both a privilege and calamity. On the one hand, it gives me a feeling that my work makes sense, that it might really matter, that it is followed and discussed by many people. On the other hand, it can at the same time make the work of a historian very difficult. When you deal with historical issues which are treated by the public as important and sensitive you should be aware that any mistake or overstatement may hurt feelings of many people. It is of course mostly the situation of an author who deals with contemporary history and who has to confront not only archival documents but also living people, participants and witnesses of the developments he or she analyzes. A historian confronts public expectations and sometimes has to go against them which can provoke anger and protests. Several years ago I was involved in research regarding newly discovered facts of anti-Jewish pogroms committed by Poles during the Second World. I felt how these revelations were painful to the Polish public opinion.

Public history may also be a realm of a very active interest and involvement of politicians and governments. A striking example is contemporary Poland where the Law and Justice government treats so-called “politics of history” as one of the key elements of its policy. In practice it means an authoritarian tendency to impose one official vision of history and to marginalize or eliminate all others. My work at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk clashed with this kind of approach to the public history, provoking the Law and Justice to wage a campaign against it.

You were the director of the Museum for the Second World War in Gdańsk in Poland and as such responsible for designing the exhibition. Could you tell us what it meant for you to put Polish experiences with the Second World War in a comparative and transregional perspective? Why did this approach prove controversial?

Poland was never an isolated island, on the contrary, it is the country that participated in most important European developments, very often in an extremely dramatic way, especially during  WWII. As a historian I had a feeling that the Polish – and more generally speaking: the East European – experiences have not been sufficiently known and understood in Western Europe, United States and other parts of the world. I mean the general public, not experts or scholars who deal with our region. It pertains also to major European and world museums focusing on WWII. They usually do not devote much attention to developments in Eastern Europe, apart from the Holocaust. It was one of the main reasons why I put forward the idea to create the Museum of the Second World War in Poland. I was confident that it would be the best way to include the Polish and East European experience into the main Western narratives about the war and about the 20th century. I wanted to present our history as part of something broader. This approach was vehemently rejected by the right-wing in Poland who attacked it as “cosmopolitan”, “pseudo-universalistic”, “not Polish enough”. The very idea that the Polish history would be presented alongside the experiences of other nations was treated as putting in jeopardy the uniqueness of Polish heroism and martyrdom. The battle around the Museum of the Second World War reflected the rising xenophobic and isolationist feelings which have manifested themselves in Poland in the last years, in other realms as well. For me it is also a very self-destructive approach. I witnessed to reactions of many foreigners who said that after having visited the exhibition that I had created they can much better understand the Polish and East European history. And the Law and Justice government, after having ousted me from the post of the museum’s director, is now changing the exhibition in order to make it “more Polish” and “less international”. I do not think it will be effective in spreading the knowledge about our history.

In Poland, there is currently a boom for museums. Could you tell us how Polish museums relate to international trends in museum architecture and in construction of the exhibitions?

In the last 15 years more historical museums were created in Poland than in any other European country. It reflects the importance of history that is a crucial element of our national identity and also a vital dimension of the current politics. Museums usually cost a lot of money, but there were always funds available for financing them, which proves that they are valued by politicians. In terms of architecture and design of exhibitions they are usually modern, conforming to the newest trends in international museology. Competitions for architectural and exhibition design are open to all competitors and quite often foreign architects and companies win in them. In case of the Museum of the Second World War it was a Belgian company Tempora from Bruxelles who was responsible for the design of our exhibition. By the way, it was quite a good arrangement, because in the daily cooperation with designers from other countries (Tempora had also people from France and Israel on board) it was possible to see simultaneously what they understood from the history of Poland and of Eastern Europe and what should be presented and explained in a way that was more accessible to the broader public.

And if I am to point at a specific of the Polish approach to historical museums, I would say that the Polish public expects to find there exhibitions that are attractive in visual terms, with lots of both multimedia and artistic, symbolical installations. In general, many historical museums in Poland bring a strong emotional message which is not so commonplace in Germany where a more academic and ascetic approach is prevalent. A good example could be ‘Topographie des Terrors’ in Berlin.

Could you tell us something about your newest research project? How are you realizing a transregional perspective in it?

I am writing a comparative book about retributive justice after 1945. This is mostly about reckoning with legacies of crimes and other wrongdoings committed by outgoing regimes and with their perpetrators. Most studies of transitional justice – this is a term which became more popular – emphasize its positive impact on creating new democratic regimes after the collapse of dictatorships or after the end of wars – by restoring the elementary moral order, by strengthening public trust in newly born democratic institutions, and also by issuing a warning to those who could plan breaches of democracy and violations of human rights in the future. This positive (or even idealistic) image of transitional justice accompanied the prevalent, standard approach to this topic in political and social science in the last twenty years or so. I want to question this established view or at least introduce some nuances into it – by analyzing failures of retributive justice, its instrumentalisation for political reasons, its manifold distortions. If we analyze many cases of retributive justice more closely, even those widely regarded as most successful and beneficial, the reality usually turns out to be much more complex than this standard view. One can raise questions if sometimes retributive justice might be dysfunctional or even going against elementary feelings about what justice should mean and how it should be implemented. The core of my interest is the overlapping of politics, justice and changing historical perceptions of past crimes. I try to analyze how these three dimensions influenced each other in various historical developments after WWII until nowadays. I analyze developments in Europe, Asia (trials in Japan after WWII) and Latin America (mostly Argentina and Chile after the fall of right-wing dictatorships in the 1980s). It is a very broad and indeed transregional approach but I think it is the only possible way to see both similarities and differences.



Citation: “I wanted to include the East European experience into the Western narrative about WWII” – Interview with Paweł Machcewicz, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/12372.

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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