“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” The words of Thomas Jefferson. To be contrasted, of course, with the well-known dictum that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Whichever view one prefers, if there is one thing the Polish government cannot be accused of, it’s a lack of interest in history. Whether the correct lessons are drawn is a different issue, but history, or rather the government’s view of the correct history, is of singular importance to it.
Thus Poland’s foreign minister, while commenting during a television interview on the success for Poland’s diplomatic, police and security services that was World Youth Day and Pope Francis’s visit, also mentioned the importance of history. Witold Waszczykowski mentioned how important historical policy is for a country. He said that “if Poland does not promote [its] vision of history, which finds confirmation in historical documents, then such history is lost and appropriated by the narrative of other countries.”
Of particular sensitivity, following the marking of the 72nd anniversary Warsaw Uprising on Monday, Waszczykowski said “we are facing the assertive historical policies of Germany and Russia.” He suggested that Poland take as a model “the successful diplomacy and historical policy of Israel, which managed to document and permanently introduce the notion of the Holocaust.” “We don’t have such successes. We have to fight about Katyn, the lie regarding [Auschwitz], and also about more recent history, which is being appropriated by our neighbours,” said the minister.
Ahead of Monday’s anniversary, President Andrzej Duda met surviving veterans on Sunday. “The Warsaw Uprising is a monument of our memory and its insurgents are our greatest treasure,” Duda said in his speech. Sunday’s commemorations also saw Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz grant honorary medals to several insurgents, after which a roll call was read out in honour of individuals who helped preserve the memory of the Warsaw Uprising.
And it is in its attitudes to roll calls that the government’s approach to what is correct Polish history is illustrated. The defence ministry had ordered that all state ceremonies attended by a military escort should include a roll call commemorating the victims of the 2010 Smolensk air crash which killed 96 people, including President Lech Kaczyński. Thus a roll-call commemorating the Smolensk victims was read out at the recent anniversary of the Poznań 1956 protests, the first mass protests in communist Poland, and at the May anniversary of the Third Silesian Uprising of 1921, where ethnic Poles fought to incorporate Silesia into Poland.
This prompted Marta Kaczyńska, daughter of the late president, to write an opinion article for weekly wSieci that commemorating figures important to Poland’s recent history should not take place at observances that are not directly linked to those people. In a letter sent to the defence ministry in the run-up to the uprising anniversary on 1 August, a number of veterans had opposed the idea of reading out the names of those who died in Smolensk. Hence the compromise with the roll call of those who had helped to preserve the memory of the Warsaw Uprising, although Macierewicz had earlier dismissed as misleading information designed to create conflict the idea that there had been any difference of opinion between the veterans and the ministry of defence.
Be that as it may, one man’s history, is another man’s opinion, another man’s propaganda, and another man’s failing to tow the party line. Thus the wrangling over the new museums in Gdańsk. Construction of the Museum of World War II began in Gdańsk in August 2012, supported by the then government of Civic Platform. After Law and Justice won the general election last October, it announced the construction of a second museum, to be built on Gdańsk’s Westerplatte peninsula where WWII began, focusing solely on the events in Poland of 1939.
In April, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński said that the museums would be merged “to ensure effectiveness.” This had prompted Norman Davies, who heads the advisory board of the Museum of World War II in Gdańsk – intended to present the whole of the war including Europe and Japan – to tell The Observer that “the Law and Justice government does not want a bunch of foreign historians to decide what goes on in ‘their’ museum,’’ and to accuse Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, whom he said was behind the decision of “behaving like a Bolshevik and a paranoid troublemaker.” Gliński later said that no final decision had been made.
Orwellian re-writing of history or simply making sure that the Polish contribution to history is better understood? Either way, the government seems to have remembered Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”