The Polish government feels that Poland’s history has been unfairly treated in the newly opened House of European History in Brussels. At a debate last week historians argued that the museum has an ideological bias against nationalism and that inaccuracies and gaps in its permanent exhibition should be corrected.
The debate was organized (5 September) in the European Parliament by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group and hosted by MEP Anna Fotyga on behalf of the Polish Law & Justice delegation in the parliament with the participation of historians from Denmark, Latvia, Italy and Poland.
The governing Law & Justice party in Poland is also critical against the Museum of the Second World War which opened in Gdansk last March. The museum has been accused by the Polish ministry of culture of not presenting the Polish point of view on the war time history.
The House of European History was designed to differ from country museums which usually glorify the history of the nation. The House aims at remembering events and ideas that have shaped Europe’s common history and to encourage the visitors to confront their own knowledge and understanding of history.
The focus of the museum is on modern European history and the birth of the European Union after the horrors and atrocities of the two world wars in the 20th century but is also includes a number of themes related to previous periods.
A controversial issue is the nature of the totalitarian ideologies in the 20th century. The exhibition deals with both Nazism and Communism/Stalinism and describes them as different ideologically but similar in brutality and oppression. Some of the panelists in the debate argued that the museum should have elaborated more on the role of Soviet Union during and after WWII.
The main crime of Stalin was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany where Soviet Union and Nazi-Germany divided Poland, Ukraine and Balticum. The pact was the immediate cause of the outbreak of WWII with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 by Nazi forces and on 17 September 1939 by Soviet forces.
The museum, however, hardly mentions that Soviet Union, while fooled by Nazi Germany, suffered immense losses in the war and contributed to the allied victory against Nazi Germany. A Nazi victory would have meant the end of the Polish state and the suppression of the Polish nation to give room for Nazi Germany’s expansion.
“I was sceptical to a museum which doesn’t present Europe’s different cultures. I cannot say that I’m satisfied after have seen the final outcome,” Fotyga said when opening the debate. In order not to rely solely on her own opinion, she invited a number of historians and asked them to visit the museum.
The historians spent quite some time visiting the museum and delivered both general and specific remarks, especially on what in their view should have been included as regards Poland’s tragic history, such as the partitions by aggressive neighbors and the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty.
Polish historians Marek Kornat and Bogdan Musiał missed important events in their country’s history. During WWII an underground government – the only one of its kind in Nazi-occupied Europe according to the historians – was operating in Poland but nothing of this is mentioned in the museum.
There is also no mentioning that Poland came to the rescue of Vienna in 1683 against the Ottomans and that it already in 1791 drafted a reform constitution.
Professor Kornat admitted that it’s difficult to establish a museum that meets all expectations. That said, the museum in his view doesn’t show Europe’s history but only the last two centuries, with a focus on Western Europe.
“The exhibitions are construed under the influence that nationalism was the most destructive force in Europe’s history, ignoring the role of the imperial powers which caused the two world wars,” he said.
Danish professor Michael Böss missed the role of Christianity in Europe’s history. “Europe is about diversity,” he said. “It’s a conglomerate of national cultures with a common glue: Christianity. The museum should show the cultural richness of every country.” Asked by The Brussels Times about religious wars, inquisition and censorship, he replied that the museum should have shown them as well.
Italian professor Marco Patricelli remarked that hardly any history museum is free from ideology. “The museum cannot tell the history of Europe fully and cannot be an encyclopedia of everything but at least it should be warm and welcoming.” The debate confirmed that history is what the present decides to remember from the past.
What should be done to correct any faults and errors in the museum? The most radical suggestion was proposed by Latvian politician and documentary film producer Edvins Snore. There is a need for a European museum, he said, but it should only focus on modern times and the unification of Europe while deleting the other exhibitions and changing outdated narratives.