Polish Cultural Diplomacy and Historical Memory: the Case of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk

  • David ClarkeEmail author
  • Paweł Duber
Open Access


This article examines the mobilization of historical memory as a resource for cultural diplomacy through the medium of the museum. Noting the increasing trend for states to incorporate “dark heritage” of conflict into their cultural diplomacy strategies, the article examines the recent case of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, which has been heavily criticized by the current Polish government for its alleged failure to convey an adequately heroic account of the war to both domestic and foreign audiences. The article demonstrates that the current Polish government has placed great importance on historical memory as a means of persuading European partners of the validity of its vision of European history and of Poland’s place within the contemporary European project. However, in its approach to the Museum of the Second World War, we argue, the Polish government has not developed an effective strategy for mobilizing historical memory to influence others. This case study allows us to demonstrate the potential pitfalls of drawing on historical memory in the context of cultural diplomacy.


Museums Cultural diplomacy World War Two Poland Soft power 


The phenomenon of cultural diplomacy broadly encompasses the state’s mobilization of a nation’s cultural resources (Clarke 2016: p. 3), including art, literature, museums, and heritage sites, in the service of its soft power agenda. Soft power is understood in this context as the effort to persuade and attract others and thereby further one’s interests by non-coercive means (Nye 2011: p. 84). As Ang et al. (2015: pp. 365–366) note, the term “cultural diplomacy” has become increasingly blurred in discussions of such soft power in recent years, to the point where it has become indistinguishable from the phenomenon of international cultural relations, defined in terms of the various forms of cultural exchange and interaction fostered by civil society (Mitchell 1986). In this article, we will focus specifically on state policy in the Polish case, while seeking to identify the consequences of a new trend towards the mobilization of historical memory as a resource for cultural diplomacy. In this context, we will discuss historical memory not in terms of a “collective” memory (Halbwachs 1992), but rather in the narrower sense of those state-led “policies for the past” (Meyer 2008; Beattie 2011) that are designed to foster specific interpretations of history, both at home and abroad, with soft power implications.

Poland is not alone in seeking to derive soft power benefits via the promotion of a specific form of historical memory as it addresses foreign states and publics. It is arguable that all cultural diplomacy has a historical dimension, given that the resources of a nation’s positively connoted material and immaterial cultural heritage can be promoted abroad in the service of soft power. Indeed, Winter (2015) has even spoken of “heritage diplomacy” in relation to states sharing such cultural resources as a means to build or maintain relationships. Scholars and practitioners have argued that museums displaying such heritage represent a particularly important resource for nations seeking to project a positive reputation in the world (Olivares 2015; Hoogwaerts 2016). Nevertheless, what is striking about a number of recent cases is the extent to which the legacies of historical periods that are associated with conflict, death, and human suffering, and which are therefore negatively connoted as forms of “dark heritage” (Biran et al. 2011) or “difficult heritage” (MacDonald 2009), are now equally incorporated into the cultural diplomacy agenda.

Clarke et al. (2017) have recently examined the promotion of the Soča Front and the related Kobarid Museum in Slovenia, which commemorate bloody battles of the First World War, as sites of dark heritage. Their analysis offers a framework for understanding the relationship between touristic place branding at the local level and the mobilization of such sites at the national level as a means of promoting specific perceptions of the role of the nation in relation to its international partners. Clarke, Bull, and Deganutti argue that Slovenia has mobilized the material heritage of this difficult past to promote an image of itself as a broker of understanding between regional neighbors, tapping into an EU-led memory culture that focuses on the overcoming of past conflict through the commemoration of the suffering caused by European wars.

As it moved towards European Union membership, Poland also drew upon historical memory of war, and specifically on its fate in the Second World War, to present itself as a reliable future partner in the European integration process. However, this externally oriented memory policy was soon challenged from within as an object of domestic political contestation. During the first government of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS) from 2005 to 2007, and more recently with its second administration since 2015, this right-wing populist party, which increasingly draws on nationalist rhetoric, has sought to counteract the prevailing memory policy of the post-communist years. In doing so, it has promoted its own vision of Polish history both domestically and to foreign publics and international partners (Wolff-Powęska 2007). However, as we will show in this article, this strategy, which has mostly been successful in the domestic sphere, has been largely ineffective in the international relations context as a potential tool for the leverage of soft power.

The Polish case therefore raises two interlinked research questions: firstly, why do contemporary states seek to co-opt historical memory in their cultural diplomacy strategies?; secondly, what factors in the Polish state’s current mobilization of historical memory under PiS have contributed to the relative failure of this approach, and what can this tell us about the potential of historical memory as a resource for cultural diplomacy? In order to answer these questions, we will focus on the example of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, a prestige project that has been the subject of considerable interest and significant controversies both within Poland and internationally.

Recent scholarship on the politics of memory has drawn attention to the fact that memory and heritage represent an expanding field of contemporary policy-making (MacMillan 2009: p. 4). Researchers have pointed to the relationship between such policy-making and the attempt to shape and dominate the identity of the nation in ways that are advantageous to parties engaged in domestic political competition (Reichel 1999: p. 21). As Helmut König (2008: p. 109) has argued, memory has become a conscious object of political action and has, as a consequence, become an area of policy that “can be and is ferociously fought over”: it is, Aline Sierp notes (2014: p. 29), a political terrain on which “elites justify both their immediate political aims and their worldviews.” A focus on the national politics of memory, while offering an account of important developments, tends to obscure the potential of memory and heritage policy as an aspect of foreign policy-making, particularly in terms of national projection. The discussion of the Polish case in this article will therefore also contribute to an expansion of the scope of the study of memory politics in its international dimension.

Polish Memory Policy and Europeanization

In common with those in other Central and Eastern European states that joined the European Union from 2004, the majority of Polish political and intellectual elites initially sought to realign the country’s “dominant memory regime” (Langenbacher 2010: p. 31) with the prevailing post-Cold War memory discourse of western member states and of the EU itself. In this discourse, the commemoration of the victims of National Socialism and in particular of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust provided the foundation for a “cosmopolitan” memory (Cento Bull and Lauge Hansen 2016: p. 391). The adoption of cosmopolitan memory as a new framework for national commemoration of World War Two was regarded by the EU as key to underpinning a commitment to democracy and human rights in the Central and Eastern European states that sought to join the Union (Mälksoo 2009; Closa Montero 2009). While the Second World War had long been “a cornerstone of Polish national identity” (Szczepanski 2012: p. 273), this elite-driven turn towards Holocaust memory included acknowledgement of some local complicity in the genocide perpetrated by German occupiers, acknowledging “Holocaust recognition” as a “European entry ticket” (Judt 2010: p. 803). In Poland, this stance was characteristic of significant sections of the political elite, specifically within the mainstream pro-EU political parties such as Liberal Democratic Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny) and the Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna), which merged to form the Freedom Union (Unia Wolności) in 1994. This attitude was also widespread among many well-known intellectuals and scholars, foremost among them the former dissident Adam Michnik, whose popular liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza provided a forum for such views. The liberal position on cosmopolitan Holocaust memory was also strongly supported by Marcin Król, the then editor-in-chief of more elitist but nevertheless influential Res Publica Nowa (Dudek 2011: pp. 36–38, 43–45).

Although this reorientation had already been a subject of considerable controversy and polemic in Poland during the 1990s, the most heated public debates were spurred by the work of authors from outside Poland. The strongest criticism of the Polish attitude to the Holocaust was formulated by Jan Tomasz Gross, an American historian of Polish origin, in his famous book about the massacre of Jedwabne in July 1941, in which Polish villagers participated in the killing of their Jewish neighbors (Gross 2001). This publication triggered intense debate (Michlic 2002; Chodakiewicz 2005), which is far from being concluded. However, discussion of the historical relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles has also taken place in a context of heightened awareness of the significance of this issue for the Polish national image abroad.

The tensions inherent in dealing with the Polish-Jewish past for both a domestic and an international audience have been apparently overcome through the creation of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews (MHPJ), also known as Polin, on the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto, a project initiated in the early 1990s and completed in 2014 (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2015: pp. 215–18). This museum, which seeks to present 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, was an international private-public cooperation, and has been widely perceived as “a symbol of improved Polish–Jewish relations, perhaps even reconciliation, in the wake of the Holocaust” (Rosenfeld 2016: p. 258). Despite the historic associations of its location, the MHPJ is understood by its creators as avoiding an interpretation of the Polish-Jewish past as a narrative teleologically directed towards the Holocaust (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2015: p. 226). Therefore, as a state-sponsored (although not state-driven) historical project with a significant international impact as a site of tourism, it allows Poland to visibly acknowledge the Jewish contribution to its history while avoiding an exclusive emphasis on the genocide of Polish Jews in the Second World War. This means that the possible appearance of awkward questions concerning Polish complicity or passivity in the face of that genocide, which significant sections of the Polish population experience as a threat to their identity (Kapralski 2017: pp. 190–91), can be mitigated, if not altogether avoided. As such, Polin can be seen as an asset to Polish cultural diplomacy, in that it speaks to the expectations of international partners and visitors in terms of acknowledging Jewish life and Jewish suffering in Poland, while simultaneously offering an interpretation of Jewish history in the country that avoids offending domestic opinion through an exclusive focus on the Holocaust.

Despite this apparent re-integration of Jewish history into national history, the problem of Polish-Jewish relations remains one of the most salient and multi-layered factors in the politics of historical memory within Poland, not least in terms of Poland’s response to non-Polish interpretations of Poland’s role in the Second World War. When allegations are made (or are perceived to have been made) by those outside Poland concerning the participation of the Polish nation as a whole in the Holocaust, for example, where repeated reference is made to “Polish camps” by foreign politicians, this provokes indignation in Poland and often results in a more sweeping rejection of the historically documented crimes perpetrated in Jedwabne and other places by some individuals within the Polish population during the Second World War (Machcewicz 2012a: pp. 205–210). These tensions provide an important theme that can be exploited for electoral gain by PiS, which has proposed a return to a traditional and more Polonocentric approach to history, in opposition to the cosmopolitan memory discourse, which it perceives as a western imposition detrimental for Polish interests (Mark 2010: pp. 97–98).

When in power, PiS has therefore sought to counteract this tendency to move away from the traditionally dominant understanding of Poland as an eternal victim of outside aggression, a process which has been particularly encouraged by the liberal and pro-EU party Civic Platform, a successor party to the Freedom Union. Before 2015, apart from the period of the first PiS government in 2005–2007, successive Polish administrations have sought to avoid making a diplomatic issue of what was generally held to be the neglect of Poland’s role in the Second World War, as when the former Western Allies failed to invite Polish representatives to the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy landings. By not seeking to challenge western-dominated narratives, it has been argued, Poland sought to emphasize its role as “a loyal and determined ally of democracy” (Paczkowski 2016: pp. 296–7). This attempt to calibrate Polish memory policy with western models encountered resistance in the form of an alternative vision, which remains deeply ingrained in the memory of the broad sections of society, and which has been championed by PiS. Speaking as leader of the main opposition party in 2005, for example, Jarosław Kaczyński of PiS criticized the EU for attempting to impose the “identity of stronger nations” on “smaller nations” through historical memory (Kaczyński 2005).

The historical discourse of PiS refers expressly to patriotic emotions and the nobility of fighting for national independence, along with a discourse of Polish martyrdom. As such, it is also more than simply a matter of political tactics. It represents rather a vision of contemporary Poland as the final outcome of a long quest for independence, perceived as an obstinate military and political struggle against foreign domination (Chojan 2016). This vision of Polish history prevailed, for example, in party publications relating to the death in 2010 of President Lech Kaczyński, the brother of Jarosław, who was portrayed as a guardian of national memory (Chmielecki 2017). This kind of memory discourse, in contradistinction to the western-oriented cosmopolitan approach favored by Polish liberals, is distinctly “antagonistic” in character, in that it “opts to turn historical events into foundational myths of the community of belonging.” (Cento Bull and Lauge Hansen 2016: p. 395).

The political rivalry between liberal, pro-EU forces, on the one hand, and conservative right-wing forces on the other has played out in particular through new museums and memorial projects. During his time as mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński initiated a Warsaw Rising Museum that seeks to celebrate the martyrdom of Polish nationalist forces resisting German occupation in the summer of 1944. During Kaczyński’s later presidency, however, Civic Platform Prime Minister Donald Tusk initiated his own museum project in 2007, a Museum of the Second World War in his home town of Gdańsk, which can be interpreted as being at least to some extent a riposte to Kaczyński’s museum (Machcewicz 2012b).

The Development of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk

The original concept of this modern narrative museum was prepared by its future director, the historian Paweł Machcewicz, who had also acted as an advisor to Tusk. The choice of Gdańsk was highly symbolic as the city in which the Second World War had broken out almost 70 years earlier. In addition, Machcewicz has emphasized the status of the region (Pomerania) as the first “laboratory” in which the National Socialists could begin to implement their policies of deportation and mass murder (Machcewicz 2017a: p. 10). Kaczyński’s Warsaw Rising Museum had acquired an external dimension, as it became the site of “memorial diplomacy” (Graves 2014) during visits from foreign dignitaries such as the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. However, both the Gdańsk museum’s initiators and international observers understood it from the beginning as a project with an international resonance. The museum was endowed with an international advisory board from 2009, including prominent historians of the Second World War such as Henry Rousso, Timothy D. Snyder, and Norman Davies (Museum of the Second World War 2017a: p. 107), and met with substantial interest both in Poland and abroad, as indicated by the numerous articles published by the world’s media. For instance, in the coverage about the opening of the museum to the public on 23 March 2017, the New York Times described the Museum as “the most comprehensive public exhibition in Europe about the greatest cataclysm of the 20th century” (Berendt 2017).

The permanent exhibit of the Museum is displayed on one floor situated underground. A key feature of its design is a central corridor, off which are situated separate rooms showing specific aspects of the war. These include, for example, the birth of totalitarianism, deportations, and resistance. The particular effect of these phenomena on Poland and Polish civilians is always foregrounded. This is partly achieved through the display of objects, including items that once belonged to Polish Jews murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto, such as a child’s toy found in the ruins after the uprising there in 1943. The museum also shows items that were the property of Poles assassinated by the Ukrainian nationalists in that same year (Museum of the Second World War 2017b: pp. 84, 142, 158). In addition, however, the exhibition uses original objects and other visual material to draw links to the suffering of civilians in other contexts, for example, showing a piece of melted porcelain from Hiroshima (Museum of the Second World War 2017b: p. 210). An analysis of the permanent exhibition reveals its multilayered character, based on the history of Poland yet presented against the broader context of Central and Eastern Europe, and complemented by an account of war in other parts of the world.

Connections between the Polish experience and the global aftermath of the war are further emphasized in the original design by the inclusion of a film showing major historical events of the post-war and Cold War periods, including the Nuremberg trials, the Korean War, Stalin’s death, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and ending with images of recent conflict such as the Iraq War and the battle for Aleppo, as well as the recent European refugee crisis from 2015. The overall impression that the video leaves is one of a still-unresolved human tendency to conflict, with a strong emphasis on its humanitarian consequences. As Machcewicz himself explained:

Through this film, we had wanted to show that the war wasn’t a closed chapter, it wasn’t the past. Violence, the suffering of civilians, is still going on around us. The propensity to violence is inside us; it is part of the human condition. It served as a warning and emphasized the universal meaning of the exhibition. (Michalska 2017)

Although not acknowledged by Machcewicz himself, including refugees in this context was arguably provocative in the relation to PiS’s politicization of immigration during the refugee crisis, which had been a significant feature of the election campaign that led to the establishment of the first PiS-only government in 2015 (Krzyżanowski 2018: pp. 76–82), and which had led to Poland’s refusal to participate in the EU’s quota system for the resettlement of refugees since PiS’s victory.
Despite these historical and contemporary references to the global context, it is nevertheless Polish history, along with the particularly tragic experiences of other populations living in Central and Eastern Europe, that constitute the central thread of the whole permanent exhibition. According to Machcewicz, the museum aims to present

the story of the war in which the experience of Poland and our role in Europe is restored to its rightful place. It is very often not well-known and understood in the dominant international narratives about the most tragic conflict in history. In the Museum of the Second World War, we show the brutal character of the German occupation of Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe, incomparable with the events in the West (Machcewicz 2017c: p. 4).

This statement frames the purpose of the museum in terms of transcending an inward-looking national historical outlook in order to present the history of the global conflict, including the tragic experiences of people in other countries, while at the same time restoring the rightful place of Polish experiences in the historical understanding of those outside Poland. In order to achieve this aim, the exhibition necessarily focuses on the suffering of ordinary Poles in the war. For example, the exhibition begins in a reconstruction of a typical Polish street of the interwar period, which occupies the central corridor. In the penultimate section of the corridor, visitors are returned to this same street, which now lies in a state of destruction wrought by the war. Thus, while the exhibition as a whole gives such destruction and its associated civilian suffering a universal character within the context of “the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century” (Machcewicz 2017c: p. 104), it is still first and foremost Polish suffering that is used to exemplify the civilian experience.

While the museum narrates the global conflict as a terrible experience not only for Poland, but for the whole humanity, the exhibit created by Machcewicz also does not shy away from depicting the complicity of some Poles in the violence unleashed by the war: for example, there is material showing the history of the Jedwabne massacre, as well the Polish state’s annexation of Český Těšín from Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement in September 1938 (Acherson 2017: p. 10). The final film, discussed above, also shows the “anti-Zionist” campaign launched by the communist government of Poland in 1968, which led to 13,000 Polish Jews (around half of the remaining population) applying to emigrate to Israel.

This approach is commensurate with Machcewicz’s established public role as a defender of a version of Polish memory that attempts to acknowledge both heroism and less admirable episodes in the nation’s past. In August of 2001, for example, he had been one of the protagonists in a public debate with historian Andrzej Nowak, who had published an essay entitled “Westerplatte or Jedwabne,” in which he portrayed the memory of the valiant defense of the Westerplatte fortress as an alternative to memory of the complicity of some Poles in the Holocaust. In his own essay countering Nowak’s arguments, Machcewicz had insisted that the two sides of Polish history should not be mutually exclusive, arguing for remembrance of “Westerplatte and Jedwabne” (Paczkowski 2016: pp. 294–5).

While the museum’s narrative could be regarded as a reassertion of the suffering of Central and Eastern Europeans, and Poles in particular, in the conflict against the dominance of a western discourse that emphasizes the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust, it is, as US historian Marci Shore argues, nevertheless inherently “cosmopolitan” (Shore 2018), in that it foregrounds the universal aspect of the suffering of victims of the war rather than attributing victimhood and perpetration to specific national groups (Cento Bull and Lauge Hansen 2016: p. 391). Its cultural diplomacy dimension relies largely on its unequivocal framing of Poland as a European nation whose experience was central rather than peripheral to events that are considered central to the post-war European integration project, while at the same time allowing for connections to be made between the Polish experience of the war and the experiences of others.

To achieve this, however, the Museum explicitly seeks to distance itself from the myth of romantic martyrdom that had, until that point, been the dominant framing of Polish museology of the Second World War (Szczepanski 2012: p. 282). From a domestic point of view, Neal Acherson argues (2017), this approach was also designed to foster a greater openness among the Polish public, allowing them to see their nation’s past suffering in relation to, rather than simply in opposition to, the suffering of others. However, the permanent exhibition can also be seen as an attempt to re-frame the Polish story in ways that make it more accessible for international audiences, as for instance the Civic Platform mayor of Gdańsk, Adamowicz (2017), has claimed.

In summary, then, the museum created by Machcewicz and his team seeks to hold a number of priorities in balance. Its focus on Polish suffering clearly speaks to the priorities of a domestic audience, while also expressing the need to make other Europeans more aware of the extent of that suffering. However, this apparently nationalistic element in the presentation of the exhibition is mitigated by an acknowledgement of the parallels between Polish and other experiences, which relativizes traditional notions of a unique Polish martyrdom. This potentially makes the exhibition more accessible for foreign publics, while at the same time encouraging Polish visitors to widen their historical frame of reference when remembering the war.

This vision encountered the firm opposition of conservative and right-wing historians and political circles, who criticized the museum team for not paying enough attention to the tragic experience of Polish nation during the Second World War. In their opinion, Poland should use the museum to promote its own unique history both domestically and internationally, and not dilute that unique historical experience within any universalistic message. In the view of these critics, the museum in Gdańsk should focus its attention on the heroic contribution of Poles to the allied war effort along with their suffering, thereby reflecting a nationalist perception of the past (Semka 2008; cf. Machcewicz and Majewski 2008). Jarosław Kaczyński (who remains the most significant political figure within PiS, despite not holding any ministerial position) was quick to condemn the museum as a capitulation to a western European view of the war, which challenged Poland’s exclusive victim status. He particularly identified this discourse both with Germany and the EU, describing the museum as “a kind of present” from Tusk, who had subsequently become president of the European Council, to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Machcewicz 2012a: p. 47).

In holding Germany to account for challenges to the conservative Polish memory discourse, he was no doubt recalling the controversy in Poland in response to a German debate over the possible creation of a museum commemorating the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia at the end of the Second World War, which had led to considerable diplomatic tension in the early 2000s (Lutomski 2004; Troebst 2012). Such a move was interpreted on the Polish side in terms of Germans making an undue claim on victim status and thereby casting Poles into the perpetrator role. In his criticism of the Museum of the Second World War, Kaczyński therefore reinforced the notion that Germany had an interest in undermining such distinctions. This claim was somewhat paradoxical, given that the original decision to create the Museum of the Second World War had also in part been taken as a means of countering the creation of a German museum commemorating the expulsions of Germans at the end of the conflict (Machcewicz 2017b: pp. 11–16), a point that Machcewicz himself had explicitly stressed in the programmatic article he had published in Gazeta Wyborcza in November 2007, setting out the purpose of the Gdańsk museum (Machcewicz 2007).

On one level, therefore, the clash over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk can be understood in terms of the confrontation between, on the one hand, an aspiration to reveal the war as a disaster for the whole of humankind, with Polish experience being a kind of primus inter pares, and, on the other hand, a desire for a much greater focus on the heroic suffering of the Poles. Such a presentation of history would be in line with that evident in the Warsaw Rising Museum and also in a newly built museum at Markowa commemorating Poles who saved Jews during the German occupation, which has been celebrated by the PiS government (Duval Smith 2016). From this point of view, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk constituted a kind of lens focusing disagreements in the Polish approach to memory. However, on another level, the museum had also become a symbolic battleground on which different political factions sought both to define Poland’s relationship to the European project and to communicate the Polish position to the outside world.

The Museum of the Second World War since 2015

In 2015, less than 2 years before the Museum of the Second World War was due to open, PiS returned to power and sought to bring about a reorientation of Polish foreign policy that was closely linked to its attempts to shape Polish historical memory, not only in terms of its prevailing narrative, but also in terms of the way in which it would be presented to partners from both Western and Central and Eastern Europe as an expression of Poland’s relationship to them. More than under any other Polish government in the post-communist period, the past provided the patterns of political strategy and its long-range objectives and was also used to justify those objectives to others (Chojan 2016: pp. 217–224). Since 2014, the PiS program has contained a specific reference to the mobilization of historical memory as a “defensive tool” (PiS 2014: p. 156) and, once in power, PiS has sought to use historical memory as a reference point for counteracting not only negative images of Poland abroad but also those policies of other states deemed detrimental to Polish interests, thereby underlining the importance of historical memory to Poland’s soft power (Chojan 2016: pp. 207–212).

In line with the new approach, Polish President Andrzej Duda (elected as a candidate of PiS) organized a special conference on 17 November 2015 concerning policy on historical memory. During this meeting, the whole problem was qualified as “fundamental” to Polish interests, and the head of state openly made the case that memory policy should act as a useful means to neutralize the allegedly prejudicial policies of other states. Undersecretary of State at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland Wojciech Kolarski also made the case that “awareness of our history will help us in coping with the problems of the present time and with the challenges that Poland will face in the future” (Kancelaria Prezydenta Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej 2015: pp. 2–8). In one of his interviews, the Polish President has since declared that his country must conduct a “hard, determined historical policy. The policy of truth” (Duda 2017). With this vision in mind, the new PiS government created a new Department of Historical Memory within the Ministry of Culture to coordinate historical memory policy (Duval Smith 2016).

What then were the Polish interests that such an approach to historical memory was supposed to address? In domestic terms, it has been noted that PiS has tended towards the adoption of the position of a “mnemonic warrior” (Bernhard and Kubik 2014: p. 80) in relation to its political rivals, in other words that it has sought to mobilize memory politics as a means to delegitimize other parties. Resistance to a cosmopolitan memory agenda in line with the expectations of western EU partners, which does not resonate with the views of many ordinary Poles and especially not with PiS’s own voters, was doubtless also one means to portray liberal political adversaries as insufficiently protective of the national interest. However, the adoption of a more openly nationalist policy on historical memory can also be seen within the wider context of what Buras (2017) has called PiS’s general policy of “de-Europeanization.” As Buras (2017: p. 2) points out, such de-Europeanization is not synonymous with a wish to leave the EU, from which Poland benefits significantly, but rather represents a desire to press for an actual or symbolic de-integration of Poland within the EU and, ultimately, a new kind of European Union that would be less deeply integrated, along the model of “a community of loosely connected nation states, cooperating mainly in the area of economy and security” (Styczyńska 2017: p. 145). While the PiS’s new policy on historical memory does not directly contribute to that re-shaping of the EU, which has in any case eluded it thus far (Buras 2017: p. 6), it does signal an important de-coupling of Polish memory policy from the European norm, with which it had previously been aligned. At the same time, the stress within the PiS’s historical memory policy on the defense of a unique Polish identity resulting from a particular historical experience also serves as a statement of intent in asserting Polish sovereignty and, indeed, in demanding from others that they respect such sovereignty by acknowledging the validity of Poland’s view of its own history.

It is no coincidence that, prior to PiS’s return to power, theoretical reflection on historical memory as a feature of policy had been given new emphasis in circles of right-wing journalists and intellectuals. In their opinion, a state and its institutions should emphasize the promotion of merits and values based on traditional historical heritage, regarded as the main component of Polish contemporary patriotism. In this view, the state should play an active role, instrumentalizing memory for its own purposes (Cichocki 2005; Gawin and Kowal 2005). This “conservative” model of historical memory policy stands in the opposition to the “liberal” view, which asserts the vision of a neutral state in such matters, which are to be left to professional historians and museum-makers. This second conception had come to prevail as Poland had moved towards EU membership, although it should also be noted that the positions of such memory professionals were broadly compatible with the government’s openness to a Europeanized cosmopolitan memory discourse at the time (Dudek 2011; Wolff-Powęska 2007).

For example, Machcewicz’s stance fits well with the “liberal” model of historical memory policy. According to him, “history should be used in order to insert into the public space the values underpinning social life,” yet the role of the state should be confined to “founding the institutions to deal with history,” instead of “managing the past.” In this view, politicians should not compromise the autonomy of these institutions and misuse history “for current political goals” (Machcewicz 2012b). This conception was apparently accepted by premier Tusk, who gave a free hand to the director of the Museum (Machcewicz 2017b: pp. 17–21). Nevertheless, the design of the permanent exhibition came to symbolize the broader conflict between different perceptions of the past and its use as an instrument by the state, with all the attendant consequences not only for domestic political debate, but also for Poland’s foreign policy, including the state’s projection of Poland’s place in Europe and its relationship with European Union.

In the context of this new conservative approach to memory policy, which sees historical memory as a state-directed cultural resource that can be instrumentalized in the international sphere in pursuit of distinct policy goals, the whole conception of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk with its universalistic message and apparent autonomy is supposed by its opponents to be detrimental to Polish interests. Consequently, the intensity of measures directed against the museum increased after the electoral victories of PiS in 2015, with a right-wing majority in parliament and new leadership in the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. In the last stage of its development before opening, the Museum of the Second World War was put in the awkward situation of having its financial resources systematically cut. Machcewicz was also obliged to face the hostile attitude of members of the Commission of Culture in Polish the Parliament, striving to explain his vision of the permanent exhibition (Machcewicz 2012b: pp. 157–204). Moreover, the right-wing journalist Piotr Semka, one of the most implacable critics of the permanent exhibition in its original form, prepared damning reviews of the Museum for the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage along with historians Jan Żaryń and Piotr Niwiński. They claimed that the exhibition both diluted the scale of Polish suffering and relegated the military struggle of Poles during the war to the background. Furthermore, in the opinion of these critics, the lack of a clear chronological approach failed to sufficiently emphasize Poland’s status as the only belligerent country (apart from Germany) that had experienced the whole of the conflict from 1939 until 1945 (Semka 2016; Machcewicz 2017b: pp. 204–225).

Despite this criticism of the Museum, the government initially faced a legal hurdle to either closing or revising the exhibition due to the institution’s charter, which guaranteed it and its director freedom from state interference. The Minister of Culture, Piotr Glinski, therefore announced on 15 April 2016 that a new Museum of the Westerplatte, commemorating the first battle of the Second World War in which Polish forces had defended fortifications on a peninsula off the Gdańsk coast, would be built and that the Museum of the Second World War would be merged with this as-yet-unbuilt institution. This maneuver allowed the government to successfully argue that the amalgamated institution constituted a new museum, which could be given a new director (Szyndzielorz 2017). The director Machcewicz and the Polish Ombudsman appealed against this decision. As a result, on 16 November 2016, the Provincial Administrative Court suspended the decision on the merger of both museums (Machcewicz 2017a, b, c: p. 239). This decision was confirmed in January 2017 (Dziennik 2017, Machcewicz 2017a, b, c: p. 264).

The actions of the Polish government encountered strong reactions among historians, followed by other groups within Polish society. On 18 April 2016, only 3 days after the announcement of the intention to merge both museums, a first “open letter” from 198 historians was published in the Polish press (Gazeta Wyborcza 2016). Further letters addressed to minister Gliński were issued by other groups or prominent individuals, such as the Council of Combatants and Repressed Persons of the Pomeranian Voivodeship, or the President of World Association of Home Army Soldiers, Leszek Żukowski. Some donors to the museum considered withdrawing their items from the permanent exhibition (Machcewicz 2017a, b, c: pp. 174–180). Of particular significance was a letter defending the museum that was jointly published by US historian Timothy Snyder and Polish historian Andrzej Nowak (Nowak and Synder 2016), despite the latter being more usually associated with conservative perspectives on Polish history. This development arguably indicated that even some conservative intellectuals were uncomfortable with the damage being done to Poland’s reputation.

Nevertheless, this vocal reaction and the legal obstacles did not cause the Polish authorities to change their policy towards Museum of the Second World War. Although on 23 March 2017, the Museum was officially opened to the public, 2 weeks later, on the 5 April, the Supreme Administrative Court repealed the previous decision of the Provincial Administrative Court suspending the merger of both museums. This decision resulted in the immediate dismissal of Machcewicz (Machcewicz 2017a, b, c: pp. 269–275). To begin with, the new director appointed by the Ministry of Culture, Karol Nawrocki, did not make major changes to the permanent exhibition (Acherson 2017), and the Minister of Culture was also circumspect about the nature of the modifications that might be envisaged (Iwaniuk 2016). Nevertheless, the final film discussed above was removed (Shore 2018) and it was reported that it would be replaced by an animated film depicting the post-war history of Poland (Acherson 2017).

Nawrocki has stated that he wants to correct the exhibition’s alleged lack of clarity about “what we Poles want to tell the world about our war experience” (Rebala and Miller Llana 2017), which seems to stress the importance attached to the Museum in cultural diplomacy terms. His plan to make additional modifications to the permanent exhibition have led, however, to further protests among members of the international historical community, including the signing of a second open letter by more than 500 Polish and foreign scholars (Wilgocki 2017). The changes that Nawrocki and his team have undertaken so far clearly stress the aim of presenting a greater focus on Polish heroism in the museum, particularly in terms of emphasizing the role that Poles played in resisting both the occupation and its genocidal policies towards Jews. Poles who suffered in the concentration camp system because of their resistance are also particularly prominent in these revisions.

For example, sections of the exhibition have been re-designed to give greater prominence to figures such as Irena Sendler and Władysław Bartoszewski, who were both members of the Polish Underground active in saving Jews from the German occupation. As of Easter 2018, several new components have been introduced into the exhibition: a mural showing Polish parachutists from the Polish Army in exile (“cichociemni”) who were dropped over Polish territory during the war; and a vitrine about Antoni Kasztelan, the chief of counterintelligence of coastal defense in 1939. New multimedia stations have also been added, focusing on resistance figures such as Witold Pilecki, who was the first person to supply the western Allies with comprehensive intelligence on the Auschwitz extermination camp; Maksymilian Kolbe, a Franciscan monk who sacrificed his own life for that of another prisoner in Auschwitz; and the Ulm family, who were executed by the Germans for helping Jews. Another Polish figure incorporated in the revised exhibition is the Catholic priest and patron of the Polish scouts, Stefan W. Frelichowski, who was imprisoned in Stutthof and Dachau (Fieger and Gałązka 2018). Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether this intention to foreground Polish heroism, particularly in relation to the Holocaust and the concentration camp system, will have the desired impact on foreign partners and publics, given that the museum remains overshadowed by the controversies surrounding the new director’s appointment and the government’s attacks on the original exhibition.

Conclusion: Historical Memory as (Failing) Cultural Diplomacy

At the beginning of this article, we asked why it was that states were now also turning to the darker aspects of their pasts in order to mobilize historical memory in the context of cultural diplomacy. In the case of Poland, PiS politicians have sought to mobilize historical memory as a means to adjust European partners’ perceptions of the country’s historical role and, as a consequence, of the role it may legitimately seek in the present and future. It seems clear that the PiS government in Poland has set great store in the potential of historical memory to serve as a soft power resource in this way, believing that it can begin to re-shape not only its own domestic public’s perception of the country’s relationship to Europe and the integration process, but also its EU’s partners’ perceptions of Poland’s place within European history and, consequently, of its proper place in Europe’s future. PiS’s use of historical memory in the context of cultural diplomacy has been determined, we have argued, by its overall stance on “de-Europeanization.” Nevertheless, it also seems clear that PiS has so far failed to shape foreign perceptions of the Polish nation and its history in its preferred direction. Instead, Poland under PiS has attracted negative international media coverage for its approach to historical memory.

As has been noted of the practice of public diplomacy more widely, of which cultural diplomacy is one aspect, the classical model of one-way-messaging has increasingly fallen out of favor on account of its tendency to resemble crude propaganda in the eyes of foreign publics (Melissen 2005: pp. 3–27). Successful cultural diplomacy is now often conceived as a process of creating spaces of dialogue and positive interaction, rather than of the one-sided imposition of particular views on others via cultural means (Jora 2013). A model of cultural diplomacy that mobilizes historical memory primarily from the point of view of correcting the supposedly inappropriate views of history held by others, particularly when that correction is explicitly informed by a nationalistic perspective, is likely to be met with resistance from those others (Just 2016: p. 85). Furthermore, there is a growing expectation among foreign publics that cultural diplomacy offers will be delivered “at arm’s length” by semi-autonomous institutions and not be overtly instrumentalized in the service of the sending state’s agenda (Gienow-Hecht and Donfried 2010). Any cultural diplomacy strategy that appears to be too top-down and even seems to stifle pluralism in its own domestic context will have negative consequences that far outweigh the potential benefit of the ostensible message of the cultural diplomacy effort itself; and may indeed get in the way of that message being delivered in the first place.

With its current approach to the mobilization of historical memory in the service of soft power, Poland’s PiS government falls into a number of these traps. First by attempting to sideline the Museum of the Second World to the extent that its continued existence was in question, and then by imposing new leadership on the institution, the Polish government has risked appearing illiberal to the outside world. For example, the controversy surrounding the Museum, including the aforementioned letter signed by a group of 500 Polish and foreign academics criticizing the takeover of the Museum by the government’s preferred director, has been cited in the international press as a symptom of a more general turn towards nationalism and authoritarianism in Poland (e.g., Szyndzielorz 2017; Shore 2018; Charter 2017; Le Monde 2018). The current Polish government is attempting to challenge others’ perceptions of history and of Poland’s place in that history that are intimately bound up with the cosmopolitan memory narrative, that is to say with the culture of “Holocaust recognition” (Judt 2010: p. 803) that is considered essential to a democratic attitude by many of its partners. In this context, it is hardly surprising that this policy is increasingly perceived as failing to meet the standards expected of a liberal democracy. Moreover, as one commentator has put it, in attempting to impose a view of history on others that challenges the cosmopolitan narrative, the current Polish government is its own “worst enemy”; not least because attempting to propagate their preferred version of the Polish past only draws attention to those aspects of history that PiS does not want to dwell on (Haski 2018).

The most recent manifestation of this mismatch between PiS’s strategy and international expectations can be seen in Poland’s amendments to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance, adopted by the Polish parliament on 26 January 2018, prohibiting public claims that the Polish state or the Polish nation as a whole bore any responsibility for carrying out the Holocaust (Ustawa, 28 January 2018a). Even though the concentration and extermination camps on Polish soil were indeed established by a foreign occupying power and not by the Polish state, this awkward attempt to “correct” the negative perception of the stance of some Poles during the war has led to widespread international condemnation, not least from Israel (Barber 2018). Poland has been roundly condemned for appearing to close down by proxy any further discussion of the involvement of individual Poles in the genocide. More recently, and most embarrassingly, a Polish right-wing fringe group has sought to test the legislation by making a complaint against the president of Israel who, in a recent visit to the Poland, used a speech at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum to draw attention to the complicity of some Poles in National Socialism’s crimes against the Jews (Hacohen 2018). The response of some within PiS to external criticism has apparently been to double-down on their mission to “educate” foreigners on Polish history: writing in a recent article, Jarosław Kaczyński’s PR advisor Marek Kochan has gone as far to suggest that the solution to the current debate is to build a Polish equivalent of Yad Vashem, showing the extent of Polish suffering in order to counter an alleged “deficit of knowledge” about World War Two in Israel in particular (Gebert 2018: p. 35). Finally, Polish authorities had to yield under international pressure and amend the controversial law on 27 June 2018 by removing the most controversial parts concerning the question of criminal responsibility (Ustawa, 27 June 2018b). Nevertheless, the losses for Polish image and credibility, being after all the most important part of every soft power policy, have been significant.

The Polish case also demonstrates how the instrumentalization of historical memory in the service of soft power can suffer from a legitimacy deficit in the eyes of others if the memory in question is too obviously the subject of strong domestic contestation. In the case of Slovenia as analyzed by Clarke et al. (2017), the difficult topic of the Second World War, which remains divisive on the domestic political level, is avoided in the government’s cultural diplomacy effort in favor of the much less contentious heritage of the First World War. Germany, by way of contrast, is relatively successful at presenting its own commitment to memory of National Socialism as both a sign of its democratic credentials and as a justification for the self-confident assertion of its own interests (Welch and Wittlinger 2011: p. 47), but is arguably only able to do so because memory of National Socialism has become “the taken-for-granted background consensus permeating contemporary thought, values, and decision processes.” (Langenbacher 2014: p. 70). In the Polish case, however, foreign observers note that one political faction within the country is pushing through a memory agenda domestically and internationally, sometimes by seemingly authoritarian means, which makes the Polish mobilization of historical memory within its cultural diplomacy strategy seems tendentious and undemocratic. More specifically, PiS are not likely to persuade foreign publics or partner states of their interpretation of the past if they are seen to be threatening the independence of a museum that does not meet their own party-political expectations. As Nye notes, “[s]oft power depends upon credibility, and when governments are perceived as manipulative and information is seen as propaganda, credibility is destroyed.” (Nye 2011: p. 83).

It is nevertheless worth noting that, in the case of the Museum of the Second World War, politicians and commentators on both sides of debate took little account of the experiences of actual visitors to the museum, whether domestic or international. Adopting the widespread assumption that historical museums represent “key media of memory” (Makhotina and Schulze Wessel 2017: p. 2) with the power to influence public perceptions of the past, participants in the debate tended to assume that the curatorial narrative expressed in the museum, whether in its original or modified form, would lead to shifts in perception about Poland’s role in the Second World War among the museum’s users. Research into museum visiting, particularly in the context of historical learning, should lead us to be skeptical of such assumptions (Kirschberg 2010). A next step towards fully understanding the soft power potential of the Museum of the Second World War as an instrument of cultural diplomacy would require further qualitative work on visitors’ responses.

Nevertheless, at least in terms of the international media reception of the controversy surrounding the museum, it seems unlikely that Poland’s recent attempts to mobilize historical memory in the context of its new cultural diplomacy strategy under PiS will meet with success. This case is a reminder that contemporary cultural diplomacy relies for its legitimacy on an appearance of openness to dialogue, an avoidance of nationalist sentiment, and a sense of distance from the immediate political priorities of the incumbent administration in the sending country. In this respect, mobilizing historical memory as a resource for cultural diplomacy does not appear to differ greatly from the mobilization of other cultural resources. However, given that historical memory on the domestic level is so bound up with struggles over the definition of national identity, and given the “semi-sacred aura” that has been attributed to war museums “as repositories of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we have come to be who and where we are” (Winter 2013: p. 24), it is perhaps unsurprising that the differing function of these museums in the domestic and international context can be difficult to calibrate. Where policymakers are insensitive to this difficulty, however, the outcomes can be even worse in soft power terms.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics, Languages and International StudiesUniversity of BathBathUK
  2. 2.BristolUK

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