Excursion
The Museum of
the Second World War
We talk about memory wars, we talk about narratives, we talk about victimhood, we talk about political appropriation of the past – all of it went into the talk we had the other day about Gdansk's Museum of the Second World War. Today we get to see it for ourselves.

It became something of an unlikely celebrity-museum after it sparked some major controversy in the country – it decided to include the stories of folks on all sides of the war (so we were told). This was not acceptable to some, particularly as they felt like it promoted a pan-European agenda rather than one that focused on the particular story of the Polish people during the war. What was originally just a museum became a fault-line in the battle over what identity itself means in the continent at large.

Thus this demands our utmost attention. We really should have made time for breakfast this morning.
We divide up into three different groups and our opinions on the separate guides differ. Some wonder if they are really qualified to lead complex tours like this at all. Others wonder if we expect too much of them if we think they have to have backgrounds in critical theory. Still others ask why the fuck they're spending so much time glorifying the weapons. This is a museum of suffering after all.
Some propaganda posters circa the USSR. One of our members asks the guide why he implies the Soviet Union was totalitarian from the start – she points out the revolution, originally, was supposed to be about equality. Our guide focuses, understandably, on the effect it had later on. She, just as understandably, wonders why the USSR isn't presented in its fullness instead of being squeezed through a particular narrative.
Propaganda aimed towards indigenous people in Siberia. The enemies are painted not only as being local landowners ('kulaks'), but also shamen.
"Happy are those born under the Soviet star!"

The production of babies would come to be a critical interest as the Soviet Union would lose over twenty million people to the war.
A buried statue of Hitler's head discovered a few years ago not far from here. If you want to talk on-the-nose metaphors of this whole summer school, well.
Germany under the old pre-WWII borders. The gap between most of it and that little enclave to the right: Gdansk. Known in German as Danzig, it used to be part of Prussia and restoring the city to Germany was one of the first demands of the Third Reich on Poland.
A reconstructed pre-war Polish street. The whole complex is underground and allows for large installations like this.
The other side of the Polish street. All artifacts displayed are copies – the originals are in various warehouses owned by the museum.
An American documentary (nominated for the Oscar) called "Siege." It's subject being the eponymous siege of Warsaw by the Nazi forces in 1939. It's quite disturbing, not the least for the detached soundreel that was (to be fair) typical of the time.
The central hallway connecting the various exhibits. It's dedicated to civilian life during the war, and you can see black market oddities, love notes, moonshine distillers and other marks of people just wanting to survive occupation and destruction.
Air raid manuals in English, French and German. The fact that the German is included is a major triumph, in my opinion, of this museum. The people bombing them were our good guys, but we still find room to talk about the horror faced by people who happened to be in the way of our blitzkrieg justice.
One artifact from the central hallway: a wedding dress made of Japanese parachutes. An artifact, our guide says, of both love and war. "You are young," he says, "you are thinking of getting married soon, yes? Perhaps here you can take some ideas. Yes?"
A marker describing the destruction of Polishness over the course of the war. There are various points in the museum where content was changed at the directive of the present government. Their agenda is to promote a victimhood narrative in which the Poles were the heroic people caught between hammer and anvil, and to promote this victimhood is as important as describing the Holocaust. Some people are afraid that this plays into worryingly nationalistic tendencies. Others believe this is a rightful acknowledgement of the suffering underwent by an entire nation.
"It is complicated," our guide tells us as we stare at this quote from a man who a) tried to blow up Hitler for good (and died doing so) and b) still looked down on Poles in a ridiculously racial way. Things existed on both sides.

Though a few would complain about our guide's shortcomings (his inability/unwillingness to engage with the complicated history of the USSR, his slightly-patriarchal comments at the wedding dress), at the same time here's a person, right in front of us, trying to grapple with all the mercurial nuances of the worst war we've seen in history. And he doesn't have a history degree, or a history of critical theory to draw on. He's just a dude and we laugh at him, sometimes. But he's right: it's all complicated.
Suitcases of Jews brought to the camps. There are too many.
Faces of Jews brought to the camps. There are too many.
A copy of the Enigma machine faced with propaganda posters warning against letting information slip. LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS and all that. The guide mentions the Polish cryptographers who helped solve it. Someone mentions Alan Turing, the man who did most of the work and later castrated for being queer."Yes, chemically," he says. "It's complicated."
A copy of little boy, the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The room enclosing it is pure white. Japanese people have brought the melted remains of ceramic bowls to Auschwitz, but they were brought here as they better fit this exhibition.
The final exhibition, a short video, was originally installed in order to show the effects of the second world war on the entire continent, spanning the Cold War until the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was changed by the new government when they took control of the museum, in favour of a version considered more patriotic or nationalist, depending on your point of view.

Here is a shaky video of the original:
The new version: