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A Museum Becomes a Battlefield Over History

Conceived nearly a decade ago in a moment of pan-European optimism, the Museum of the Second World War here seeks to tell a story of devastation that transcended national boundaries. Its collection includes Soviet and American tanks; keys to the homes of Jews murdered by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne; flags from the Polish Home Army, which fought the Nazis; and an Enigma encoding machine.

But today, this state-financed museum’s fate is uncertain, caught up in the country’s cultural and political battles. After five years of construction, at a cost of 449 million zlotys (about $114 million), the museum may not open in January, as scheduled. Even if it does, the government may starve it of funding, The New York Times reported.

Piotr Glinski, the culture minister of Poland’s conservative government, has criticized the museum’s expansive approach and says it should focus more on the Polish experience. In a move that would oust the museum’s director, the minister has called for the museum to merge with another museum, which exists only in name. That institution is dedicated to the Battle of Westerplatte, the first battle of the war in September 1939, when Polish forces fended off the Nazis before surrendering — an event he regards as more symbolic of heroic Polish self-defense.

That merger, though harshly criticized by historians and unpopular with the public, is indicative of deeper currents coursing through Poland. Since coming to power last year, the right-wing Law and Justice Party has tapped into populist discontent by depicting the country as a noble victim, besieged by enemies both past and present — once the Soviets and the Nazis; today, the European Union, German liberalism, Russian might and immigrants.
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“It’s a potentially catastrophic event, with much wider significance than Gdansk or one museum,” Norman Davies, a pre-eminent British historian of Poland and chairman of one of the Museum of the Second World War’s advisory boards, said of the proposed merger.

“It’s a part of the present government’s attempt to rewrite history,” he added. “It’s one of the pillars of every authoritarian or totalitarian regime, that they want to reorder the past to their own fantasies.”

The Museum of the Second World War was created in 2008 by the government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now president of the European Council. An ambitious building designed by the Polish firm Kwadrat, it has 5,000 square meters of exhibition space and a staff of 60. The original budget swelled by more than 100 million zlotys (about $26 million) after the building, on the Vistula River delta, suffered water leakage.

With an emphasis on civilians, the museum has sections dedicated to the Holocaust and to the Battle of Westerplatte. Among its 41,000 objects, of which 2,000 will go in the permanent exhibition, there are coat buttons from Poles executed by Soviet NKVD agents in the infamous Katyn massacre of 1940, when the Soviets killed thousands of Poland’s military elite. The museum also has sections devoted to World War II’s Pacific theater and the French and Danish Resistance, and an area for children that depicts a middle-class Warsaw apartment before and during the war.

“The museum is the only attempt in Europe or really in the world to actually present the war as international history,” said Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University who serves on the museum’s advisory board.

“Poland is overrepresented in this international museum, which is not surprising, given that the museum is in Poland,” he added.

Mr. Glinski, the culture minister and deputy prime minister, does not agree. In an interview in Warsaw, he said he believed that the Museum of the Second World War did not put “enough stress on the Polish point of view” and did not adequately focus on the Battle of Westerplatte, “a symbolic place for Poles.”

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