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Nationalist Governments Are Trying To Rewrite Holocaust History — By Targeting Museums

The acclaimed director of a Jewish museum criticized Poland's nationalist government. Now he’s out of a job.

Dariusz Stola was, until recently, the acclaimed director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. A prominent historian who had run the museum since 2014, Stola used to give lectures telling politicians to pay attention to history — but he didn’t mean like this. 

Stola was forced to step aside last month after a standoff with Poland’s right-wing nationalist government after the museum highlighted anti-Semitism in Poland’s history — a complex issue that the government is intent on simplifying. The ruling Law and Justice party is especially sensitive to history involving World War II and the Holocaust, maintaining that Poland receives unfair blame for Nazi atrocities.

Stola spent nearly a year in limbo while the Law and Justice party blocked his reappointment as director. The original issue at hand was an exhibit about a wave of Polish anti-Semitism in 1968, and Stola’s criticism of a law that criminalized discussing the country’s role in the Holocaust. Stola’s dissent made him the focus of right-wing media attacks, legal action and an ultimately successful government campaign to oust him from his position as the head of an internationally renowned Jewish museum.  

In Poland and other countries ruled by nationalist governments, far-right political parties are increasingly attempting to twist history to fit into their own narratives. And they’re going after cultural and educational institutions to do it. When the past doesn’t fit these governments’ political purposes, it has no place being remembered. 

Since it came to power after Poland’s 2015 election, Law and Justice has hollowed out media independence and thrown the rule of law into crisis by attempting to control the country’s judiciary. But it has also begun a pernicious campaign to alter historical memory, including targeting museums that challenge its nationalist narrative. The party is especially sensitive to issues involving World War II and the Holocaust, arguing that Poland receives unfair blame for Nazi atrocities. 

“We have a government which has an obsession with history,” Stola told HuffPost. “They invest a lot in rewriting history, in inventing new heroes or destroying old heroes.” 

The former Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Dariusz Stola in the March 1968 exhibit room of the mu
The former Director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Dariusz Stola in the March 1968 exhibit room of the museum. 

Stola had worried that one day the government might come for POLIN. He watched in 2017 as Poland’s newly opened Museum of the Second World War was taken over, and its founder Pawel Machcewicz harassed and ousted from his role as director. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczysnki had accused the museum of trying to “disintegrate the Polish nation” and government-aligned media groundlessly attacked Machcewicz as being anti-Polish. Plainclothes officers showed up at his home one night, saying he was under investigation for corruption. 

The government subsumed the WWII museum’s organizational structure into a separate and as-yet-unbuilt cultural project, allowing it to seize control and push out its staff. Several parts of the museum were quickly changed to emphasize the nationalist party’s ideals of Polish sacrifice and heroism, while downplaying its initial focus on broader history and genocide.

“They added some new elements about Poles saving Jews, with obvious distortions of history,” Machcewicz said. The museum’s final gallery, an exhibit connecting the past to the present with scenes from the Syrian war and other conflicts, was eliminated altogether and replaced with an animated movie about Poland.

“History is used as a weapon to mobilize the supporters of Law and Justice, and to ostracize people who aren’t with the ruling party,” said Machcewicz, who is now a professor at Yale University and the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Despite what happened to the WWII museum, at the time Stola had faith that POLIN’s private-public ownership structure and international acclaim ― it had recently won European Museum Of The Year ― would shield it from interference. It seemed unlikely that the government would attack an award-winning Holocaust museum.

But the museum’s relationship with the government began to rapidly sour in 2018, as Stola came under pressure from Law and Justice’s Minister of Culture. Stola says he drew some ire for refusing to transfer foreign donor funding to the culture ministry for a different museum, but the conflict escalated when he spoke out against the law that made accusing Poland of complicity in the Holocaust illegal and punishable by jail time. Stola and Piotr Wiślicki, a leader at Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute, joined in an international outcry that criticized the law as censorship of history.

“We are not responsible for a past on which we had no influence. However, we are responsible for what we do about that past today. Above all, we owe the truth to the victims of past crimes, and the truth is fueled by an open and factual discussion,” Stola and Wiślicki wrote in a statement. (The law was later softened after public backlash and criticism from Israel.)

Visitors observe a preserved synagogue inside an exhibit room at Poland's POLIN Museum on Feb. 19 in Warsaw.
Visitors observe a preserved synagogue inside an exhibit room at Poland's POLIN Museum on Feb. 19 in Warsaw.

The final straw for Law and Justice came when POLIN held an exhibition in March 2018 called “Estranged,” about a government campaign of anti-Semitism in 1968 that forced half of Poland’s surviving Jews to flee the country. Part of the exhibit included current day quotes taken from social media to show that the rhetoric of anti-Semitism remains active today. They were presented anonymously, but some of the quotes were from pro-government media figures who responded with a vicious campaign against the museum and Stola. One pundit sued him for defamation, unsuccessfully.

When Stola’s term as director was up in February 2019 and he was set for reappointment, the government demanded an open competition to see if anyone else could do the job. Stola applied and an independent panel selected him, but Poland’s Culture Minister Piotr Glinski refused to recognize the decision, which created a tense impasse that lasted until last month. Faced with the reality that Glinski would never appoint him and that the acting director’s term was about to end, Stola said he relented so that the museum could have a chance at continuing and his deputy could take over. 

“The museum is more important than me, it’s much more important,” Stola said. “The decision wasn’t difficult.”

Poland’s attack on Stola is part of a wider trend of far-right and nationalist governments waging a culture war against academic and historical institutions around the world. Governments have presented these policies as a way to take back control from so-called liberal elites or putting a stop to inaccurate information, but in practice they consolidate historical memory in the hands of the ruling party.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán praised the country’s anti-Semitic WWII-era leader and chased out a well-regarded liberal university. The government has passed laws to tighten control over theaters and cultural institutions, rewritten textbooks and banned gender studies. It also tried to put a pro-government historian in charge of a controversial Holocaust museum, resulting in widespread concern that the institution would whitewash the country’s role in the genocide. Meanwhile, Italy’s powerful far-right Lega Party proposed building a new museum in a former headquarters of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party. 

Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro dismantled the Ministry of Culture, ordered the commemoration of the country’s 1964 military coup and defunded arts programs. Brazil’s Culture Secretary Roberto Alvim vowed earlier this year to launch an initiative to fund nationalist and religious art, although Alvim ended up losing his job after reporters found his remarks closely copied a 1933 speech from Nazi propagandist Joeseph Goebbels.

While Stola waited for his reappointment in Poland, Law and Justice created an uproar last November by choosing a pro-government conservative who critics accused of homophobia as director of a top Warsaw art museum. And just days before Stola withdrew, local authorities in Poland removed another museum director in the city of Katowice. Alicja Knast, who had run the Silesian Museum since 2014, was fired for alleged irregularities with the museum’s finances. But Knast had another explanation: She had refused to allow Law and Justice to hold a political convention at the museum. 

Although Stola has given up his position as director, he says he is still contemplating taking legal action ― at least while the courts are still independent. He has returned to research, lecturing and academia. He’s sure he will be fine, but he worries about POLIN.

“I’m afraid that even if they accept the museum today, in a year or six months from now a more radical faction of the ruling party may have a different idea,” Stola said. “We must be prepared.”