The Warsaw Rising Museum: Polish Identity and Memory of World War II
Marta Kurkowska-Budzan

Collective memory is a vision of the past which molds social identity. It is constantly in flux-formed not only by historical, but also current events and interests. Monuments and museums, as well as social rituals and practice (ceremonies or commemorated anniversaries) comprise the material structure whose analysis provides an opportunity to explore and examine collective memory and to reconstruct the changes which have taken place therein (Halbwachs,1992).

During communist regime as well as nowadays, the memory of World War II has been fundamental to Polish identity. The totalitarian regime had thoroughly planned and realized the material and physical landscape of collective memory on a grand scale; the image of the past which it wanted to make available in the social imagination was simple and very clearly defined.  In the era of Władysław Gomułka[1]? due to his home as well as foreign policies ? the national element was strongly accented. In World War II, the valiant military struggle against the Third Reich, Polish soldiers fighting alongside the Red Army, and the ideological persecution and discrimination of the Polish nation by the Nazis gave an underlying theme to the memorials and museums erected across the country. ?The political-emotional system took advantage of the mobilizing function of language, implanting word and iconic signs in minds around which ideological constellations were built.?[2] The memorials of World War II legitimized the communist regime, building subsequent constellations: they told passersby about the bravery of the fallen militia, peasant sons of this land, waging war against representatives of the repressive bourgeois establishment, which now stood guard, preventing a recurrence of the genocide of the Second World War of which German revisionists and imperialists were capable.

The communist regime in Poland partially succeed in producing a peculiar and very selective orientation to the history of World War II, both at the level of official communist historiography and in popular memory maintained and debated in Polish family circles. It resulted in belittling or deleting many issues that would not reappear significantly in public discourse until the late 1980s:

1. Poles concentrated on their own fate and tended and still tend to disregard or belittle pains, tragedies and losses of other ethnic groups - Jews, Germans or Ukrainians. There are sometimes fundamentally conflicting memories of Poles and Jews and of Poles and Germans respectively. Poles would underline the fact that six million Polish citizens (half of whom were ethnic Jews) were killed during the war. However, for a lot of contemporary Poles only the memory of ethnic Polish losses is one of close experience. Some of them would even maintain that the international community has failed to recognize the depth and extensiveness of Polish suffering.

2. Polish national memory tended to disregard the fact that although Poles were mainly victims they sometimes also victimized others, oppressing - in a milder or stronger form - minority groups who lived amongst them, and especially Jews. The question of Polish-Jewish relations during and after the Holocaust was evacuated as a non-issue. Poles did not want to be reminded, let alone apologize for behavior of some Poles during the war, who stood by with approval or mute acceptance as the Holocaust was perpetrated in their cities and villages. They preferred to remember those courageous Poles who, despite dangers, tried to help Jews in various ways. Poles were and still are especially sensitive to any attempts to equate German responsibility for the Holocaust to the Polish silence or complicity.

3.  Poles tended to forget or minimize the fact that they on many occasions also unjustly benefited from all those historical processes, that they were beneficiaries of some acts of injustice. The Second World War and imposition of communism led to many injustices. The specificity of the Polish situation is that two types of injustices happened simultaneously. The change of private property by land reform and nationalization of industry (that is, effects of introducing a specific social and economic system) was accompanied by a drastic change of political borders and of the ethnic composition of the population. Many people, while unjustly losing something, also unjustly gained something else, with the second injustice hidden under the notions of recompense or "historical justice". A considerable majority of today's citizens of the Polish state are victims of unjust changes carried out at their own cost or that of their ancestors. Yet, many Polish citizens also became - mostly unwillingly - beneficiaries of other unjust changes done to other people with an obvious, even if usually justified, wrong presented as "deserved": Germans, Jews, Polish factory owners and estate holders (Ziółkowski, 1999).

[1]First Secretary of the Polish United Workers Party and Premier of the Polish People?s Republic from 1956-1970.

[2]M. Mońko, Semiotyka umysłu zniewolonego, ?Odra? online, http:\\

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