“The future is certain; it is only the past that is unpredictable”. This old Soviet joke points out to the authoritarian regime’s habit of editing and airbrushing history books and controlling the narration over history as the key to political legitimacy. Therefore, the unpredictability of the past is no laughing matter, neither to historians nor the general public. History is a fluid creature and can easily be contaminated. The temptation to use it for particular ambitions is not exclusive to non-democratic systems. The battle over the narrative is as important and real as the political arguments and armed conflicts. Nowadays with widely available technology and means of communication, history revels even more dangerous potentialities. It’s increasingly often used to polarize society, to end the dialog and exclude those who present different points of view.
The Shared History project lasted two years. I participated in a few of its events taking various roles. During this period, I also visited many places on migration trails - Greece, Balkan, Belarus – working as a journalist and filmmaker.
This was a very significant time. Since the project was initiated in 2016, Europe is no longer the same Europe. We have moved to a different reality. The changes that have happened throughout the duration of the project have reshaped the social and civic landscapes and have shifted the political balance within Europe. By the end of 2018, questions that had been identified as important at the beginning of the project are becoming burning.
Although the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe has dropped in the meantime, the common attitude towards them has become more hostile. Immigration raises cultural and security concerns and some politicians intentionally stir up anti-migrant sentiments. In the polarized debate, migrants are dehumanized, deprived of their rights, and reduced to political squabbles. A deliberately fueled sense of insecurity is used as catalyst for retreat from the humanitarian values that laid the foundations of the European Union. In 2016 many governments took a hardstand and slammed their doors in front of people coming to Europe in search of safety and a dignified life.
When parties proclaiming the idea of defending Europe, they exploit emotional nostalgia. Policies once considered extreme are now mainstream, with populist and nationalist slogans increasingly gaining support. Electoral credibility at the European and global level is taking an openly antidemocratic course in some countries.
Nationalism is presented as an idea of defense against a more or less imaginary threat, but it has a very dangerous hidden agenda. It may start as an innocent patriotic pride, but it will hardly stop there. It will be accompanied by the temptation to dehumanize, reject, and finally eliminate those who are defined as "others".
I do carry the warning inside of me. Some of my family members were either killed by Nazis (my grandmother’s first husband was killed in the Stuthof concentration camp), while others were deported to Siberia. But I’m not an exception. Almost every Polish family has such a painful memory and thus, it’s hard to believe that cautionary stories from a very personal past are so easily forgotten, ignored or, in more radical cases, reversed in Polish social and political debate.
Looking at the present tensions and polarized narration, it seems that we are at war over the practices of democratic societies. People feel disconnected from their political representatives and tired of a political system that is deaf to their needs and interests.
Disappointment with mainstream parties and institutions, which are viewed as ineffective and failed, undermines democratic principles. Thus, many seek to follow strong leaders and ideologies offering simplified, black and white stories. The ideas of equality and the possibility of a multiethnic society are being severely questioned. New methods of communication and spreading information create confusion and deepen bitter divisions and anxiety. With all the shock of this multiplicity of voices it’s even harder to find a shared ground that could include various stories and different perspectives.
Gdańsk, my hometown and home to one of the partners of Shared History, is currently a ground for the fight over the past. The dispute concerns the way history is told in Gdańsk at the new Museum of the Second World War. The exhibition was designed with a great solicitude for almost a decade. Its content is a result of a dialogue between historians, researchers and curators from all over the world involving a major input from the public, who answered a national call and donated historical artifacts as well as shared their own stories about those unimaginable times.
The museum offers a multi-layered narration of the war where military strategists’ plans and display of weapons are framed as a background, while the fates of individual people – civilians and soldiers - come to the fore. It is a place for many voices and different perspective, in terms of politics and ideology. The exhibition is focused on the impact that the war had on civilians, but not just in Poland, in other European countries as well. The goal was to present cruel realities and individual responses to them, including instances where Poles were the wrongdoers.
This, however, is unacceptable for the nationalistic Law and Justice government, who claims that our nation can only be portrayed as victims and accuses the museum of anti Polish narration. Last year, the Polish Minister of Culture decided to merge the Museum of the Second World War with the recently created Museum of Westerplatte. Despite keeping the old name of the museum, it establishes a new institutional body under changed management; a maneuver imposing a vision that focuses on Polish suffering and unambiguously presents the participation of Poles in the war.
Since coming to power in Poland in 2015 the Law and Justice party has significantly influenced cultural policy in order to promote a patriotic and nationalistic content. This case is an example of a broader struggle or a new culture war between those who see society as a monolith with an undisputed vision of history to be steered from above, and those who want to include a multiplicity of voices.
At the end of the Shared History project it expanded its operation area to include the Balkans. It was an interesting turn for me. I had visited this region a few times previously in 2018 while working on different projects, and those experiences led me to some thought-provoking observations.
In the summer of 2018, I was traveling from Zagreb to Velika Kladusa working on a documentary project on migration. In the preceding months Bosnia-Herzegovina had become a new busy route for people seeking asylum and a new emergency spot on the humanitarian failure’s map of Europe. After tightening controls at the neighboring Serbian-Croatian border, it seemed to be the last hope to enter the European Union for a few thousand people who were stuck in a country that struggle with its own problems. A great majority of them were living in dire conditions with no support from big humanitarian organizations or the European Union. They regularly experienced asylum’s seekers rights violations and brutal attacks from Croatian and increasingly Slovenian border guards. Unfortunately, at the moment, half a year later the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina hasn’t changed, besides tents being covered with snow.
Velika Kladusa is a Bosnian border town, located in a mountainous area extending farthest northwest in the territory of Croatia. The distance from Zagreb is just 3 hours by car but with bus, because of the border, it takes a much longer detour. Desperate to save time I planned to skip an extended journey and to hitchhike in the border area instead. When I told my contact in Velika Kladusa about it, he advised me strongly against it. Finally I fallowed his warnings and it took me two days to reach the destination.
I talked about my dismissed hitchhike concept with local people and in response most of them echoed reservations expressed by the Bosnian activist. Recurring motives were a lack of trust and limited faith in belonging to a shared community. On the contrary, some of them recalled the period before the war. And it was not only nostalgia that romanticizes the past; I heard personal stories that drew different pictures of reality. In their memories, although former Yugoslavia was a political concept with many problems and people were united under a top-down imposed official idea, on the level of social relationships whey could peacefully live together despite the differences.
Inciting nationalist sentiments after the disintegration of Yugoslavia had led not only to terrible civil war in the region, but also left its citizens divided and anxious. This is fruitful soil for inciting hatred and further separation. On the other hand, lesson learned from the recent tragic history make people in the Balkans more sensitive to symptoms, which can go unnoticed or ignored in countries lethargically convinced of a stable order.
The “mapping conversation” that took place in Belgrade in November as the final event of the Shared History project explored some common and differential grounds and methods in the approach to history and heritage – areas especially challenging in the multicultural societies that are connected to migration issues. The meeting was attended by specialists in the fields of education, research, and curatorial and artistic practice from the Balkans. The invited experts all endeavored to develop very inspiring and useful practices towards more inclusive historical consciousness that aim to prevent dangerous history repeating. During the limited time for the meeting, the discussion was focused on Balkan ethnic tensions and how to approach history in this particular context, but not as much on the current situation of people who recently arrived in Europe in search of asylum. Developing and implementing this specialized knowledge towards current migration issues would benefit both migrants and hosting communities and is a topic important to keep discussing, now and in the future.
This text was written in November 2018 as a conclusion at the end of the Shared History project. Unfortunately, tragic events that took place on January 18th 2019 in Gdansk made me add another disturbing paragraph:
The mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, was stabbed to death at the stage during big charity event, in the spotlight. He was actively promoting solidarity, defending rights of minorities and unprivileged groups. He took courageous stance on migration, exceptional among Polish rulers. He was considered a public enemy and targeted by the ruling government and radical organizations. The hostile atmosphere has taken its highest toll.
Faced with events like this, the call to calm down the atmosphere and social tensions is becoming compelling. There’s urgent need to counteract hatred spreading. History, heritage and their interpretations are essential components of the polarized discourse and require a responsible and well-balanced approach.