Moves against Polish museum and Hungarian university stir fears of censorship

In both countries, concerns are being raised about the health of an open society, as one government makes changes at a war museum and the other threatens to close a university.

Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP/file
Demonstrators face policemen as they protest against the amendment of a higher education law, which many view as a move to close the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary on April 4, 2017.

Housed in a $134-million, state-of-the-art building, Poland’s Museum of the Second World War opened early this spring. The museum, which took more than five years to construct, tells the story of Poland’s war experiences, which – given the way the country is sandwiched between Germany and Russia – are among the most tragic of all the conflict.

But even before the museum opened, it was already mired in controversy. The museum’s acting director, Karol Nawrocki – hired when former director Pawel Machcewicz was fired, two weeks after the museum opened – has complained that the exhibits about the rise of communism are too “light,” and the music is too “happy,” underplaying how deeply the political ideology inflicted damage on the Polish people. He has already indicated that he will be making changes to some exhibits.

In Hungary, meanwhile, it is a university that is in the sights of the government. Last week, students were busy finishing their spring term classes at Central European University, founded by American philanthropist George Soros. But even as faculty and students swarmed through the CEU buildings, clustered in the elegant heart of Budapest, a new law was taking aim at the Hungarian- and American-accredited university.

Both Poland’s Museum of the Second World War and Hungary’s CEU – one brand new, the other formed at the fall of communism – have been seen as symbols of the advances in free thought and open societies in post-Soviet Europe. And the fact that both have become targets of their ruling governments is a sign, some critics say, of government attempts to control cultural and historic narratives and undermine academic freedom to consolidate political control.

The moves in central Europe hark back to an earlier era, in contrast to the anti-immigrant, anti-globalist nationalism taking root in western Europe, says Anton Pelinka, a professor of nationalism studies at CEU. “The French nationalistic renaissance or German nationalistic renaissance is not about Alsace-Lorraine,” says Professor Pelinka, referring to the historical land dispute. “But Hungarian and Polish nationalism is very old fashioned.” Taboos were perpetuated under communist rule, he says. But now, “post-communist nationalistic regimes have created new taboos.”

Whose stories should a war museum tell?

The war museum opened in March in the center of Gdansk, near a post office that was one of the first places Germans attacked the country during the war. It was commissioned in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, today president of the European Council, and was intended to look at the war through an international lens. But the museum was barely open before the ultraconservative Law and Justice party (PiS) fired Mr. Machcewicz and announced that some of the exhibits would change.

Mr. Nawrocki, the current director, says the museum – the most expensive ever built in Poland – has great potential. “But I don't get [from the current exhibitions] the answer to a basic question – what we Poles want to tell the world about our war experience,” he says.

Poland suffered enormously in World War II, with 20 percent or more of its population killed, borders redrawn, and the war ending in communist rule. The new museum was not intended to diminish the Polish experience, says Machcewicz. But part of its purpose, he says, to tell a fuller story about the war, which may break ground for Poles, who have tended to cling to black-and-white ideas about victims and perpetrators.

One of the exhibits includes house keys that belonged to Jews in the village of Jedwabne, who were killed by their Polish neighbors with help from Nazis soldiers. The exhibits also spend time on atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet Union, as well as on the 3 million Russian soldiers who suffered in German captivity. “The museum pushes Poles from the comfort zone,” Machcewicz says, “because we show how other nations suffered during the war.”

Poles’ views are mixed, with some welcoming a new perspective, and others rejecting it. Kazimierz Burzynski, a retiree from Gdansk, says he is disappointed that there is not more about Poland in an educational center at the museum. But he also faults PiS opponents for politicizing the issue for political gain. “[They are] discussing our issues abroad, involving foreigners in our discussion.”

Hungary's move stirs global protests

Internationally, the debate in Hungary has resonated even more widely. The Hungarian parliament passed a higher education law in April that effectively singles out the CEU, as it would require the school to open a campus in New York, where it is registered, or cease operations in Budapest. The university has announced that it will continue to operate in academic year 2017-2018, but its long-term future is now unclear. Negotiations between Hungary and the state of New York are expected later this month in an effort to find a solution before October, when the school’s license to operate can be withdrawn under the new law.

The university was founded by Mr. Soros – who was born in Hungary – in 1991, with the stated intent of helping to usher in democracy in post-Soviet Europe. It has been operating in Budapest since 1993. Today CEU has over 1,400 students, including many who are seen as leaders in the region, and it is considered a major center of independent scholarship. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – who has said that he sees “illiberal democracy” as the right path for Hungary – says that the university has “cheated” by violating Hungarian rules, and that no institution should enjoy an unfair advantage.

For many observers, the new law has more to do with Mr. Soros as symbol of liberalism than with academic censorship. “It is not about attacking academic freedom, it’s more like generating a conflict between the government and more pro-Western organizations or figures like George Soros,” says Dániel Mikecz, an expert on social movements at the Republikon Institute. “It is much easier to campaign with a scapegoat as enemy of the state. You don’t have to raise the salaries of public servants, or introduce such benefits for the people.”

Whatever Orban’s motivations for moving against CEU, many observers fear it’s an open Hungarian society that is at stake. Orban has also clamped down on funding for NGOs and independent media, and rolled back checks and balances on the Hungarian constitution.

Globally, the fight over the CEU has stirred a firm response.

Two dozen Nobel laureates and academics and institutions around the world have declared support for the university. The law threatening its existence has been rebuked by the European Parliament, which started infringement proceedings against Hungary, prompting tens of thousands of protestors to the streets. “I think free institutions and academic freedom strike a chord with a lot of people. It is a core democratic value. It is a core European value,” says Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of CEU.

For many of today’s Europeans, it’s discomfiting to see politicians fighting for control of higher education and other cultural institutions. Machcewicz, a historian, says PiS views historic policy as one of its main pillars. He says the Polish government has set out to achieve control in ways that range from censuring art to announcing plans for new historic museums.

“In rejecting our exhibition I see a growing anti-EU and xenophobic atmosphere, a rejection of Europe and multiculturalism,” he says. While he says he sees a comparison between the Hungarian government's move against the CEU and the Polish government's decisions about his former museum, he characterizes Orban’s move as a cynical power grab, while in Poland he suggests that something deeper is stirring. “The Polish right wants power, too, but it is more ideological and radical,” he says. “The current government is striving for a cultural revolution in Poland.”

It’s not a direction that sits well with some Polish citizens. Sabina Woch is visiting the Gdansk museum with her 10-month-old son and her in-laws, eager to see the museum’s exhibits before the government makes any changes. “World War II did not take place only in Poland or Europe, and it’s important to know what was happening in other continents,” she says. “Politicians should not decide who should run such institutions like a museum; it’s not their role.”

Sara Miller Llana contributed reporting to this story from Paris.

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