Historical policy-making in Poland and the role of historians

Lecture by Valentin Behr (Warsaw University)

A review by Coline Perron.

On the 28th of March, Valentin Behr, postdoctoral Fellow at Warsaw University, gave a lecture at CEFRES about historical policy-making in Poland and the political role of historians.

Valentin Behr defended his PhD dissertation in 2017 at Strasbourg University under the joint supervision of Vincent Dubois and Yves Deloye (“Science du passé et politique du présent en Pologne. L’histoire du temps présent (1939-1989), de la genèse à l’Institut de la Mémoire Nationale”). His researches focus on historiography-making in Poland from 1945 to 2015 and particularly on the way historians deal with political constraints and historical policy or polityka historyczna (understood as state’s influence on history writing) in this country.

Valentin Behr underlined the role of historians in the politicization of history in Poland and their intellectual involvement in history-making; thus he presented historians as actors of the uses of the past. The polityka historyczna is characterized by the existence of a Polish state-sponsored institution called Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), whose goal is to promote a certain vision of Polish history in Poland and abroad. During the first part of his lecture, Valentin Behr also highlighted the importance of the IPN in Polish historical landscape, which is today Poland’s first publishing house for contemporary history and overshadows all the other Polish historical institutions by the amount of its funding and the number of its fellow researchers. The problematic status of the IPN leads it to exert a real pressure on publications which don’t concord with the myth of Poland as a nation of “heroes and victims” during the Second World War, a recent example being the inflammatory seventy-pages-review posted online by the IPN to criticize a book entitled Dalej jest noc [The night goes on] published by some researchers from the Centre for Holocaust Research (Polish Academy of Science). This book focused among other topics on the role played by the Polish “Blue police” in the so-called “hunts for Jews” under German occupation, and thus challenged the “mainstream” narrative fostered by the IPN’s research line.

Behr focused afterwards on the concrete example of a short film produced by the IPN, Niewczyciezeni (The Unconquered). This movie, whose video game-like aesthetic was meant to present history in an “attractive” manner to pupils, is shown at the end of the exhibition of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk as a summary of the “Polish point of view”. It has also been broadcasted a few times by the Polish public TV channel (TVP). But this film was also aimed at a foreign audience: it was broadcasted on YouTube on 2017 and an english version was released with the voice of the british actor Sean Bean. Moreover, some versions include French, German, Spanish, Russian and Chinese subtitles. According to the IPN, it has been seen by millions across the globe. As to Behr, even if this movie cannot be qualified of “false” narrative, it is definitely a biased one, full of half-truths and silences: nothing about the collaboration with the occupiers, about Polish antisemitism (pogroms such as in Jedwabne are never mentioned), nothing either about civil forms of opposition to the communist rule in Poland; no mention of the millions of Poles who were members of the Communist Party (PZPR). Finally, Behr tackled the issue of the role of historians in current polish Society.  He highlighted the emergence of two different “historical reactions” in polish dissident historiography in the late 1970’s, the first one practising a heavy-handed delegitimization of the communist regime, the other pledging for more scientific autonomy. Even if this more autonomous narrative still exists today, Behr concluded by saying that the basically anti-communist trend, being closer to political needs, became dominant in the field after the fall of the regime and is nowadays state-sponsored thanks to the so-called historical policy promoted through the IPN, thus contributing to the construction of this current mainstream “popular” narrative which deliberately ignores problematic issues of the polish past.