By Connor Arneson
Like most other right-wing governments, nationalism is a key ingredient for Poland’s ruling party. Without it, many of their ceremonies would appear unnecessary, many of their policies would appear selfish, but most importantly, many of their voters would disappear. Courting Poland’s conservative voters requires an upkeep of nationalism, and since this voting bloc propelled Poland’s government to power, any attack on nationalism becomes an attack on the party itself. Poland’s leaders preached nationalism in order to win their power, and thus they must quash any opposition to nationalism in order to maintain it. Unfortunately, like anywhere else on earth, Poland’s less-than-perfect past easily dispels their one-sided rhetoric. The solution? Attack the past.
For nearly six years, Poland’s government has been engaged in a nefarious, deliberate war on history. Any fact that doesn’t conform to their pristine fantasy of Poland’s past has been and will be attacked. This includes the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, who’s original exhibit, opened in 2017, failed to express the “Polish point of view” and was thus immediately seized and edited by the government. That’s why, walking through the government’s recently acquired museum, I was struck by the relative nuance and honesty of the main exhibition. The museum included sections dedicated to often-overlooked topics such as the war in Asia, the starvation of Soviet POWs, and, unusually for Poland, explicit mention of anti-Semitic massacres carried out by ethnic Poles. Most notably, it told the story of WWII primarily from the perspective of civilians around the world, skipping over the chest-thumping militarism and national focus found in most other war museums in favor of subtler, yet often more horrific stories. There was certainly room for improvement, and the placement of certain pieces of information could perhaps be questioned, but by the end of my walk through the main exhibition, I was genuinely impressed. Then, I entered the final room.
Upon entering the dimly lit chamber, my attention was immediately drawn to the animated film playing on my left. The visuals were sleek, and the score was engaging, but unlike other parts of the exhibition, this film reeked of government interference. In the short movie, titled “The Unconquered,” a gravelly-voiced narrator glorifies Poland’s epic military struggle against the Nazis and Soviets, their abandonment by the West, and the country’s heroic rebirth after decades of effort. According to this film, added by the Polish government in 2017, all Germans and Russians were evil, and, more problematically, every Pole was a resistance-fighting, Jew-saving, God-loving hero. By shamelessly indulging in nationalism, militarism, and martyrdom, this film simultaneously advances the government’s revisionist agenda and makes every mistake the rest of the museum tries to avoid. Further adding to the bitter taste this video leaves, it was shoehorned into the museum as a replacement for the much better original closing film, which was undoubtably considered “too international.” However, the aspect of the government’s video that concerned me the most was how familiar it was. Not only had I seen the video before, I had made others exactly like it.
I became fascinated with Polish history at an early age. As a middle schooler, I recall reading and rereading the few paragraphs of text dedicated to Poland in my favorite WWII book. A few paragraphs out of a few hundred pages. To me, that was the most frustrating part of loving Polish history; outside of dense, academic scholarship (which was totally unknown to me), the history of Poland was virtually invisible. That’s why, when I stumbled across “The Unconquered” on YouTube as a teenager, I consumed it uncritically and without question. How could I have possibly known that the video was politically motivated? The simple presence of this underrepresented history was enough to excite me. Partially building off this excitement, I started my own YouTube channel dedicated to bringing little-known history (such as Poland’s) into the mainstream. Three and a half years later, I feel conflicted.
I created History House Productions in the spring of 2018 as a 17-year-old high schooler. My channel aimed to introduce lesser-known historical topics through the use of animation and comedy. Though my channel was never explicitly focused on Polish history, the videos I made about Poland have been viewed more than 950,000 times. This is a great success, but also a great responsibility. While I remain mostly satisfied with the factual accuracy of my works, I’ve begun to question the narrative they insinuate. Looking back on my Polish videos, especially the ones covering the Second World War, I can’t help but be reminded of “The Unconquered.”
The two most common themes present in both the museum’s film and mine are those of martyrdom and Western betrayal. I define martyrdom in the Polish sense as the practice of tugging at the viewers heart strings with the many examples of Polish heroism (often ending in death), without properly balancing the narrative with the reality of many Poles’ inaction and fear. Western betrayal on the other hand, refers to the practice of blaming Poland’s defeat in WWII almost exclusively on “the West” (particularly Britain and France) without appropriately examining the nuanced reasons behind Poland’s fall. Though both these views of history are grounded in fact, they represent a regrettable oversimplification of Poland’s past that can be easily abused for nationalistic purposes. Poland’s right-wing government does just that, pushing this interpretation of history on its citizens with films like “The Unconquered.” And, despite being a high schooler on the other side of the world, I fell into the same trap.
Oversimplified as it is, the agenda advanced in both “The Unconquered” and my own videos is undoubtedly popular. I know this first-hand from the hundreds of Poles in my comment section thanking me for finally sharing their “true history” with the world. The trickiest thing about these narratives, however, is that their popularity is completely understandable. As Americans, we are more or less taught that Poland was immediately and easily flattened by Germany in 1939 and then ceased to do anything productive for the next six years. This is demonstrably false and incredibly insulting to the millions of Poles who suffered, fought, and died against the Third Reich. The wish to correct this perception with the truth, oversimplified or not, is perfectly logical. However, as I see it, the Western misunderstanding of Polish history is so vast that it becomes incredibly easy to slip into nationalistic narratives such as martyrdom and Western betrayal in an attempt to correct the flawed image of Poland as a helpless victim. Put simply, in an attempt to correct one flawed narrative, another, equally flawed one is often created. While the Polish government deliberately advances this flawed narrative for political gain, I unwittingly followed the same path.
There are differences of course. In “The Unconquered,” bombastic music plays as patriotic iconography is paraded around the screen, while in my videos, copyright-free polka is heard as jokes are made about the infidelity of Poland’s allies. On the surface, the tones of my videos are undoubtably lighter and the subject is treated much less seriously, but at their core, my videos push the same nationalistic narrative as the Polish government. For example, in my more than 30 minutes of content about Poland in WWII, the only time I mention non-ethnic Poles is when I point out that some of them welcomed the Soviets as liberators. Though my videos were not focused on the Holocaust (I couldn’t exactly make that funny), the only story I tell of that atrocity is that of Witold Pilecki, a Polish martyr who reported on Auschwitz before being executed by the Soviets. In my 13-minute video on the Warsaw Uprising, I quickly brush over the very-much-ongoing discussion of whether the uprising even needed to happen, preferring instead to focus on the heroic sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Poles who died fighting their oppressors. These are the exact same omissions and assumptions “The Unconquered” makes. Am I being hard on myself? Absolutely. I was a teenager who had never had an official class on WWII beyond the high school level. I was not purposely manipulating the past to appeal to the largest voter base possible. Taken at face value, my videos are probably harmless, but under the surface, they are part of something much larger, because at the end of the day, I helped spread an oversimplified, unnuanced interpretation of history. And I did it 950,000 times.
Postscript: All of the videos on my channel remain accessible, as I still see them as useful starting points for people wishing to engage in history. However, my channel now contains a disclaimer highlighting the weaknesses of my format and encouraging people to do their own, more nuanced, research before coming to any conclusions.
Arneson, Connor. “History House Productions.” YouTube. Last modified September 3, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/c/HistoryHouseProductions
Misinski, Michal, director. The Unconquered. IPNtv, 2017. 4 min, 20 sec. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q88AkN1hNYM
Snyder, Timothy. “Poland vs. History.” New York Review of Books, May 3, 2016.