The Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland and the Army Museum in Paris, France gave starkly different narratives of World War II, even though the experiences of the population share certain similarities. The Polish and French wartime narratives emphasize certain themes: France highlights its heroism, Poland its victimhood. This is partly due to the differing Nazi policies in each area. The Nazis invaded and occupied France in order to conquer a powerful neighbor; they occupied Poland in order to expand German “living space” and to carry out exterminationist policies. Polish and French narratives might be an attempt to salvage national pride by using each country’s “honorable” actions to represent their wartime experience and contributions.
There were similarities in the Polish and French wartime experiences. Both countries spent most of World War II under Nazi occupation. Each country’s army fought bravely, but both states fell about a month after the respective German offensives began. The Germans deported Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and political figures from both countries to concentration camps. Polish and French citizens alike collaborated with and resisted the Germans. The Germans also divided each country into new administrative zones, toppling any semblance of self-determination even in unoccupied areas. Nevertheless, both countries have reacted to their defeat in different manners.
The French War Museum devoted particular attention to its resistance movements against the Nazis as well as its contributions to the Allied war effort, no matter how small. One exhibit reads “the Maginot Line, even encircled, resisted at every attack and did not capitulate.” This stance emphasizes France’s role as an active and sacrificial ally during the war, even though they were often not an effective ally since they were occupied by the Nazis. This account isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t account for French collaboration. France, embarrassed that they capitulated so early in the war, focuses on their heroic resistance efforts against the occupation.
On the other hand, the Schindler Museum emphasized Poland’s weakness—and therefore its victimhood. When the German blitzkrieg began in August 1939, Poland had only regained their statehood for about twenty years (after a century and a half of Austrian, Prussian, and Russian occupation). Militarily, Poland did not stand a chance against Germany’s combined air and artillery attack, let alone fend off the Red Army invading on another front thanks to the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland suffered additional humiliation when its allies, Britain and France, declared war on Germany yet took no military action. Furthermore, the Nazis treated the Poles as sub-human via exterminationist racial policies. Even after the war ended Poland did not experience liberation and instead became a Soviet satellite state.
Poland was indeed weak. However, the Schindler Museum failed to recognize that an alarming number of Polish villages conducted pogroms against their Jewish neighbors with minimal encouragement from the Nazis. Additionally, most of the Nazi extermination camps were located on Polish lands. Our tour guide took time to emphasize that Auschwitz-Birkenau—a Nazi concentration and extermination camp where a minimum of 1 million Jews were killed—was officially located in Germany at the time of its operation from 1940 to 1945. As the main site of the largest genocide in history, Poland oddly ignores the question of national enablement. This safely preserves Poland’s moral standing against the Nazis.
It seems easy to judge Poland and France for neglecting to remember the morally-repugnant parts of their past. However, people in these countries made decisions under a certain set of circumstances that are almost impossible for us today to fathom. It was impractical to act out of honor or morality, especially when survival was at stake and in a context of almost unprecedented violence. As historians of WWII, the best we can do is try to imagine what it was like to endure and survive the fog of war.