August 19, 2019 / 6:26 PM / a month ago

A WW2 battle reverberates in Poland's national election campaign

GDANSK, Poland (Reuters) - A monument to a battle fought in the opening days of World War Two has become a new frontline in the fight between Poland’s ruling nationalists and the liberal opposition in the countdown to a parliamentary election on Oct. 13.

People visit the World War Two Westerplatte Memorial in Gdansk, Poland, August 12, 2019. Picture taken August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The granite column that towers over the Baltic port of Gdansk commemorates the seven-day siege of Westerplatte in September 1939, when dozens of Polish soldiers defied the overwhelming firepower of a Nazi German naval fleet.

For many Poles the monument - comprising the column and a small park - is a symbol of national courage, but the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) accuses the Gdansk municipality, which is linked to the opposition, of allowing the site to fall into disrepair. Near the column stand ruined barracks with rusted wires protruding.

Last month PiS rushed legislation through parliament to transfer oversight of the area to the central government in Warsaw.

Critics of PiS say the row over Westerplatte is part of a broader government policy of historical revisionism they say is aimed at fanning nationalist sentiment among voters and discrediting the opposition.

PiS officials say the bravery of the Westerplatte soldiers has not been celebrated sufficiently.

Since it won power in 2015, PiS has repeatedly accused liberal governments that ruled Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989 of failing to conduct “the politics of history” effectively, allowing young Poles to forget patriotism.

PiS, a socially conservative, eurosceptic party, also says Poland can only be effective in the international arena if its Western allies come to understand and appreciate the extent of its suffering and bravery under Nazi and then Soviet occupation.

“After 1989, what we call the politics of memory or history was badly neglected. There was no tool, capacity or desire to carry this symbol,” Karol Nawrocki, a historian nominated by PiS to run a World War Two museum in Gdansk, told Reuters. His museum will oversee an overhaul of the Westerplatte site.

Underscoring divisions over remembrance, the PiS government has moved the ceremonies commemorating the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two from Gdansk, where such events have been held in the past, to Warsaw and the town of Wielun, the site of another battle in September 1939.

While Gdansk authorities will still hold their own ceremony, events in Warsaw will be attended by U.S. President Donald Trump, who shares the PiS government’s views on a range of issues, including migration, climate change and abortion.

BATTLES OVER THE PAST

The government’s message seems to be working. Opinion polls show PiS likely to win a second four-year term in October with the support of more than 40 percent of Poles.

An alliance of liberal parties called the Civic Coalition is polling second with less than 30 percent.

Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, the mayor of Gdansk who has long been tied with the opposition, denies the city has neglected the Westerplatte site but says PiS is trying to foment a retrogressive nationalism.

“This is a message that is being used to influence voters,” Dulkiewicz told Reuters. “Eighty years after the start of World War Two, do we want to glorify war or do we want to think about how to have peaceful relations in the future?”

“We should be building relationships between people, between societies, to prevent war,” she said.

Gdansk, cradle of the Solidarity trade union that toppled communist rule and now one of Poland’s most liberal cities, has been the focus of tensions over remembrance in the past.

Last year, the PiS government decided to slash the state subsidy to a museum commemorating Solidarity, saying it had become too supportive of opposition politicians.

Criticism of Poland’s transition from communism is central to the PiS goal of redefining how national history is perceived.

While hailing the end of Soviet domination, PiS says liberal politicians wasted the chance to create a fairer society true to its Christian roots after 1989.

It says more should have been done in those heady days of transition to purge state institutions of communist officials and also to shield more vulnerable Poles from the impact of painful market reforms.

Slideshow (6 Images)

In Gdansk, some voters disagree with the PiS plan to spruce up the monument.

“I belong to a large group of people who still see Westerplatte as a symbol of our resistance,” said 91-year-old Jerzy Grzywacz, who runs a veterans association and remembers cycling as a boy to watch the battle to defend the site.

“I’d like very much for Westerplatte to remain just the way it was on Sept. 7, 1939. It should unite us, not divide us.”

Additional reporting by Malgorzata Wojtunik and Ania Gavina, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Gareth Jones

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