Museum of the Second World War
A fairly recent addition to Gdańsk
’s (and Poland
’s) dark-tourism portfolio, and a massive boost it is! It is especially noteworthy from this website’s perspective because it differs from most war museums in that instead of the usual endless displays of military hardware, the focus is largely on the various dark human aspects that war brings in general, and WWII
in particular, and not just on the battlefields but especially all the civilian suffering through aerial bombings, displacement, rape, massacres, and not least the Holocaust
The exhibition design is state of the art, yet in addition to the various touch-screen stations that no modern museum seems to be able to do without these days there’s also a wealth of authentic artefacts on display. Often it is the small, personal artefacts that carry more meaning than big items. Fans of displays of tanks, planes and guns may be disappointed, but I personally found the balance just right.
The comprehensive coverage, while understandably emphasizing Poland’s, and Gdańsk’s victimhood in this war, doesn’t sweep under the rug those cases where Poles were perpetrators and/or collaborators. And it places everything into an international context too. Overall, this is one of the best museums of its type in the world! At least as long as it doesn’t get interfered with further … (see background
This museum in Gdańsk is Poland’s first institution of this kind (although other places touch upon partial aspects of that war, no comprehensive coverage of WWII had been attempted here before). Plans for the museum go it back to 2007/8, when Donald Tusk was prime Minister of Poland and apparently he played a key role in its initiation.
After years of construction, controversy
emerged, even before the museum was ready to be opened in early 2017. That was primarily because the new government of the nationalistic, right-wing, Catholic and ultra-conservative party PiS (Law and Justice), in power since 2015, apparently objected to the comprehensive memorialization approach of the museum’s permanent exhibition. A competing museum at Westerplatte
was initiated as a counter-project, intended to be more “patriotic” in its message. It was then demanded that the two museums should be under the same administrative umbrella. After objections by the WWII Museum’s then director, the case even went to court, which initially suspended the merger. Eventually, however, the combination of both museums under the same aegis was decreed by the culture minister, and upheld by the court, and the original director was immediately fired. The newly appointed replacement director apparently went on to alter the original exhibition, in order to toe the line demanded by PiS. This in turn generated another legal battle (also over copyright issues) and attracted much criticism from abroad. So this interference by PiS may actually have done more harm than good with regard to Poland
In this context I had read various academic and newspaper articles about the museum and the associated legal and cultural controversy. In them the claim was made that the exhibition was now too unbalanced, too pro-Polish. But having finally visited the museum in August 2019 I cannot really confirm such grave misgivings.
There have indeed been alterations, but overall they are slight, concerning mainly the film screened in the final section. The original portrayed the post-WWII era from the Nuremberg Trials
via the Civil Rights Movement
in the USA
to contemporary wars in Iraq and Syria and even the refugee crisis of 2015, thus conveying a broad impression of conflict and crises not having ended with WWII, with the main message being that vigilance against the human tendency to resort to violence is still needed. Especially the reference to the refugees of 2015 must have annoyed the PiS party, as it went against its nationalistic, anti-immigrant ideology. And so the film has been replaced with an animated film that now has a markedly more patriotic and victimhood-emphasizing final flourish. But the vast majority of the exhibition remains intact, except that some extras have been added that emphasize certain Polish “heroic” acts or others that outline the fate of certain members of the Catholic Church during the war. But as far as I can tell nothing other than the final film has been removed from the original exhibition.
In fact because of all those critical articles about the museum I had gone with somewhat doubtful and restrained expectations in August 2019. But less than an hour into the visit such doubts and reservations had been dispelled. Even if I had gone with high expectations, these would have been exceeded. It really is (still) that good.
A downside of the museum’s excellence and new landmark status, however, is that it is now one of the most popular tourist attractions of Gdańsk
. When I went in August I had one aborted attempt at visiting this museum: it was a rainy day, so ideal “museum weather”, but the same thought was clearly shared by thousands of other tourists, so when I got to the hall with the ticket desks at midday I found myself at the end of a queue approximately 300-400 people long, and not exactly moving fast. So I gave up and returned the next day, this time before the doors even opened, half an hour before admission started, and hence managed to get in as one of the first visitors that day.
It did soon get crowded, but never overly so, which makes me think that there must be some form of crowd-control measures in place – in fact if you purchase your ticket online you have to choose a particular time slot, and the website states how many tickets are left for each slot. So I guess that there is a maximum number of visitors admitted at any one time. During the coronavirus crisis in 2020, I checked the museum’s website again, and while the exhibition was then still open, the maximum number of visitors allowed inside the permanent exhibition had been reduced from 1000 to 300. So indeed, access must be controlled.
I sincerely hope that the museum won’t suffer more interventions; in the state I saw it in during my August 2019 visit, the alterations were small enough to be tolerated, even though the film at the finale is markedly inferior to the rest of the museum and more than likely to the original film that’s been removed. If any more elements of the museum were to be taken away, that would be tragic. Let’s hope it won’t come to that.
What there is to see:
A lot!!! Much, much more than the museum’s “officially” recommended visitation time of three hours suggests. Even a whole day may not be enough to see everything. So go there early, ideally before the ticket counter even opens, also to beat the crowds, and then see how much you can take in. Also, especially if you go in summer, take an extra layer of clothing, as some of the exhibition halls are air-conned down to “Arctic” temperatures (almost like is customary in the USA
Before entering the museum building it’s worth taking a good look at its striking modernist architecture, a new landmark of Gdańsk, contrasting fantastically with all the reconstructed old-town ones. The above-ground part is basically a leaning cube with red cladding on three sides, and a glass front on the fourth, plus a glass roof.
Outside is also an open-air exhibition part accessible at all hours. It consists of 18 panels in six blocks and has text and photos about a number of Poles and Polish culture in general in the Free City of Danzig 1920-1939 (at least at the time of writing – this might change).
The main entrance to the main building is on level -1, down some wide steps. In the atrium there’s an information desk and the odd temporary exhibit (a row of paintings when I was there), but the ticket desks and entrance to the main permanent exhibition are on level -3, 14m underground, reached by a set of lifts.
As you queue up at the gate to the exhibition, museum staff will insist that you put backpacks, large bags and jackets in the lockers provided, but I pleaded and managed to be allowed to keep hold of my light jacket I had tied round myself, which later paid off when I got to those sections overly cooled down by air con.
Once inside the exhibition this kicks off with an introductory film
about the outcome of WW1
and the inter-war years.
After that the permanent exhibition proper starts. It’s organized along a central corridor from which various rooms with particular subtopics branch off, sometimes also being interconnected with one another off the corridor. It can get slightly confusing, so it’s a good idea to follow the map in the little folded leaflet you are given with your ticket and/or look out for the arrows indicating the “correct” route. I nearly missed one section (about resistance) and had to go back to see it (out of the nominally prescribed order).
All text panels, labels and audiovisual and interactive stations come in bilingual form, in Polish and English. The quality of the English translation is usually good, though in the interactive screen texts I did spot some annoying typos (e.g. “concetration camp”) and other little errors like missing words (often articles, sometimes even verbs).
is about the rise of totalitarianism
, not just in Nazi Germany
but also Stalin
’s Soviet Union
and Imperial Japan
. Here, various propaganda posters are the main sort of exhibits, plus Nazi-era items such as the “Volksempfänger” radio for the masses (to aid the spread of propaganda) or the “Mutterkreuz” medals awarded to women who had given birth to four or more children (i.e. future cannon fodder for Hitler
). One interactive screen station is about the legendary and controversial film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, whose coverage of the 1936 Olympics
and the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg
were as cinematographically groundbreaking as they were ideologically dubious.
Next up is one of the largest displays, a walk-through, life-size mock-up
of a street in pre-war Poland
, with houses and shops all still intact. (The LED-lighting is such that, untreated, photos come out totally soaked in purple, so in the images in the gallery
below I applied a lot of white balance tweaking to make the colours come out more natural looking.)
Then we head towards the actual outbreak of the war. Displays are mixed, some objects, some traditional text-and-photo panels plus interactive stations with audiovisual elements. And it’s a good mix!
There’s a section about the Spanish Civil War
and Germany’s role in it (see e.g. Guernica
), and early attempts at expansion by Hitler
’s Third Reich
are outlined, such as the annexation of the Czech
Sudetenland, and the British involvement in the form of the Munich
Agreement, as well as the “Anschluss”, i.e. annexation, of Austria
. Another side section is about the so-called “Kindertransporte” by means of which Jewish children were sent to safety in Great Britain
The beginning of WWII
is naturally given some detailed coverage. Displays include screens playing war footage behind mock brick walls with shelling holes in them. Quite dramatic. The beginning of German atrocities against Poles are brought up but also the case of the so-called “Bloody Sunday” of Bydgoszcz (where members of the German minority were killed/executed by Poles, which was later exploited by German propaganda to justify mass executions of Poles …). Another aspect here is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, by which the Soviets
occupied eastern parts of Poland
. Resistance within Poland and the formation of a government in exile are covered as well.
The next hall “A New Kind of War” is one of the most dramatic and at the same time most intimate. To explain: the hall is dominated by a life-size mock-up of a Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka” dive bomber that looks like its crashing through the rear wall, nose pointing down. The display cabinets beneath this menacing sight, on the other hand, contain lots of personal items, such as documents and photos of loved ones that soldiers carried with them. There’s even a display involving packets of condoms – something not usually topicalized in military museums! Other display cases contain what’s dubbed “trench art”, such as engravings on soldiers’ water flasks. Yet others show photo albums and sketchbooks. One hands-on element is a couple of sandbags you can lift to get an impression of the weight of a soldier’s kit.
On interactive stations various individual military campaigns are outlined, such as the invasion of Norway
, the Battle of Britain
(and the role of Polish pilots in it who fought on the British side), the Winter War of the USSR
in Finland, or the beginning of the war at sea – a whole torpedo is on display, as are model submarines. But overall, displays of weaponry are very restrained in this museum. It is not a military museum in the traditional sense, but rather looks at the effects of war on people rather than focusing on the military hardware used.
This becomes even clearer in the next section
, which covers amongst other things the mistreatment
s, the siege of Leningrad
, and the aerial bombing of civilian
One section is devoted to the difficult subjects of occupation and collaboration
. The Germanization efforts by the Nazis
in Poland play a role here, naturally, as do the brutal means of repression. The formation of Vichy France
and the takeover of Alsace-Lorraine as well as the German regime in Bohemia and Moravia, the Netherlands
are all topics, as are elements of collaboration in all those territories, including local Fascists like Vidkun Quisling
. The special case of the Channel Islands
is another part here. Probably controversially (at least from a PiS point of view – see above
) is the coverage of collaboration on the part of Poles too. The Nazis’ allied states, such as Fascist Italy, and puppet regimes in other countries such as Croatia, Slovakia or Hungary get some coverage as well.
The Soviet occupatio
n of not only eastern Poland
but also of the Baltic states
) as well as the Japan
ese expansion and various occupations are topics in this section too. Japanese war crimes
get a special focus in this context, including the infamous Unit 731
(where medical/biological experiments on human guinea pigs were conducted in the context of biological warfare “research”).
The largest section
of the museum is called simply “Terror”
and that word in huge rusty red letters greets the visitors at the entrance. Just behind is a German cattle car like those used in the deportations during the Holocaust
The various massacres
conducted by the Nazis in places like Palmiry
are obviously a topic here. The bureaucratization of terror is an angle here too. Unsurprisingly, the topic of the Katyn massacre
of Polish officers and intelligentsia by the Soviets, still a national trauma in Poland, is given special coverage as well.
The German notion of “Lebensraum”
(‘living space’), i.e. new colonized territories for German Aryans to move into in the east is another aspect covered, as is the “Heim ins Reich” campaign, by which ethnic Germans from territories in eastern and southern Europe were resettled
in the new German occupied territories, and the non-German people living there evicted. Similar actions in the Soviet Union
are brought up too. These general topics are often supplemented by individual stories, which add a good dose of personal depth.
The systematic exploitation
s for slave labour
is another special subtopic here. Again, the personal stories add a level of individuality here that is often missing, indeed wasn’t supposed to exist from the perpetrators’ point of view. The dehumanization that was part of forced labour is also illustrated with an unusual display of many dozens of tin identification plates (from the Gdańsk
shipyards) with prisoners’ names and numbers mounted inside little rusty metal frames arranged on poles. You have to get very close to be able to read the identification plates. From a distance it’s just a nameless, faceless mass.
Obviously, concentration camps
are a major topic within this section. Amongst the original artefacts on display here are a spoon from Ravensbrück
, a metal soup bowl from Dachau
and a blanket that is said to have been partially made from human hair (shaved off new arrivals at the camps). The display of the typical striped camp inmate clothes and wooden clogs, in contrast, is a more predictable exhibit. The subsection about specially targeted members of the clergy is possibly a later addition to the exhibition (see above
A separate subsection specifically looks at the Holocaust
, beginning with the Babi Yar
massacres. One document of note here is a drawing of the way in which such massacres
were conducted, left by a soldier who deserted and fled to Switzerland
, where he gave testimony. Interestingly (and quite probably to the dislike of PiS – see above
) the Jedwabne pogrom
is mentioned too, where several hundred Jews were herded into a barn that was then set alight, killing all inside – and in this case the perpetrators were Poles! The inclusion of this uncomfortable element of Polish guilt rather than victimhood is certainly commendable.
The culmination of the Holocaust
was Operation Reinhard
, with the three dedicated mass-murder death camps Bełżec
. A noteworthy display here is that of little clay tokens with numbers. These were given out to victims in the pretence that they could reclaim their clothes and luggage with those tokens after having had their “shower”. It was to such perfidious lengths that the Nazis went to deceive their victims. Of course these never reclaimed anything, but were gassed straight on arrival.
, the name most associated with the Holocaust
, is obviously given special space in the exhibition. A whole wall made of suitcases next to a black-and-white image of the infamous gatehouse of Auschwitz-Birkenau is a core exhibit here. A child’s shoe and a Zyklon-B
gas canister are amongst the sinister artefacts on display in this section.
Screens provide the stories of individual victims
, and there’s also a section emphasizing Polish “heroes” who saved Jews (I believe that’s another later addition made after the sacking of the original director – see above
). At the end of the section is an installation of several tall glass panels filled with small portrait photos of individual Holocaust victims – thus giving back a face to at least a small proportion of the millions of victims.
A separate side section covers the distinct but not dissimilar ethnic purges
in the Balkans, especially by the Ustaša in Croatia
, in particular at the extermination camp of Jasenovac
The next large section
is about the various forms of resistance
in different parts of Europe, from Poland
, and from France
to the USSR
. The Polish underground gets special emphasis, as you would expect, as does the Warsaw Uprising
. Most remarkable I found the subsection about caricatures – humour as a weapon of war!
The following couple of sections are about the Allied war effort
, including the breaking of the code of the legendary Enigma cypher
machine (one specimen is on display) at Bletchley Park
– for which the ground-laying work had been done by Poles. Wartime propaganda posters from all sides are on display too. Modern “wonder weapons” such as the V2
are a side topic. One of the few large artefacts is on display here: an American “Sherman” tank.
The end of the war
is the theme of the last large-scale section. Amongst the topics covered are the German civilians’ flight from the east
as the Red Army approached, including the case of the sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff", which had thousands of refugees on board. The original bell of the ship is on display. Covered too is the issue of widespread rape
of German women by Red Army soldiers, as well as the death marches
from the “evacuated” concentration camps
in the east.
Eventually visitors emerge into another huge, life-size walk-through diorama
, now of a war-damaged city street
with a Soviet T-34 tank
rolling over the rubble and with the name “Stalin
” emblazoned on its turret in Cyrillic. I read in some articles that this street is supposed to be the same as that intact pre-war one at the beginning of the exhibition. But you couldn’t tell, I found. The street also seemed wider to me. So I’m not so sure it’s really meant to be the same, now destroyed street. But anyway.
In a side room the issue of the atomic bombing
is picked up. A replica of the “Little Boy” bomb hangs from the ceiling and in a glass cabinet, molten glass bowls and fused crockery from Hiroshima are on display (cf. Peace Memorial Museum
The section about the immediate post-war era
covers not only the repatriation of Poles but also the expulsion of Germans from Poland and especially Czechoslovakia
. The war crimes tribunals are covered, both the initial ones at Nuremberg
, the collaborator trials (e.g. against Vidkun Quisling
), as well as later trials in the 1960s e.g. of Adolf Eichmann
. Several cases of perpetrators who were never brought to justice are highlighted too, including the remarkable post-war career in the USA
of Wernher von Braun, ”father” of the V2
Nazi terror weapon, the earliest American ICBM
s and the Saturn V rockets that launched the moon landing missions into space.
The redrawing of Europe’s map
is another topic, in particular the “shift” of Poland
to the west, and the Soviet retaking of the Baltic states. The road into the Cold War
with the Iron Curtain
is part of all this, and the final section of the exhibition laments the fact that despite Poland’s contribution to the war effort (both in active battle, in resistance and in the code-breaking) the West “betrayed” the country by leaving it to the communist Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
The final film
emphasizing all this is the most severe alteration made in the exhibition. It replaces a film originally played at the end of the exhibition that pointed towards post-WWII conflicts
, including refugee crises triggered by recent wars such as in Syria. This was changed after the intervention of Poland’s ultra-conservative and nationalist PiS party who deemed the museum not “patriotic” enough – see the comments about this controversy above
You emerge from the permanent exhibition through a different door, which happens to be right opposite the museum's shop (at least you don't have to walk thorugh the shop in order to get out, as is so often the case in museums these days).
All in all
, despite the departure from the museum’s overall tone in the final film, which leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, it cannot be denied that otherwise the museum is absolutely outstanding. Its emphasis on the human catastrophe that WWII
was, rather than on the details of military campaigns, make it truly humane and often very touching. Its mix of large-scale installations (and a few – very few! – large artefacts), in-depth interpretation via both traditional text panels as well as interactive stations offering loads of extra info, and a wide range of original artefacts, which are often highly intriguing small personal items, is very convincing. I found myself totally engrossed by this museum and spent far longer in it than I had anticipated. It was a little exhausting in the end, but never felt like “hard work” until the very last hall. So overall I cannot recommend this museum more warmly. It’s one of the best of its type in the whole world. Hats off!
just north-east of the “Old Town”, address: plac Władysława Bartoszewskiego 1, 80-862 Gdańsk
Access and costs: easy to get to and reasonably priced, but very popular so that at peak times access can be difficult or even impossible.
: From within the centre of Gdańsk
it is easily walkable. From the northern end of the Old Town waterfront at Targ Rybny walk up the street Sukiennicza, which bends slightly to the right, by which point you will already see the striking red museum building. Cross the bridge over the canal and turn right towards the steps down to the entrance.
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays.
Admission: a very reasonable 23 PLN for a regular ticket; various concessions apply.
The museum recommends three hours, but that is rather unrealistic, unless you are prepared to make do with just a very superficial scratching-the-surface kind of visit. I was forewarned by friends who had visited shortly before me and was advised to allocate half a day. But in the end I stayed well over six hours in the main exhibition, even though I did skip some parts, didn’t read every single physical text panel and only quickly skimmed through some of the interactive stations. If you want to read and see absolutely everything the museum has to offer, even a very long whole day may not be enough. It would be good if the museum offered tickets valid over two days, also so that you don’t have to exhaust yourself so much on one singe visit. But as far as I could tell, no such scheme is in place (unlike e.g. at Bletchley Park
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Gdańsk
The closest other place of dark interest is the Polish Post Office
, which is just about 250m (800 feet) to the south-west of the museum.
From the water bus jetty at the north of the Old Town waterfront at Targ Rybny you can get a boat to Westerplatte
, which is of course also historically (and politically) related.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Gdańsk
- WW2 Museum 01 - radical modern architecture
- WW2 Museum 02 - the exhibition is underground
- WW2 Museum 03 - start of the circuit
- WW2 Museum 04 - Stalinism
- WW2 Museum 05 - Italian fascism
- WW2 Museum 06 - Hitler and the Nazis
- WW2 Museum 07 - Volksempfänger
- WW2 Museum 08 - little Nazi
- WW2 Museum 09 - 3D-2D street reconstruction
- WW2 Museum 10 - Polish life before the war
- WW2 Museum 11 - interactive stations
- WW2 Museum 12 - old-school scale-model diorama
- WW2 Museum 13 - invasion
- WW2 Museum 14 - into battle
- WW2 Museum 15 - the medical side
- WW2 Museum 16 - Total War hall
- WW2 Museum 17 - half a Stuka reconstruction
- WW2 Museum 18 - display cabinets
- WW2 Museum 19 - personal items
- WW2 Museum 20 - condoms
- WW2 Museum 21 - trench art
- WW2 Museum 22 - hands-on exhibit
- WW2 Museum 23 - one of the few guns on display
- WW2 Museum 24 - submarine warfare
- WW2 Museum 25 - the siege of Leningrad
- WW2 Museum 26 - starvation rations
- WW2 Museum 27 - seeking shelter during aerial bombing
- WW2 Museum 28 - gas jacket for small children
- WW2 Museum 29 - bomblet
- WW2 Museum 30 - big bomb
- WW2 Museum 31 - varied display techniques
- WW2 Museum 32 - cinema
- WW2 Museum 33 - communism
- WW2 Museum 34 - Terror section
- WW2 Museum 35 - deportation train cattle car
- WW2 Museum 36 - bureaucracy of death
- WW2 Museum 37 - into the massacre woods
- WW2 Museum 38 - archaeological finds
- WW2 Museum 39 - massacre drawing by a deserter who fled to Switzerland
- WW2 Museum 40 - POWs
- WW2 Museum 41 - forced labour
- WW2 Museum 42 - concentration camps
- WW2 Museum 43 - bell from Gusen concentration camp
- WW2 Museum 44 - bowl from Dachau
- WW2 Museum 45 - camp blanket partly made from human hair
- WW2 Museum 46 - violin
- WW2 Museum 47 - personal stories
- WW2 Museum 48 - Auschwitz
- WW2 Museum 49 - shoe
- WW2 Museum 50 - deceptive tokens
- WW2 Museum 51 - Zyklon-B gas canister
- WW2 Museum 52 - giving the victims faces
- WW2 Museum 53 - resistance and partisans
- WW2 Museum 54 - continued war effort
- WW2 Museum 55 - Enigma machine
- WW2 Museum 56 - V2 debris
- WW2 Museum 57 - US Sherman tank
- WW2 Museum 58 - Little Boy replica
- WW2 Museum 59 - melted items from Hiroshima
- WW2 Museum 60 - end game
- WW2 Museum 61 - T-34 tank
- WW2 Museum 62 - Stalin pipe
- WW2 Museum 63 - Cold War and Iron Curtain
- WW2 Museum 64 - shop