Tender announced for stunning new Enigma museum honouring Polish mathematicians who broke the code
A state-of-the-art museum honouring Poland’s role in cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code is a step closer to being realized after a tender process for its construction was announced earlier in the week.
Set to occupy the first floor of Poznań’s Collegium Martineum (formerly Collegium Historicum), it was here that the Cipher Bureau of Poland’s General Staff was located until the eve of WWII. A joint collaboration between city authorities and the local Adam Mickiewicz University, the project is set to cost in excess of 20 million złoty with substantial EU funding already secured.
With the grand opening pencilled in for late next year, the concept has been developed by New Amsterdam, a Kraków-based studio whose previous credits include Gdańsk’s Museum of World War II, Kraków’s award-winning Rynek Underground and the capital’s Katyń Museum.
Taking the form of a labyrinth, the Enigma Museum is set to promise a highly interactive experience with visitors challenged to try their hand at breaking ciphers and solving complex codes.
In addition to celebrating the accomplishments of Poland’s code crackers, one of the centre’s fundamental aims seeks to popularize mathematics and computer science and inspire a new generation to follow in the footsteps of the academics that helped change the course of the world.
In this regard, three individuals in particular stand to be lionized: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. Crucial to the Enigma story, it was this trio of maths boffins that made the biggest early breakthroughs.
Though the story is elaborate, an abridged version would begin in 1927. It’s then that a package from Germany thwacked down in Warsaw’s Customs Office with an accompanying note declaring it to be radio equipment. Accidentally sent from Germany alongside other parcels, the German firm that had sent it demanded its immediate return with such vigour that it immediately alerted the Poles.
With their suspicions raised, the package was covertly opened: inside lay not radio equipment, but a cipher machine that was carefully examined before being returned to its box and sent back to Germany. What the Poles had happened upon was Engima, an electro-mechanical rotor machine capable of sending encrypted messages. Though commercially available, this was the first time that Poland’s Cipher Bureau had dealt with such a machine – but it would not be the last.
Relying on polyalphabetic ciphers rather than the more basic linguistic codes favoured by others, Enigma found itself utilized by the German armed forces and it wasn’t long till they were bamboozling foreign agencies that had intercepted their messages. Across Europe, professional codebreakers were left flummoxed.
By 1929, the Polish Cipher Bureau realized that mathematicians could prove useful in their ongoing efforts to break Germany’s increasingly sophisticated Enigma codes, and in 1932 Rejewski, Różycki and Zygalski – all graduates from Poznań University – were headhunted to join the team. Using the theory of permutations, Rejewski soon worked out which message keys were being used, but without knowledge of the machine’s wiring and inner machinations he was unable to decipher any messages.
A lucky break arrived when a German aristocrat by the name of Hans Thilo-Schmidt was charged with getting rid of outdated Enigma code charts. Rather than destroying them, he sold them to a French agent.
Whilst allied security services in France and Britain failed to see the significance of these charts, Rejewski – after a few thwarted attempts – used them to crack the code and build an accurate replica of the exact machines that were being used by the German military at the time. Although the Germans were careful to change Enigma’s settings daily, the Poles had shown that the system wasn’t perfect.
What followed was the ultimate battle of wits. The Germans made continual efforts to improve their encryption processes while the Poles dug deep to find more ingenious ways to break the Nazi codes. When Rejewski’s technique became obsolete, Henryk Zygalski stepped up to the plate, conceiving what would later become known as ‘the Zygalski Sheets’, an apparatus comprising of 26 perforated sheets of paper that were used to detect sequences in messages that had been scrambled by Enigma.
Times, however, had become desperate. As clouds of war gathered over Europe, French and British agents met their Polish counterparts in Pyry outside Warsaw in July, 1939. Here, they learned everything that the Poles had thus far discovered. Armed with this newfound knowledge, the British now had a firm foundation on which to base their own much-publicized codebreaking activities at Bletchley Park.
Commonly credited with shortening the war by anything up to two years, what followed next undoubtedly saved the lives of millions – whether that would have been possible without the Poles is arguable, what isn’t is the need to remember the immense contribution made by Poland’s own number crunchers.