SPIEGEL: Nationalism is flourishing once again under authoritarian, right-wing leaders, such as Kaczynski and Orbán. How can this be happening in a united Europe?
Michnik: In times of great turmoil, such as we are experiencing today, people search for something to cling to. In Hungary, it's the Trianon complex. No Hungarian has forgotten that, under the Treaty of Trianon, two-thirds of the kingdom had to be handed over to neighboring countries after World War I, and that many Hungarians now live across those borders. Orbán uses this instrument to his advantage.
SPIEGEL: He preaches a new "Hungarianism."
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.
SPIEGEL: And anti-Semitism is on the rise along with it. According to a US study, 70 percent of people in Hungary say that the Jews have too much influence on business activity and the financial world.
Michnik: Poland is the only country in Eastern Europe that was able to control itself in this respect. Anti-Semitism is no longer socially or politically acceptable in Poland.
SPIEGEL: How should the West treat Orbán?
Michnik: We should be openly critical. Europe cannot remain silent on Hungary. Sanctions should be imposed, if necessary. When the West imposed sanctions on communist Poland after martial law was declared, we said that we didn't notice anything. But they were ultimately effective.
SPIEGEL: The government in Warsaw has also been restrained in its criticism of Hungary.
Michnik: It has the feeling that the Eastern European EU countries are already being treated as second-class members, and that open criticism would make the discrimination even worse.
SPIEGEL: Why do those in the East feel like second-class citizens within the EU?
Michnik: Look at Poland. There are those there who are convinced that we belong in the first class. It has to do with our messianism, with the feeling of being Christian Europe's advance guard on the frontier of the barbaric East.
SPIEGEL: Poland is doing well economically, and it's getting a lot of money from the European Union.
Michnik: That's true, but people don't realize it. Seen from the perspective of Paris, Prague or Berlin, Poland is a great country. But turn on the Catholic station Radio Maryja, and you'll hear that Poland is the land of disaster and is allegedly being run by people who want to biologically wipe out the Polish nation. Some 30 percent of Poles believe that the plane crash in Smolensk, in which then-President Lech Kaczynski was killed, was the result of a conspiracy between (Polish) Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin.
SPIEGEL: Where does this urge to constantly see the bad side of things -- which is not just prevalent in Poland -- come from?
Michnik: Poland and the entire East haven't seen as much change as in the last 20 years in centuries. But it hasn't reached our consciousness yet. We still love to be pessimists.
SPIEGEL: Is that why hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans flock to the West?
Michnik: Life is still more comfortable in the West than in Eastern Europe. Besides, our countries were hermetically sealed in the past. Now people can finally get out, and they're taking advantage of it. People make money in the West, and then many come back and open a business at home. That's not a bad thing. Conversely, more and more people are now coming to Poland from Belarus and Ukraine.
SPIEGEL: In your view, do those countries also belong in Europe?
Michnik: I would be very much against Europe sitting back and doing nothing on the issue of Ukraine. The French have openly said that they don't want Ukraine, while the Germans have said as much, just not as clearly.
SPIEGEL: As a dissident, you paid a high price for your political convictions. Why do former members of the Polish opposition no longer play a role in politics today?
Michnik: It probably had to happen. Politics in a democracy requires other psychological conditions. The fight against communism was a little like a war: We put on the uniform and went to the front, and after the victory many of us withdrew. We dissidents had very high moral standards. No one believed that communism would actually collapse in front of our eyes. But then it happened, and suddenly people like me, with a completely different background than most of their fellow Poles, were in power. But we hadn't learned to make policy according to the rule of a democracy. Besides, our noble aspirations were probably too much for the majority of the people.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Michnik, thank you for this interview.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED by JAN PUHL, MARTA SOLARZ and CHRISTIAN NEEF