Polish Dissident Adam Michnik: 'We Are Bastards of Communism'

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Part 2: Nationalism as the Last Stage of Communism

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

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Eastern Europe
Funtom 07/31/2013
The still fragile Eastern European democracies lost their ideals. The question is why. Well, partly due to them being treated as 2nd class citizens within EU. Some of us still remember France's president Sarkozy uttering "...you'd better shut up..."
2. The Ukraine and Belarus clearly belong into the EU...
golestan 07/31/2013
…more than Turkey and maybe even the insular Brits. However first the present financial crisis has to be overcome, the community must be more consolidated, especially in fiscal matters. An administrative oversight has to be established and there has to be a greater readiness to concede some of the sovereignty issues in most countries, before any further expansion should take place. The latter may be a bitter pill to swallow, but only relative European unity can counteract Chinese world hegemony. The US has lost its moral compass and is accordingly no longer qualified to represent western values. What is happening in Hungary with Victor Orban assuming quasi dictatorial powers should not be permissible nor possible within the EU.
3. Confused perhaps?
techno 07/31/2013
While Michnik is certainly correct that the hangover of decades of the Russian version of Marxism prevents the eastern bloc from making progress, he is most certainly wrong that one of the enemies of progress is populism. Populist has a specific meaning. It is the name the members of the People's Party gave themselves in 1892. Because the People Party was an outgrowth of the Greenback Party, its platform was almost exclusively devoted to economic issues like the abolition of the Gold Standard, serious curbs on the power of large banks, and democratic controls on the creation of money. I suppose it is possible that this economic agenda is what Michnik has in mind when he calls someone a populist, but I seriously doubt it. Because in truth, there is no programme with greater potential for solving the economic crises facing the EU than what the Pops were pushing in 1892.
4. Nato
Colin Brace 07/31/2013
I would be most curious to know exactly what benefits Mr Michnik thinks Poland has accrued from being a member of NATO, beyond of course enormous bills for "NATO-compatible" armaments and other wasteful expenditures.
5. Democracy...?
thomas 08/01/2013
In my view democracy doesn't exist anymore today. It is the reign of capitalists everywhere you look. Elections are a farce because who can not afford the best specialists and biggest campaign will not win elections... Did you know for example that in the USA never a president was elected that spent less money on the campaign than his opponent, never that is! It is the same in the Eastern European countries...the dreaming is over and it is down to business today!
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