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Polish Dissident Adam Michnik 'We Are Bastards of Communism'

Adam Michnik is editor-in-chief of Poland's leading daily and its most prominent former dissident. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the threat of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, the decline of the region's political culture and feelings of being treated like second-class citizens in Europe.

We are sitting in a room on the sixth floor of the building occupied by the leftist-liberal Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. There are stacks of newspapers and books everywhere, and on the walls are certificates from American and German universities next to photos of Adam Michnik with statesmen from around the world. Michnik is sitting at the table smoking an electric cigarette. He is the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most important nationwide daily newspaper, which started being published in 1989 as the first legal newspaper of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union. Michnik, 66, is the country's most prominent former dissident. He was sent to prison several times for his political convictions, starting at the age of 19. He wrote for underground newspapers and supported the independent Solidarity trade union. When the communist regime declared martial law in 1981, Michnik was detained. In the spring of 1989, he took part in the Round Table talks, as an adviser to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and negotiated the first free elections. Since then, he has focused his attention on the upheavals in Eastern Europe. For Michnik, the demonstrations in Bulgaria against the corrupt political class, the authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and nascent nationalism are all the delayed consequences of 40 years of oppression and patronization under communism. Michnik has a special relationship with SPIEGEL. When he was allowed to go to Paris in the 1970s to visit Jean-Paul Sartre, he called the SPIEGEL offices in Hamburg from Paris. He wanted to know whether its editors would like to print an essay he had written, which they did. "It was the first article I was able to publish in a truly important Western publication," Michnik says. "It sent a message to Poland's rulers that they could not sideline me with force."


SPIEGEL: Mr. Michnik, for more than six weeks now, thousands of people have taken to the streets  in Bulgaria  to demonstrate against their country's rotten political system. More than 20 years after Eastern Europe's democratic awakening, political conflicts are still characterized by turf wars and hatred. Why?

Michnik: We lack a political culture, a culture of compromise. We in Poland , as well as the Hungarians , have never learned this sort of thing. Although there is a strong desire for freedom in the countries of Eastern Europe, there is no democratic tradition, so that the risk of anarchy and chaos continues to exist. Demagoguery and populism are rampant. We are the illegitimate children, the bastards of communism. It shaped our mentality.

SPIEGEL: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is very radical in his approach to the press and the opposition, is not without his admirers in Eastern Europe. The same holds true in your country with conservative nationalist opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Is the authoritarian brand of politician characteristic of the East?

Michnik: We still have politicians who strive for a different type of country: Kaczynski as well as Orbán in Hungary. They want a gradual coup. If Orbán stayed in power in Hungary or if Kaczynski were to win an election in our country, it would be dangerous. Both men have an authoritarian idea of government; democracy is merely a façade.

SPIEGEL: Orbán says that a "centralist majority democracy" is needed so that clear decisions can be made, by decree, if necessary. Otherwise, he says, dangers like the economic crisis cannot be averted.

Michnik: Hitler said the same thing when he issued special decrees and emergency regulations. It's the road to hell. To be honest, Hungary is the country where I would have least expected this to happen, but it was the first to cut a hole into the Iron Curtain. In Romania and Bulgaria, perhaps, but not in Hungary. What is happening there now stems from a disappointment in the Social Democrats, who were in power before and drove the country into economic ruin. Fortunately, Poland quickly implemented the most important reforms needed to make the transition to a market economy at the beginning of the 1990s. It was different in Hungary. That's why the population is now disappointed and is calling everything into question, even the things it once dreamed of achieving.

SPIEGEL: Do people suddenly no longer care that someone is removing judges or editors-in-chief who are not toeing the party line? Have they forgotten what it was like under the communists?

Michnik: A part of society in our countries would still prefer an authoritarian regime today. These are people with the mentality of Homo sovieticus. But they also exist in France -- just think of Le Pen -- and even in Finland and Sweden.

SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?

Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.

SPIEGEL: Orbán, Kaczynski and others talk about wanting to finally finish the revolution of 1989 and settle scores with the communists. Do former communist officials still pose a threat today?

Michnik: I think it was a good thing that Poland chose the path of reconciliation and not the path of revenge. Nevertheless, I'm still treated with hostility. I was a supporter of (former German Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer. He too had several options after the war: to send the people around him who had supported Hitler to prison or to turn them into democrats. He chose the second path. We also wanted our new Poland to be a Poland for everyone. The other path would have meant the opposition assuming power immediately in 1989 and not sharing it with the old regime. We would have had to hang the communists from the streetlights, and a small, elite group would have been in charge. That would have been anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.

SPIEGEL: Many say that the old boys' networks have become re-established. In Bulgaria, several thousand people, including many members of a new, urban middle class, are currently demonstrating against their country's political class.

Michnik: Yes, but there were also free elections in Bulgaria, where the opposition has just won. In a democracy, the government is a reflection of society because people are elected. Sometimes the type of person from the old machine, who is everything but an appealing figure, happens to win an election. But democracy applies to everyone, not just the noble and the clever.

SPIEGEL: In Bulgaria, the secret police archives were opened only half-heartedly. And, in Romania, former members of the notorious Securitate are still active everywhere. What's it like to live in a society in which the culprits of the past are better off then their former victims?

Michnik: You're saying the same thing I used to say about Germany --"old Nazis all over the place." But they were ex-Nazis. Of course, Romania was an Orwellian state, and the Securitate was everywhere. All countries that emerge from a dictatorship have these problems, as did Spain and Portugal. But it shouldn't justify introducing an anti-communist apartheid.

SPIEGEL: The West is demanding that there be more of an accounting for the past. Is that too simplistic for your taste?

Michnik: Yes. After the fall of communism in Poland, we had a post-communist as president for two terms: Aleksander Kwasniewski. He was very good. He brought Poland into NATO and the European Union. The call to finally clean house is a propaganda tool of the right, which tolerates the leftists who it condemns. Kaczynski appointed a judge to the position of deputy justice minister who had once sentenced current President (Bronislaw) Komorowski to a prison term.

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