Poland’s Grand Panjandrum

It is hard to engage seriously with Adam Michnik’s scattered collection of essays

Books Poland
Adam Michnik: His essays do nothing more than settle old scores (credit: Stephan Röhl/Heinrich-Böll-Siftung)

This book contains five essays. The print is large, as is the spacing; there are 14 lines to a page. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the margins are wide. This would work out at roughly 70 standard pages of text. Luckily there is an index, so one needn’t despair of ever again finding that elusive reference. And the book is divided into two parts, so one can easily find what one wants by subject. Part I, about morality and politics, contains two essays. Part II, about the French Revolution, contains three. Six people — an editor, the two authors of the six-page foreword, and three translators — toiled in this book’s production. It is published by a great scholarly press. Despite this, it appears from the notes that a man called Berlin (no given name is provided) wrote a book called The Crooked Timber — Irving, perhaps, or the owner of a sawmill.

The first essay is devoted to the “moral vision” of Willy Brandt, whose chief characteristic in Michnik’s eyes seems to be that he was an “anti-fascist”. He is thus described three times, in phrases such as “the chancellor and anti-fascist”. As in the Soviet Union, where “anti-fascist” was equated with “Communist” and “fascist” with “anti-Communist”, “anti-fascist” seems to be the highest term of praise in Michnik’s vocabulary. “Anti-Communist” is, in perfect accordance with this logic, a term of abuse.

Michnik praises Brandt’s “moral criteria”, displayed when he knelt down in front of the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto — a gesture said to have shocked the politicians of the Western world, although it remains unclear why it should have done so. It is then asserted that for Brandt, as for Michnik and those Eastern European dissidents of whom he approves, politics was “not a means of realising the interests of specific social groups, but a struggle to rescue values”. You could, as they say, have fooled me.

The rest of the essay is, somewhat bizarrely, a history lesson on Ostpolitik and an apologia for General Jaruzelski. Michnik quotes with approval Brandt’s belief that Jaruzelski was a Polish patriot who saved Poland from Soviet intervention, and later explicitly expresses his own belief that “martial law was decidely a lesser evil than possible Soviet intervention”. But we now know from a variety of Soviet archival sources, and have known for many years, that the Soviets did not intend to “intervene”; proof of this is available and has been published. We also know that Jaruzelski knew this perfectly well.

Michnik also neglects to mention, when speaking of Polish anti-Semitism, that at the time of the government’s anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 Jaruzelski, having been promoted from his position as chief political officer in the army to that of chief of staff, was responsible for the army newspaper, which was incomparably more virulently anti-Semitic than any other organ of the Polish press.

But it is during the second essay — against lustration — that this book turns; the purpose of the rest appears to be to serve as props, designed to ram home the point in a variety of less than subtle ways — for example, through references to Sulla’s proscriptions and McCarthy’s “witch-hunts”. “Lustration” refers to the process of identifying Communist collaborators (informers), making their names known and possibly, but not necessarily, banning them from holding public office for a period of time. In some Eastern European countries, such as the Czech Republic, it was successfully carried out; in Poland it was not, and remains a subject of controversy.

It soon becomes clear that lustration is for Michnik something of an obsession. The essay begins by suggesting a parallel between McCarthyism (“a triumph of informers and blackmail, a culture of fear”, we are told) and the Polish Right. Michnik warns darkly of the “virus of anti-Communism with a Bolshevik face” and the threat from the “virus of fundamentalism”, by which he means Christians and conservatives. He then lurches into a description of what (apart from lustration) these “fundamentalists” want: this turns out to be the eradication of, among other things, “pornography, and pansexuality, abortion and homosexuality, contraception and feminism”. These fundamentalists, he goes on, divide people into the “sinful” and those without sin; the former “must be destroyed and eliminated right away”, while the latter “have to take over the security apparatus, the system of justice, the world of media and financial operations, police records and the education of youth, institutions of culture and the national heritage”. And they think that “all of the people in power and those who worked for them [under Communism] ought to be treated as collaborators”. On lustration, Michnik’s disingenuousness reaches spectacular heights: can police reports be “more credible testimony about the life of a person from the opposition than the entirety of his or her life?” he asks plaintively. “The police archives are being searched in a wild and illegal way,” he complains, and “in a crudely uncivil way”. (Perhaps it sounds better in the original.) Those who lead the brave fight against the lustration-hungry Bolshevik fundamentalists, on the other hand — that is to say, Michnik and his friends — continue to reject “official lies” and “the culture of monologue” as they did when they were dissidents under the Communists; and they do so in “a spirit of dialogue and pluralism”.

Neither pluralism nor dialogue have  been much in evidence in Michnik’s attempts to silence his critics or his preference for flinging around accusations of “hate speech” and epithets like “fascists” and “Bolsheviks” instead of arguments and rational discourse. His favoured way of dealing with his critics in recent years has been to sue them for defamation. One false move and you’re in court, with all the power and wealth of Agora, the publishing group behind his newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, ranged against you. One of his recent lawsuits was against a journalist who had written that Michnik’s favoured way of dealing with his critics is to sue them for defamation, with the aid of corrupt judges. He was sued for defamation. (I am not making this up.) The journalist won his case, however — a rare victory. Another was sued because Michnik felt wrongly accused when he (the defendant) said that he (Michnik) had called him (the defendant) a fascist ten years previously. He lost. Yet another — an eminent and now quite elderly Polish poet — was sued when he wrote that Michnik was spiritual heir to the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish Communist Party. He, too, was defeated. The list goes on.

There seems little point in attempting to engage seriously with the book under review; even allowing for the eccentricities of the translation, it can only be described as a rant. Yet Adam Michnik remains one of the most influential figures in Poland; though readership has dropped, his newspaper is still a powerful influence. From assuming the leading role in the media after the fall of Communism, it came to dictate public opinion; dissenting voices, especially those calling for any kind of settling of accounts with the country’s Communist past, were — and still are — ruthlessly attacked and marginalised (as “extreme”, “fascist”, etc).

From the start Michnik set himself up as a moral authority, riding on his (unquestionably magnificent) dissident past, although few now consider him as such. He was the éminence grise behind the first post-Communist government to emerge in free elections, and he continued to wield considerable influence in government throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. His need to resort to litigation against his critics instead of responding to them is a mystery to many. 

Both in this book and elsewhere, Michnik is at pains to present the outcome of the 1989 “Round Table” talks with the Communists (semi-free elections, and a compromise with the Communists as a result of which General Jaruzelski became president of the first post-Communist government) and Poland’s subsequent transition to democracy as the best option that could have been achieved, and he is proud of his role in it.

This achievement is now, according to him, threatened by “nationalism”, “witch-hunts” and the forces of reaction in the form of “anti-Communist Bolsheviks” (i.e., conservatives and Catholics) whose hatred and lust for revenge know no bounds. And “fascists”, of course — not a word he uses in this book, packaged as it is for Western consumption, but he throws it around freely in Poland. Last year he organised a conference about the fascist threat looming over Poland.

Very little of all this is known outside Poland. Gazeta Wyborcza is also influential with foreign correspondents; it tends to be where they get their information. As a result, that information tends to be one-sided. And since it reflects the newspaper’s stance, very little is also known about the real state of affairs in Poland — and about how Michnik is really seen there. The extreme polarisation of attitudes, the accusations of “hate speech”, the increasingly hysterical and violent reactions on both sides — to this atmosphere Michnik and his paper have contributed in very large measure.

The three essays in Part II contain nothing original and little of interest about either the French Revolution or Stendhal; they are hooks on which to hang thinly-veiled attacks on Michnik’s opponents and inveigh against “revolution” and “cleansing”. The point would have been clear enough to Polish readers when these articles first appeared — it was hard to miss, since no other was discernible — but English readers will be mystified. The gist is that revolutions tend to be bloody and executions are bad things: “behind the backs of those idealists of cruelty and apostles of terror hovered out-and-out scoundrels, who used revolutionary slogans and the guillotine to settle dirty accounts, to blackmail, and to pursue shady interests. The idealist fanatic is followed by thugs, scoundrels and hypocrites. This is the fate of every revolution.” The conclusion is that revolutions should be avoided. The tacit suggestion is that we should be grateful to Adam Michnik for helping to avoid one in Poland. The money culture is bad, too; in the essay on Stendhal — a good, solid B-plus first-year student essay — Louis-Philippe’s slogan “enrichissez-vous!” (quoted from a book by a man called Zahorski) is viewed with disfavour.

On the way to these conclusions are scattered quotations, interspersed with oracular pronouncements. Here is one of the latter: “We like to reiterate that history is a teacher of life. If this is indeed true, we listen very poorly to its lessons.” In the essay on Stendhal, as if suddenly recalling his main point, Michnik laments: “Why hasn’t the evangelical and papal appeal ‘Fight evil with good!’ convinced the deplorable organisers of consecutive witch-hunts and devotees to the truth contained in the secret service archives?”

Most of the quotations are taken not from the original source but from some book in which they appear; some are translated not from the original French but from a Polish translation, often in the form of a quote in some Polish book; some are by unknown Poles whose claim to authority remains mysterious; for some no source at all is given. Chateaubriand is identified as a “Bourbon ideologue”, but Mr Andrzej Zahorski, abundantly quoted, is not identified at all.

The real mystery is that Yale University Press should have allowed such a book to appear under its imprint. Perhaps it was bought sight unseen; it does not appear to have been read, let alone edited.

The translation may be the book’s redeeming feature. The hovering scoundrels in the excerpt quoted above conjure up colourful visions. But my favourite is: “Bonaparte brought Brutuses and Scaevolas to his police to lavish medals on them, to blotch them with titles . . . A new generation was growing up, the one born of blood; from that time on, they were the ones to spill blood, but only of the other ones.” (No, me neither.)

The charms of the translation alone may be worth the price of the hardback, but other than that it is hard to see a reason to shell out £18.99.