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Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland Satisfying Times for Defenders of Freedom
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The corpse of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi, beaten up, shot at and looking much the worse for wear, is now splayed out on the floor of a refrigerated meat locker, an object of scorn and ridicule by the very people he claimed loved him, ...

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Published on October 22, 2011 13:19 • 173 views

November 9, 2009

We in Poland began the Berlin Wall's collapse. But for all the gains, people remain deeply dissatisfied

I belong to a generation that liked to repeat the words of the 19th-century Russian writer Pyotr Chaadaev. "I didn't learn to love my nation blindfolded, gagged and with my head lowered. I believe that a man can only be useful to his country when he can look at it clearly."

This was something we often said to ourselves when our rebellion against the dictatorship in Poland seemed hopeless. We thought we would not live to see it gone, but still we refused the blindfold and the gag. We carried on protesting, as writers and intellectuals; in student actions, workers' strikes and demonstrations during religious festivals; and by founding the first opposition organisations. They called us troublemakers and bandits. But it turned out we were doing the right thing.

The Workers' Defence Committee started in 1976 – after a wave of workers' protests – with just a few hundred people, scattered across Poland. By August 1980, after the great strikes of the Baltic and Silesia, it had become Solidarity, a movement that numbered several million people from every social class, a national confederation pushing for a free, independent and just Poland. It was driven underground – but not destroyed. Solidarity survived further years of dictatorship until, in 1989, it became an open partner in the new administration.

It was in Poland that the Berlin Wall began to crumble. As 1989 dawned, the Polish people, and the Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians – and Russians themselves – were all praying for the same thing: the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event would help not just us, but our Russian friends as well.

Early in the year negotiations between Poland's communist regime and the Solidarity opposition began. Talks culminated in elections – only semi-democratic – on 4 June 1989. But something genuinely historic took place. For the first time, elections in a communist state led to the crushing defeat of the Communists. The opposition's victory - supported by the Catholic Church and the authority of John Paul II - was complete.

But it was not this victory that made the world's headlines the following day. Instead it was the massacre of students demanding democracy in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing.

Thus on the same day the world saw the two faces of communism, its two possible reactions when threatened. One regime, in Beijing, used the language of tanks and executions; the other, in Poland, chose instead the language of the ballot box, opening up a road to democracy and change that would soon reach the other nations of eastern and central Europe.It was in Poland that the first stones of the Berlin Wall started to crumble. ItPoland had overcome the curse of its own history, a history marked by partitions, which wiped our country off the political map of Europe; of tragic insurrections doomed to failure, and hundreds of thousands of victims of hopeless battles for freedom.

We know that nothing in history ever has just one cause. Poland's change was also a result of the changes in Russia; of sensible US politics; of Pope John Paul II and the Catholic church; of the Afghan people, who opposed the Soviet invasion. And there was also the deep economic crisis in the Soviet Union itself.

But I will never forget that it was the Poles who created the model for compromise between ruler and ruled, for a peaceful dismantling of dictatorship, and for an equally peaceful transition of power into the hands of those who had won in parliamentary elections.

How Poland has changed in two decades. It has become a democratically lawful country with a healthy economy. For Poland, the last two decades have been the best in the last 300 years. And yet so many Poles today are deeply dissatisfied. Why?

The great Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote of his homeland: "Under the banners of education, art and free expression, a type of toad and crocodile will come to power more frightful than anything that ever came out of Spain's Inquisition – a narrow-minded, self-righteous, overbearingly ambitious type, totally lacking in conscience. Charlatans and wolves in sheeps' clothing will be able to lie and dissemble to their heart's content." The Russian genius foresaw what happens to a nation when it acquires freedom after years of slavery. This is what has happened in the new post-communist democracies.

In Poland, it was the workers in the great factories who won change, their strikes forcing the authorities to give way. But those same factories were also the first victims of the ensuing transformation. Modernised to compete in the marketplace, they cut their workforces. Instead of a miracle of freedom, people found themselves staring redundancy in the face.

The revolutions of 1989 had not mentioned mass privatisation or social inequalities; or sudden growth in crime, corruption and mafia activity; or, worst of all, permanent unemployment. This was the reality of the post-communist period offered up to the Poles and their neighbours. Political freedom, a free-market economy, the end of censorship and the opening of borders, had not been enough to effect a balance. The destruction of a despotic regime had led not just to liberal democratic values – it had also marked the start of a wild rush for wealth. A people enslaved for decades, unable to measure the worth of their own work, instead began to seek instant miracles and gratification by applying the exigencies of brute force, cynicism and bribes.

Of course, there has been change. A new generation of politicians has been created. Those who had previously been excluded from legitimate political and economic activity are its leaders today. But at the same time we have had to deal with the growth of corruption on a massive scale, and with unfulfilled promises about social progress. The chasm dividing rich and poor has deepened – the only difference is that many of the richest people today were prominent activists.

In some post-communist countries an aggressive ethnic nationalism is on the rise. In others, religion is being used by those in power as an anti-democratic ideology, an instrument of intolerance and exclusion. Post-communist transformation creates not just winners, but many losers: those who are unemployed, rejected, pushed into poverty. The often brutally greedy new elites are slow to learn democratic habits, respect for the law of the land, pluralism or tolerance.

So our world is now one of open questions. We ask: what is the future for our democratic systems? And we are comforted to know that this same question is being asked throughout democratic Europe. Despite all the mistakes, blunders and scandals, Poland today – 20 years on – is a normal, democratic European country. It's the kind of country I wanted my generation to bequeath to our children. Although, to tell the truth, I wish that it was a rather better one.

Berlin WallPolandAdam Michnik
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Published on November 09, 2009 12:30 • 61 views

August 15, 2008

They may have been naive to expect change, but the Prague Spring and Polish student movement paved the way for freedom

What was the Prague Spring, or the events of 1968 more generally? Their meaning, it seems, has become more, not less, debatable with the passage of time.

My generation was forged by protests and police truncheons, by the hopes generated not only by the Prague Spring, but also by the Polish student movement that March, the Paris events of May, and the first signs of Russian democracy voiced in the early books of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. For those of us imprisoned in Poland, the Prague Spring was a harbinger of hope. Even Poland's communist newspapers, read behind bars, somehow conveyed news of the great changes taking place in our neighbour to the south.

So I remember my shock when I learned about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, and the trauma that lingered long after. On the 10th anniversary of that invasion, Václav Havel, Jacek Kuron, and I, along with other dissidents, met on the Czech-Polish border. There is a photograph of that occasion: future presidents, ministers, and parliamentarians who were at that time pursued by the police like common criminals.

These encounters were an extension of the climate of the Prague Spring. We all felt that we were creating something new, something that might, one day, turn out to be an important component of democracy in our countries.

And so it was. In August 1989, I proposed in the Polish diet a draft resolution apologising to the Czechs and Slovaks for Polish involvement in the 1968 invasion. I felt that a historical circle was being closed: the ideas of the Polish March and the Prague Spring, the ideas of our mountain meetings, were becoming political facts. Three months later, the Velvet Revolution began in Prague.

The main difference between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution was that the former was mostly the work of Communist party members and others who wanted to bring about "socialism with a human face." As a result, some people nowadays dismiss the Prague Spring as a power struggle between communists. But there were many roads to – and through – communism, and many of them converged with national traditions.

Indeed, communism was attractive for many reasons, including the idea of universal justice and humanised social relations; a response to the great spiritual crisis after the first world war and, later, to the Nazis' genocide; and the conviction that western dominance of the world was nearing its end. Finally, in a world divided by Yalta, communism was, for some, the only realistic choice for central Europe.

In Czechoslovakia in 1968, communist reformers appealed to democratic ideals that were deeply rooted in the country's pre-second world war past. Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Czechoslovak communists and the symbol of the Prague Spring, personified hope for democratic evolution, real pluralism, and a peaceful way to a state governed by law and respectful of human rights.

By contrast, in Poland, which had witnessed its own tentative opening in the March student movement, a nationalist-authoritarian faction exploited all that was intolerant and ignorant in Polish tradition, employing xenophobia and anti-intellectual rhetoric. Mieczyslaw Moczar, the Polish interior minister and leader of the nationalist faction, combined communist rhetoric with a language proper to fascist movements in order to mobilise the masses against the "cosmopolitan-liberal intelligentsia."

The Polish freedom movement of 1968 lost its confrontation with police violence; the Prague Spring was crushed by the armies of five Warsaw Pact members. But in both countries, 1968 gave birth to a new political consciousness. The Polish and Czech opposition movements that emerged only a few years later had their roots in the events of 1968.

Attitudes towards communism were always a controversial subject for the anticommunist opposition. Some rejected communism in all its forms. The majority though, in one way or another, had some contact with communism, through intellectual fascination, participation in state institutions, or the cold conviction that only by accepting the reality of life under communism could one do something useful for one's country. These people, "tainted by communism", constituted the majority of the participants in all revolts against the communist dictatorships.

There was, however, another category of people: the "careful and untainted", who absented themselves from the world of politics. They hated communism, but, convinced that the system could not be reformed, they avoided the democratic opposition. While others took risks or sat in jails, they functioned in official and legal structures.

One should not blame anyone today for such behaviour. But it is surprising when these people accuse participants in the Prague Spring and the democratic opposition of links with communism.

Communism was obviously an instrument of Soviet domination over conquered societies, but it was also a modus vivendi for large parts of these nations under the conditions in which they were obliged to live.

The Prague Spring appealed to elementary values: freedom, pluralism, tolerance, sovereignty, and rejection of the dictates of communist orthodoxy. When I recall these events after 40 years, I see not only revolt, but also the great illusion that it might be possible to outfox the Kremlin and painlessly move society from communism to democracy. This belief was naive, but it also underpinned a national awakening in which the potential for freedom found its voice.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2008

1968: The year of revoltPolandRussiaCzech RepublicAdam Michnik
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Published on August 15, 2008 00:00 • 58 views

August 3, 2008

Bronislaw Geremek struggled for a free Poland and believed that everyone can change for the better

When a friend dies unexpectedly we recall his face, his smile, the conversations forever unfinished. Today I can picture Bronislaw Geremek, who died last month in a car crash in Poland last month, in jail and hear his hoarse shouts from behind the bars of the prison on Rakowiecka Street in Warsaw. I see and hear him in Castel Gandolfo, addressing Pope John Paul II.

I see him also during underground meetings of Solidarity and during the 1989 Round Table negotiations; I see him in our parliament declaring the end of the Polish People's Republic, and on CNN announcing that Poland had joined Nato. And I remember dozens of private conversations, discussions, and arguments conducted over almost 40 years.

Bronislaw Geremek was one of us, to quote the words of Joseph Conrad, a writer whom Geremek admired. He was an activist in the democratic opposition and in Solidarity, who fought for Polish independence and human freedom, and who paid a high price for it. He was one who wanted to remain true to the tradition of the January Uprising and the Legions of Józef Pilsudski, to the tradition of the insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto and Warsaw Uprising, to the values of the Polish October and the student revolt of 1968, to the values of KOR (Workers' Defense Committee) and of Solidarity.

Geremek knew that exclusion and enslavement destroy human dignity, and degrade our humanity. He knew that dictatorships lead to moral shabbiness. He valued freedom, authentic knowledge, independent thought, the courage of nonconformity, the spirit of resistance, the beauty of Polish romanticism, disinterested behaviour, and human dignity. He reacted to moral shabbiness with revulsion, but also with fear. He saw it as a source of disposable masses, a human reservoir for totalitarian movements.

He was both idealist and pragmatist. As a child, Geremek witnessed the degradation of those enslaved in the Warsaw ghetto. Miraculously saved from the Holocaust, he spent the rest of his life dreaming of a Poland where people lived in dignity and respected the dignity of others.

Geremek fought for this Poland. He believed that everyone can change for the better, and that we must nurse the spirit of dialogue, tolerance, and the ability to forgive and to reconcile. He wanted a democratic Poland in a strong and democratic Europe. Now that he is gone, we see how much he accomplished.

Geremek knew that a feeling of national identity and pride is priceless, and that in Poland, condemned to struggle for independence, they are necessary virtues. But he also knew that in the interwar period, the concept of "Polishness" was used as a tool of aggressive nationalism.

For Geremek, Polishness denoted neither a biological community nor a blood lineage. What was important was the nation's history, whether that history was mythologised or de-mythologised, apologetic or critical. In relation to the past, he used to say, we make a choice of traditions, and with its help we express our views and options.

Although events like the Stalinist terror were outside the Polish tradition as he conceived it, Geremek knew that a communal identity demands consciousness of the entirety of its history, all its good, all its evil. We must remember that acts which we now reject were also possible within our community, as we work to make what was once possible impossible.

Bronek was proud of Poland's stubborn will to freedom, its achievements, the democratic transformation which, thanks to the compromise reached at the Round Table negotiations, allowed for a bloodless end to dictatorship. He was proud of Poland's membership in Nato and the European Union, of Polish economic successes.

But he also worried. A year ago, together with Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, he warned: "A state that we treated as a common good is being treated as a trophy to be seized by the rulers. Freedom and independence, to which we tried to point the way, are not accompanied by a sense of solidarity, especially towards those who are weaker and poorer. Insults and squabbles fill our political stage and ruin the citizens' trust in the government. Institutions which should protect the law are becoming tools in the hands of the rulers, and we are witnessing serious accusations that they are being abused." This declaration was accompanied by a dramatic appeal to "cleanse Polish politics of dirt, fury, and hatred."

Geremek's essay about Marc Bloch, the French historian and anti-Nazi resistance fighter, is among his greatest intellectual and moral accomplishments. In writing about Bloch, Geremek described himself, particularly when he recalled Bloch's self-definition as being part of "liberal, disinterested, and humanely progressive traditions of thought".

And he was describing himself as well when he cited Bloch: "Attached to my country, fed with her spiritual heritage and its history, unable to imagine any other country where I could breathe freely, I loved and served it with all my strength. I am a Jew. I see this as a reason neither for pride nor for shame. I appeal to my ancestry only in one single case: when I encounter an antisemite. Nevertheless, I would like to leave just this one honest testimony: I am dying, just as I lived, as a good Frenchman."

Geremek had two messages about antisemitism. The first, directed inside Poland, was that we have to fight antisemitism and all its manifestations, even when marginal. The second, directed to western public opinion, was that we should not play with outmoded stereotypes.

Bronislaw Geremek died with a clear conscience and clean hands.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

PolandAdam Michnik
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Published on August 03, 2008 03:00 • 62 views

May 10, 2007

The second phase of the Polish revolution must not be permitted to consume either the will to freedom, or the democratic state.

Recently, the European parliament condemned the Polish government's attempt to strip Bronislaw Geremek of his parliamentary mandate. A leader of Solidarity, a former political prisoner, and the foreign minister responsible for Poland's accession to Nato, Geremek refused to sign yet another declaration that he had not been a communist secret police agent.

The EU parliamentarians called the Polish government's actions a witch-hunt, and Geremek declared Poland's "lustration" law a threat to civil liberties. In response, Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski accused Geremek of "damaging his fatherland" and "provoking an anti-Polish affair." The same phrases were used by Communists when Geremek criticised their misrule.

What is happening in Poland, the country where communism's downfall began? Every revolution has two phases. First comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge.

The Polish Solidarity revolution followed an unusual course. Solidarity, pushed underground when martial law was declared in December 1981, survived seven years of repression and then returned in 1989 on the wave of Gorbachov's "perestroika." During the round table negotiations that brought about the end of communist rule, a compromise was reached between the reform wing of the communist government and Solidarity. This cleared a path to the peaceful dismantling of communist dictatorship throughout the entire Soviet bloc.

Solidarity adopted a philosophy of compromise rather than revenge, and embraced the idea of a Poland for everyone rather than a state divided between omnipotent winners and oppressed losers. Since 1989, governments changed, but the state remained stable; even the post-communists approved the rules of parliamentary democracy and a market economy.

But not everyone accepted this path. Today, Poland is ruled by a coalition of post-Solidarity revanchists, post-communist provincial trouble-makers, the heirs of pre-second world war chauvinists, xenophobic, and anti-semitic groups, and the milieu of Radio Maryja, the spokesmen for ethno-clerical fundamentalism.

Worrying signs are everywhere: the authority of the courts is undermined, the independence of the constitutional tribunal is attacked, the civil service corrupted, and prosecutors are politicised. Everyday social life is being repressively regulated.

Why is this happening? Every successful revolution creates winners and losers. Poland's revolution brought civil rights along with increased criminality, a market economy along with failed enterprises and high unemployment, and the formation of a dynamic middle class along with increased income inequality. It opened Poland to Europe but also brought a fear of foreigners and an invasion of western mass culture.

For the losers of Poland's revolution of 1989, freedom is a great uncertainty. The Solidarity workers at giant enterprises have become victims of the freedoms they won. In the prison world of communism, a person was the property of the state, but the state took care of one's existence. In the world of freedom, nobody provides care. It is in this anxious atmosphere that the current coalition rules, combining George Bush's conservative nostrums with the centralising practices of Vladimir Putin.

Solidarity veterans believed that the dictatorship's demise would be followed by their own reign. But guilty communists were not punished, and virtuous Solidarity activists were not rewarded. So feelings of injustice gave rise to resentment, envy, and a destructive energy focused on revenge against former enemies and old friends who seemed successful.

The losers refused to admit that the achievement of freedom was Poland's greatest success in 300 years. For them, Poland remained a country ruled by the communist security apparatus. Such a Poland required a moral revolution in which crimes would be punished, virtue rewarded, and injustice redeemed.

The means chosen by these losers' parties after they won the general election in 2005 was a great purge. Lustration, according to early estimates, is expected to affect 700,000 people and take 17 years to complete. A list of names found in the reports of the security services is to be prepared and made public. Moreover, it is now the duty of every one of the 700,000 people subjected to lustration to declare that he or she did not collaborate with the security services. Those who refuse or file a false declaration are to be fired and banned from working in their profession for 10 years.

Cardinal Dziwisz of Cracow reminds us that there can be no place "for retribution, revenge, lack of respect for human dignity, and reckless accusations." Never since the fall of communism has a Catholic cardinal used such strong words of condemnation.

Should lustration have taken place at the beginning of Poland's transformation?

The goal of the peaceful revolution was freedom, sovereignty, and economic reform, not a hunt for suspected or real secret police agents. If a hunt for agents had been organised in 1990, neither Leszek Balcerowicz's economic reforms nor the establishment of a state governed by law would have been possible. Poland would not be in Nato or the European Union.

Today, two Polands confront each other. A Poland of suspicion, fear, and revenge is fighting a Poland of hope, courage, and dialogue. This second Poland - of openness and tolerance, of John Paul II and Czeslaw Milosz, of my friends from the underground and from prison - must prevail. I believe that Poles will once again defend their right to be treated with dignity. The second phase of the Polish revolution must not be permitted to consume either its father, the will to freedom, or its child, the democratic state.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2007.

PolandEuropean UnionAdam Michnik
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Published on May 10, 2007 00:00 • 44 views

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