Rebels Who'd Had a Cause: Havel and Michnik After Communism

August 28, 2014 Topic: DemocracyHistory Region: Czech RepublicPolandEastern Europe Tags: Communism

Rebels Who'd Had a Cause: Havel and Michnik After Communism

Two of Eastern Europe's bravest dissidents on the temptation of disillusionment after liberation saw a wave of greed, corruption, hedonism and cynicism.

Likewise, Havel says that “the people who to a greater or lesser degree cocreated the regime, and those who silently tolerated it, but also all of us who unconsciously got accustomed to it, we are all in it together.” Just about everyone was guilty in some way or another. Indeed, such widespread collaboration (if it can be called that) made many Eastern Europeans reluctant to acknowledge the heroism of the dissidents. They inspire distaste, Havel says, because they are “the living pangs of conscience.” (In much the same way, it has been said that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.) In any case, to get over the past, to move forward, forgiveness was just as important as justice. Havel speaks of the need to “find the appropriate balance,” though he recognizes that doing so wouldn’t be easy in the current climate.


THE PROBLEM was that the end of Communism had created an ideological vacuum, and a “coarse and primitive nationalism” was rushing to fill it, in Michnik’s words. Xenophobia, anti-Semitism and ethnic intolerance were on the rise. Talk about racial purity and the need for a strong leader was back. In 2007, Michnik observed, “We should look at the practices of Putin to understand the nature of the threats to democracy in the countries of post-Communist Europe.” Prophetically, Havel said in 2008 that Moscow “glances at neighboring states as though it doesn’t know exactly where Russia begins and where it ends.”

For Havel, what was required in our “uncanny” post-Communist era was a new global awareness. “In my opinion the most important division is between people who care only for their garden and those who are interested in what’s beyond their fence.” That is, he remained an idealist to the day he died, urging people to be better than they thought they were, though his enemies were no longer as easily defined as the Red Army and the secret police. Now they tended to be abstractions—selfishness, intolerance, the darker impulses of the human soul. The solution he reached for (such as it was) consisted of a change in mentality itself, a deepening of spirituality that he called an “existential revolution,” almost a worldwide moral reformation. One senses in him a genuinely religious temperament, even if he never turned to organized religion. Michnik, who knew him as well as anybody, says that Havel was in essence a “homo religiosus,” though, to be sure, there was no more heterodox religiosus. “I accept the Gospel of Jesus,” Havel said in a summation of his theology, “as a challenge to go my own way.”

Michnik’s feet have been planted more firmly on the ground—no doubt because he isn’t an artistic visionary like Havel. Not that there isn’t room for spirituality in his thinking: he speaks of the need for “metaphysics” in any civilized society. But he seeks no grand moral reawakening. Rather, his calls are for the more humble virtues: compromise, dialogue, mutual understanding and pluralism. He opposes vengeance, fanaticism in any form and all dogmatic certainties—in politics, economics, religion and philosophy. He celebrates contingency and ambiguity. His is the idealism of moderation.

In An Uncanny Era, his hero is Havel, who “was afraid of all closed ideologies,” and when asked about his political orientation, he responds, “Havelian.” But The Trouble with History has a different, more surprising hero—the nineteenth-century writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by the pen name Stendhal. Michnik sees his own age—and ours—as a mirror image of Stendhal’s Restoration France, when cynicism and careerism prevailed, and politics had deteriorated into little more than a struggle for power and money. “Let us look at things through Stendhal’s eyes,” Michnik writes. “Instead of democracy, money ruled; instead of a great idea, money; instead of quality and taste of life, money; instead of dignity, honor, and solidarity, money.” Meanwhile, the forces of repression were swooping down to eradicate all freethinking, individuality and moderation.

Michnik understands that so-called realists will accuse him of “empty moralizing.” (They are the ones who have never had a glass of beer in their lives.) But they have a point. What does Michnik propose to put in place of power and money? Still, it has to be said that conditions in Eastern Europe are making voices like Michnik’s more urgent than ever. He is someone to be praised and prized. As uncertainties grow on Poland’s eastern border, fear and paranoia will surely grow with them, with Vladimir Putin’s own belligerent nationalism matched by the very same tendencies in Russia’s neighbors. Calls for a strong leader to root out and eliminate the nation’s enemies will only grow louder. Moderation will be the first victim, pluralism the second.

The “most dangerous” of the arguments used by Communist Poland to legitimize the evils of the regime, Michnik reminds readers, was playing on the fear that Germany was only waiting to repeat history and pounce again. Those same arguments can now be employed looking east, with the same malignant result. At the present time, everything points to a rise in nationalist hysteria on Russia’s borders, and if the Poles needed any additional push in that direction, there is always the fact that Russia’s 2009 war games culminated in the nuking of Warsaw. It’s not a good time for the Adam Michniks. Moderates need all the help they can get. As a former dissident, however, Michnik can at least say that he’s been through this before, and worse, and though he tends to be more pessimistic than his idol Havel, he has endured enough to have earned his own strain of optimism, however ironic it may be. “In Poland,” he says, “everything is possible: even change for the better.”


Barry Gewen is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Zbigniew Kresowaty​.