The New York Times
March 25, 2007
For many years, the term Central Europe was missing from the American vocabulary. A simple expression was used instead: the Soviet Bloc.
The accession to the European Union of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states, and lately Bulgaria and Romania brings change not only in the symbolic dimension of language, but also in the geopolitical and spiritual dimensions. We traded in the Soviet Bloc for the European Union, the idea of which first took juridical form 50 years ago today.
The Polish story about Europe is quite different from the French or German, Spanish or Portuguese stories. In September 1939, our country became a victim of double aggression: by Hitler’s Third Reich on the first of that month, by Stalin’s Soviet Union on the 17th.
One evening in January 1940, the inhabitants of occupied Poland could hear a speech by Winston Churchill on their illegal radios. “In the bitter and increasingly exacting conflict which lies before us,” Churchill said, “we are resolved to keep nothing back, and not to be outstripped by any in service to the common cause. Let the great cities of Warsaw, of Prague, of Vienna banish despair even in the midst of their agony. Their liberation is sure. The day will come when the joy-bells will ring again throughout Europe, and when victorious nations, masters not only of their foes but of themselves, will plan and build in justice, in tradition and in freedom a house of many mansions where there will be room for all.”
For those of us who, during our years of democratic opposition to Communist rule, passed through the trial of underground activity and prisons, this joyous day arrived four years ago, when, in a national referendum, Poles decided by a decisive majority to join the European Union. A dream kept alive for years became a reality.
What was the content of this dream? Democracy instead of dictatorship, pluralism instead of monopoly, law instead of lawlessness, freedom of the press instead of censorship, diversity instead of conformity, open borders instead of barbed wire, tolerance instead of a reigning ideology, creativity instead of blind obedience, the possibility of welfare and development instead of poverty and backwardness. Finally and most important, we dreamed of a human right to dignity, an end to the subjection of every person as property of the state.
During the Polish accession referendum of four years ago, this dream turned out to be most convincing to Poles. But now that the dream is within grasp, Poland and other Eastern European countries have begun to turn their backs on it. Of the three parties in the coalition government that came into power in Poland’s national elections a year and a half ago, the leading one, the Law and Justice Party, was internally divided in the matter of Polish accession to the European Union. The two others were openly skeptical. The record of these parties’ successes in office is pitifully sparse, and one feels ashamed to talk about the particulars.
Rather than seize on its European Union membership to catapult the country forward, Poland’s coalition government finds itself looking, and moving, backward. In a speech in the European Parliament, a politician from one of the coalition parties praised the dictatorships of António Salazar of Portugal and Francisco Franco of Spain; he also published an openly anti-Semitic booklet. During a dry summer, a group of coalition legislators called upon the Parliament to pray for rain. A similar group proposed that the Parliament vote to declare Jesus Christ the King of Poland. Polish bishops sternly criticized this peculiar act of devotion.
The latest idea of the Polish governing coalition is “lustration,” which means looking for and eventually barring from public life all people found to have been secret collaborators with the security services between 1944 and 1990. The search will last as long as 17 years and will affect approximately 700,000 people, including jurists, bank managers, members of boards, civil servants, researchers and journalists. Everyone has to declare whether he used to be a collaborator. If someone refuses to make such a declaration or makes an untruthful one, he is barred from working in his field for 10 years.
The lustration law has been met with a wave of criticism and is about to be challenged in the Constitutional Tribunal. Many people have declared that they will not submit to the humiliating procedure, which reminds them of the loyalty oaths required by the Communist authorities during the martial law of 1980s. I have always considered it absurd to judge anyone solely on the basis of the police reports and denunciations — to believe that, in a country in which everything was a lie, the security services were the only institution guided by an evangelical respect for the truth. And I was not surprised that many of those identified as collaborators were exonerated later by independent courts.
The governing coalition employs a peculiar mix of the conservative rhetoric of George W. Bush and the political practice of Vladimir Putin. Attacks on the independent news media, curtailment of civil society, centralization of power and exaggeration of external and internal dangers make the political styles of today’s leaders of Poland and Russia very similar. Meanwhile, in Polish foreign policy, relations with Russia and Germany are marked by a preoccupation with events of the Second World War, including the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest. These obsessions lead to the isolation of Poland and a reawakening of the demons of European history.
I am writing about Poland, but what I say applies as well to many countries of post-Yalta Europe. Everywhere, the phenomenon of populism has appeared. Slovakia is ruled by an ethnic populist coalition every bit as exotic as the Polish government, including a party that proposed expelling the Hungarian minority.
In Hungary, the prime minister admitted that in order to respond to demands the government could not fulfill, “We lied day and night.” The right-wing populist opposition replied, “Traitor, Communist pig!”
In Lithuania, the former president, impeached for corruption, has made himself increasingly popular with an abundance of empty promises in his campaign for mayor of Vilnius. The president of the Czech Republic has made declaration after declaration against the European Union.
Populism can assume the shape of nostalgic post-Communism or anti-Communism with a Bolshevik face; it can also combine both of these tendencies. Its common core is the fear of change and escape from freedom. The losers of the transition away from Communism are taking revenge on its victors. It is possible that the deafness of those who led the transition to the dramas of the losers prepared the way for the electoral success of populists. But after the elections, the populists are finding it difficult to fulfill the expectations of those who believe that they will have manna from heaven.
Even as these things occur, the concrete results of the Polish accession to the European Union have been almost entirely positive. The union’s money has energized the Polish economy and developed its infrastructure — in a word, modernized Poland. For Poles, the other countries of the union stand open: they find work there, study there, learn about the world. The union is a magnificent adventure for Poles. All public opinion surveys indicate steady support for the union and diminishing support for the governing coalition.
For its new countries, the European Union is not only a provider of material resources, but also a model for democratic traditions and a political culture founded on pluralism and tolerance. Its canon of values — stemming from the traditions of Christianity and the Enlightenment, of democratic and anti-totalitarian thought — is well known. It is up to the new European Union members to make good on those values, and to bring to the union the best of their own.
For Europe is itself a work in progress, and Poland and the other newly accepted countries have much to contribute to its development, should they choose to do so. Among the new issues to which the union seeks answers are the place of Christianity in public life and the limits of multiculturalism in regard to the presence of Islam. So, too, is Europe’s foreign policy in flux, particularly regarding its relations with the United States and Russia.
For a Pole, it is evident that a strong Euro-Atlantic alliance brings hope for free nations. That is why Poland should help overcome the anti-American phobias in Europe, in the union’s interest and its own. The foreign policy of the European Union — especially toward Russia and other post-Soviet states — can be enriched by the Polish experience, but only if the Polish government is itself willing to use this experience. Will it want to? I am not sure.
Nonetheless, even with bad leadership, Poland remains democratic and sovereign. The times of dictatorship taught Poles that they need to defend their freedom, and this is what they know how to do. They will prove it in the next election. And the European Union will remain the ally of that freedom.
* Adam Michnik, the editor in chief of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and author of “Letters From Freedom,” is a visiting professor at Princeton. This article was translated by Irena Grudzinska Gross from the Polish.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company