IN MARCH 1968, when he was twenty-one years old, Adam Michnik had a copy of Forefather’s Eve, a play by the nineteenth-century poet Adam Mickiewicz, on his bedside table. He wound up reading it in jail. A production of the play in Warsaw had fired wild hopes among students, who saw in its anti-Tsarist themes a reflection of their own predicament under Communism, and saw in Mickiewicz a model dissident. Michnik led protests when the government ordered the play closed, and that was the beginning of a heroic career. He helped found the Workers’ Defense Committee, out of which grew the Solidarity movement that rose against Polish Communism through the 1980s and eventually toppled it in 1989. His book The Church and the Left laid the groundwork for an anti-Communist alliance between students, Catholics, and workers. He has edited Poland’s paper of record, Gazeta Wyborcza, since its founding in 1989. Reading Mickiewicz behind bars, Michnik now writes, “helped us realize our place in the long chain of Polish generations, all of which had to serve an apprenticeship in ‘fortresses and prisons.’”
In Search of Lost Meaning, a mixed bag of Michnik’s recent essays, describes a permanent war, carried on across centuries, between the astonishing nobility of Polish political culture and its equally astonishing scurrility. “The gene of Bolshevist villainy,” he writes, “the gene of Homo sovieticus, is deeply rooted in Polish public life.” Many of the essays collected here are indirect attacks—by means of historical example—on the Polish Law and Justice Party, run by president Lech Kaczyński, who died last year in a plane crash, and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who was prime minister until 2007. The Kaczyńskis spent much of the past decade pursing a policy of “lustration.” That is, they sought to purge from Polish political life anyone who had been tainted by Communism. They combed Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance for denunciations, including anonymous denunciations, from the Communist-era secret police.
In so doing, Michnik believes, they paid a compliment to Communism and put forward a false idea of it. No one can live under a dictatorship without being somehow compromised. Mickiewicz himself—who signed an oath of loyalty to avoid prison—would not have survived the most cursory lustration. (“I duped the despot by crawling like a snake,” Mickiewicz wrote.) As Michnik says of his own generation, “We all came out of prison wounded.”
In recent years Michnik has shocked part of his Polish readership by arguing against the lustration of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who ruled Poland in the last decade of Communism. Jaruzelski has claimed that he imposed martial law in 1981 as a means of forestalling a Soviet invasion. Michnik accepts this explanation, and even applauds Jaruzelski’s courage. “What price would Poland have paid,” Michnik asks, drawing a comparison to the rebellion of 1956, “had Jaruzelski chosen to play the hero, following the example of the Communist Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy?” Michnik notes that in 1988, freed from the danger of Soviet intervention by the promises of Mikhail Gorbachev, Jaruzelski agreed to elections—not free ones, but a step in that direction.
Since it is not based on a realistic understanding of human predicaments, the lustrating impulse, as Michnik sees it, can easily degenerate into campaigns of calumny and denunciation, to which modern Poland has been particularly vulnerable. Michnik mentions the assassination of Poland’s prime minister, Gabriel Narutowicz, in 1923, after a campaign of anti-Semitic slander (although Narutowicz was not Jewish) and the attacks on Czesław Miłosz as “a traitor to the nation and his friends,” for having served Communist Poland as a cultural attaché after the war. But Michnik pushes his point too far here: one can grant Miłosz’s greatness as a man of letters, acknowledge his break with Communism, and still be troubled that he served a government that was not just Communist but Stalinist.
Running through all the essays in this collection is a very Polish question: what kind of moral existence does a people have when it has no sovereign political existence? In an especially cogent passage, Michnik makes the general point that a campaign of hatred is in special danger of gathering momentum in a country that is unfree. More and more people give it not just lip service but sincere assent:
If I refuse to participate, then the powers that be may punish me. But I do not want to admit even to myself that I am ruled by fear. … Therefore, I explain to myself that it is not fear leading me but rather a profound sense of responsibility to the homeland, to the faith, and to the proletarian revolution.
The “I” Michnik is using here is not just a literary device. He is admirably hard on his own conduct. It was a pivotal moment in the history of postwar Poland when the country’s cardinals wrote a letter to their German counterparts in 1965 that contained this line: “We forgive you, and we ask your forgiveness.” It would take an entire book to lay out the letter’s theological grounds, but the political consequences were simple and—to Communists—alarming. As Michnik notes, the letter not only deprived Polish authorities of a unifying object of hatred, it also undermined their casting of their country as an innocent victim in the war. It showed, too, that “the episcopate was the only sovereign national institution in a non-sovereign country,” Michnik recalls. The Gomulka government mobilized a campaign to berate the bishops—in particular the metropolitan of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II)—and to punish their supporters. “I myself participated in this ignominious spectacle,” Michnik recalled in 1976, “though the very thought of it makes me blush with shame.”
Questions of sovereignty and moral responsibility loom over the book’s final chapters. Michnik examines two pogroms committed by Poles—one in Jedwabne in collaboration with German troops in 1941, one by a mob in Kielce in the war’s immediate aftermath. Michnik, who is Jewish, argues that Polish guilt must be understood in its proper context. Although he does not deny a Catholic-Jewish conflict, he believes the more important context, in the case of the two pogroms, is “a Polish-Communist conflict, of which Jews often became victims.” Poland was not the only country where the retreat of Soviet armies in 1941 was marked by “horrific crimes against the Jews.” And in Kielce: “For Jews, the entrance of the Red Army into Poland meant the end of the ‘time of the gas chambers,’ while for Poles it marked the beginning of the new wave of repressions and foreign domination.”
So when, in 1987, the late historian Jan Błoński urged in the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny that Poles make a moral reckoning with the Holocaust, Michnik thought “it was not the best time for Błoński to tell the painful truth.” Communism was still in place. As long as Poland lacked sovereignty, an examination of conscience was unlikely to be either meaningful or productive. Michnik’s thinking matched the aged Brechtian clichés about how survival comes before morality. But he now believes Błoński was right, and calls his essay “one of the most noble and beautiful texts ever written in the Polish language.” For Michnik is struck by the way Błoński took a vital question and showed, as Poland’s bishops had done a quarter century earlier, that the usual way of examining it was backwards. Rather than put off moral responsibility until he was sovereign in his own country, he reclaimed his sovereignty through an act of moral responsibility.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.