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In Search of Lost Meaning:
The New Eastern Europe

by Adam Michnik
University of California Press, 248 pages, $29.95

The Soviet Union’s domination imposed an alternative version of Poland on the republic that had been restored to Europe’s map at Versailles, and it was into this version that Adam Michnik was born in 1946, to Jewish Communist parents. His was this new Poland: Marxist, atheist, “radical.”

His Polishness was secular and “civic,” with no linkage to the history of kings, saints, and battles integral to other Poles’ celebration of their identity. He identified with a regime much more Jewish than the broader Polish society, and demographically overwhelmed by the millions of Catholic Poles, who were anti-Russian in a general way and also, perhaps in their majority, anti-Semitic”some intensely so, most less actively.

Once a leading dissident, then a founder in 1989 and publisher since, of Poland’s most important newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza ”which Václav Havel in his foreword called “the one genuinely independent media organization in post-Communist Europe””Michnik was thus born into the smaller, but politically dominant, of the two Polands. His coming to have an atypical “feel” for that “other” majority was, I think, critical to his sense of very critical divisions that remain, in post-1989 Poland, politically problematic. He remains, most notably, a very thoughtful “outside” observer of that Catholic majority among whom he lives.

The line between Christians and Jews is one of these divisions, filtering the historical experience of the Nazi occupation and after it the coming of “People’s Poland””a “clash of two different, sometimes opposing memories,” he writes in In Search of Lost Meaning: The New Eastern Europe , each “remembering and passing judgment on the other group, each group proclaiming its own innocence and nurturing its own ‘triumphalism of suffering.’”

The Holocaust “was the most important experience for Jews, while for Poles that experience was the loss of freedom and sovereignty. 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.

And yet, he notes with characteristic balance, unlike its counterparts in other Nazi-occupied states, the “Polish nationalist and anti-Semitic right did not choose the path of collaboration.” Instead, they “fought Hitler, and some helped rescue Jews.” So, his “specifically Polish” paradox: “One could be at the same time an anti-Semite, a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance, and a participant in the rescue of Jews.”

The majority of ethnic Poles felt the impact of a Polish form of Stalinism from 1948 until 1956”one for the most part looser and less bloody than those visited upon most of Eastern Europe, but this was an irrelevance to them, not having volunteered to be subjects in a comparative politics “experiment.” This Poland ended in October 1956, with a more moderate “Polish road to socialism” as the result. Ended were collective farming, some of the wilder excesses of Soviet-style economic development, and active attacks on the Catholic Church. The latter gave way to uneasy toleration that included released time from state schools for religious instruction.

A “true believer” in the announced ideals of socialism (which, in critical moods, he saw only indifferently implemented), Michnik was jailed as a student protester in 1968’s crisis. In this complicated milieu, he remained dissident but independent, anti-regime but secular and un-Catholic, and developed further a subtlety and restraint about rendering judgments on people as objects of politics, as actors in politics. In the years to follow, he did more time in jail (in the martial law 1980s) and reached out to Catholic intellectuals advocating dialogue and cooperation between the secular reformist left and the Church, the more effectively to pressure the regime.

The ten essays collected in In Search of Lost Meaning range broadly, from “anniversary” pieces (of the 1989 elections, the emergence of Solidarity, the imposition of martial law, and Hungary’s 1956 revolt) to treatments of historical memory and judgment (that part of the book is titled “The Work of Hatred”) to Catholic“Jewish relations.

Michnik grapples throughout with issues that were posed sharply by the realities of Polish life under a Soviet-imposed regime the vast majority had not chosen, one they could to a degree modify but not overthrow. These”captured only generally in terms like “Church versus state,” “active dissent versus quiet resistance,” “civic nationalism versus a more traditional ethnic/religious variety””have been for the last two decades the subjects of dispute in democratic Poland. And there has been no lack of controversy over guilt, collaboration, hypocrisy, and the public and private roles people played during the years of communism.

All ex-satellites have had to confront, or decide not to confront, these questions. In Poland the struggle over the past has been loud and public. Perhaps paradoxically, it has not gotten badly in the way of twenty-plus years of practical, contested electoral politics. Poles have, in human and electoral terms, handled these matters better than they have in “theory” and rhetoric. Memories run long (if often not accurately).

“Everyone” had been in some sense against the regime. (Who could admit otherwise? Who, save at risk of being labeled an idiot, could say they truly liked the regime?) This was, as this reviewer can attest, a massive difference between Warsaw and Moscow.

But whose record was cleanest in what was then geographically and demographically Moscow’s biggest satellite? The answer was and is not clear. The political game as played from 1956 on in Poland was looser than elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, and a world away from the USSR itself, but less repression made for more ambiguity. Moral judgments could be complicated, and opportunism in the pursuit of goals, honorable. Who worked hardest, and how, to keep the worst away”and who today can claim the status of “in-system” dissidents, working within the limits of the possible, illegitimately?

It is into these controversies that Michnik continues to wade, insisting on understanding people and their actions, in the context in which they acted, with fairness. But this is a controversial stance”so much of the Polish past cries out to so many, it seems, for precisely the kind of judgment that finally “settles” things. Was Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last Communist leader, a flawed hero who saved Poland from much worse in 1981? Or, as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger put it, a Russian general in a Polish uniform? What were his alternatives in 1981? What, had he not imposed martial law (in its actual Polish phrasing, stan wojenny , or state of war), might Moscow have done?

What, Michnik asks, if the general had “chosen to play the hero,” as had Imre Nagy in Hungary in 1956? Likely he would have ended on the gallows, the subject of a few statues and memorials erected years later, but “Poland would have paid a tremendous price . . . . It would have lost not the few dozen tragic victims of martial law, but probably a few dozen thousands, and a consequent ‘lost generation’ of young Poles . . . . Poland had no chance whatsoever, and nobody in the West would have risked a military conflict with the Kremlin.”

The opposition was both courageous and realistic, knowing that the possible change was limited as long as the Soviet empire existed, and thereby created a Poland wherein “people could feel freer and the specter of Soviet intervention [be] avoided.” This was the attitude that carried many Poles through the crises of 1956, 1968, 1976, and 1980“81 toward the final, nonviolent reckoning with the regime imposed forty-five years before “from above and abroad” in 1989’s revolutions.

Too sympathetic for some, Michnik can both criticize and praise characters as diverse as Gomu?ka and Wa??sa while separating the better performances from the more flawed ones calmly and with balance . Poles, he counsels, cannot ignore the past in the pursuit of comity today. “Too many [vile] things occurred, and this important collective experience needs to be discussed.?.?.?. We should focus on the mechanisms and on acts and not on people who were entrapped by the Secret Police.?.?.?. Analyzing a disease is not the same as hunting down human sins and human beings.”

There were those, for example, who would have denied a ceremonial burial in Krakow to the Nobel laureate poet Czes?aw Mi?osz, who had served the regime for a short time before his defection. There were the Kaczy?ski brothers, Jaros?aw and Lech, respectively prime minister and president some five years ago, whose talk about settling old scores seemed to Michnik excessive.

Yes, citizens have a right to know “about the people who poisoned their lives” without being mired in a near-industrialized settling of old scores in “games organized by the Great Lustrator.” Serious inquiry supports civility in public life, inquisition damages it, and whatever reservations some might have about his positions on particular issues, these essays show Michnik to be very much a mainstay of that civility.

Walter D. Connor is professor of political science, sociology, and international relations at Boston University.