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An Embarrassing Anniversary

Adam Michnik , translated from the French by Olivia Emmet

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the events of 1968 raises troubling questions. What was the Prague Spring? A moment of liberation or the result of Communist intrigue? A reform aimed at destroying the Communist dictatorship or a masquerade staged to save it? And who were the people responsible for the Prague Spring? Were they organizers of a revolt against totalitarian oppression or foxes who changed their skins according to circumstance?

I belong to the generation whose character was formed by the student meetings and police attacks that took place at the time. In Poland we were inspired by the hope of the Prague Spring and also by the first swallows of Russian democracy in the early books of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. We were fascinated by the accounts that reached us from the banks of the Seine, where French students had organized a carnival and called it revolution. There was, we saw, a fundamental difference between the ‘68 which was a central experience for people of my generation in Paris or California, Rome or Frankfurt, and the ‘68 which, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, came to symbolize, first, liberty regained, even if only for a short time, and then the bitter failure of that liberty in its struggle with totalitarian oppression.

For those of us who had undertaken to defend from Communist censorship the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Forefather’s Eve—inspired by the November uprising of 1830 against Russia—the Prague Spring was a symbol of hope and opportunity, a taste of fresh air. I will not forget how tense we were in Poland as we read the news from Czechoslovakia after Dubcek came to power early in 1968. Our own abortive demonstrations in Warsaw against the regime started on March 8, the day I was arrested, and after that the Communist press was my only source of information. Even behind the bars of Mokotow prison, however, we could read the exhilarating news that broad democratic changes were taking place in the neighboring country to the south. I remember equally well the shock of hearing that the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries had intervened in Czechoslovakia in August 1968. For the next twenty years I found it impossible to talk to Czech or Slovak friends without feelings of guilt.

On the tenth anniversary of that intervention, Polish and Czechoslovakian dissidents met at the Polish-Czech frontier, in the Sniezka district of Czechoslovakia: the Czechs and Slovaks included Václav Havel, Peter Uhl, and Jaroslav Sabata; among the Poles were Jacek Kuron, Jan Litynski, Antoni Macierewicz, and myself. A photograph shows the future president seated side by side with future cabinet ministers and parliamentarians: at the time, we were all criminals pursued by the police. Our guide to the meeting place was Janusz M., then a Polish philosophy student with leftist sympathies. Twelve years later I saw him on television speaking on behalf of the extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic fringe. How differently the dissidents have evolved. On the one hand there were those who followed the path of a “velvet revolution,” one that would take place through democratic change, without violence, hatred, or revenge; and on the other, there were those who wanted “cleansing,” and who campaigned for rigid decommunization—using the quintessential Bolshevik technique of destroying people by using information from police archives.

But during our early encounters as montagnards* we were united by the conviction that we must resist Communist oppression; that such resistance was possible, and could be carried out intelligently. Our clandestine meetings were attended by former Communists, former anti-Communists, Catholics, and agnostics. The events of the Prague Spring and of our own attempts to organize a liberation movement in March 1968 merged in a common memory, a common identity. We were certainly very far from imagining that in twelve years some of us would want to decommunize others by denying them their full rights as citizens. We were thinking about liberty rather than vengeance; about encouraging tolerance rather than replacing the orthodoxies of communism with orthodoxies of another kind. In those days former Communists and former anti-Communists were all targets of the same repressive measures, and that served to link us together, as did our sense of our own strength in numbers. Agnostics turned with sympathy to the words of the Gospels, while Catholics have never been more tolerant and ecumenical.

For me, these montagnard meetings were an extension of the Prague Spring, and of the student gatherings that took place in the years leading up to 1968. We all felt that our exchanges were creating a new kind of relationship which might become a valuable part of democracy in our countries.

In August 1989, on behalf of the parliamentary Citizens’ Club, I proposed a decree by which the Polish Diet would, in the name of the Polish people, apologize to the Czechs and Slovaks for participating in the military intervention twenty-one years earlier. In doing so I felt that a historic circle was being closed, that authentic new political developments were crystallizing the ideals of both the Polish protests and the Prague Spring—the ideals of our montagnard meetings. Three months later the velvet revolution burst out in Prague.

Today I recollect these banal facts with some nostalgia, and observe with astonishment that they are no longer banalities. The Prague Spring and the Polish movement of 1968 are being interpreted in ways that are increasingly distorted. The Prague movement that had been the inspiration and witness of an entire generation has turned into an object of derision, a symbol of Communist deceit. And we hear more and more frequently that the spring of 1968 was simply a time when various Communist factions were battling for power; that so far as the general national interest of Czechoslovakia or Poland is concerned, those events were without importance, since the Communists on all sides deserved each other.

We should remember that communism was not born in 1945—or in 1939. We should take seriously the motives of those who believed in communism: the motives of people like the gifted Polish Communist poet Wladyslaw Broniewski, who was put in a Lwov prison by the Soviet Communists in 1940. The now widely held view that communism was nothing but the work of Soviet agents makes it impossible to understand the paths that people took to communism, the attractions of Communist ideology, and the experiences that led people to break with it.

The attractions of communism were various and have been much discussed. It presented an ideal of justice and of different, more humane relations between individuals; it drew people to it during the great intellectual crises that followed the massacres of the First World War and then the Nazi genocide; it gained strength from the historical and philosophical conviction that Western civilization was finished and that, following the example of the Roman Empire, capitalism would crumble before the dynamic barbarians from the East. Finally, collaboration with Communists seemed to many Poles something that followed from the Yalta conference. In the divided world produced by the Yalta agreement, a Communist state seemed the only realistic possibility for Poland.

With the death of Stalin, these arguments collapsed, one after the other. From then on, growing numbers of people began to liberate themselves from the narcotic effects of the Communist mystique of historical necessity. The first full-scale crisis in the Communist bloc took place in Hungary in 1956 when secret police agents were hanged from the street-lamps of Budapest and Soviet tanks moved into the city. Two facts became clear: on the one hand, that most Hungarians rejected communism, and, on the other, that Moscow was determined to reestablish it by force. The events of 1956 also revealed that communism could evolve: the Hungarian Communist Imre Nagy became the leader of an independent government. After he was killed, he became a national hero, the symbol of Hungarian resistance to communism. For a few months in the autumn of 1956 the Polish Communist Wladyslaw Gomulka was also a hero in the eyes of the Polish people, respected by nearly all Poles for releasing Cardinal Wyszynski from detention, and proclaiming the “Polish road to Socialism,” including private farming and coexistence with the Church. He was credited with rescuing Poland from Soviet intervention in October 1956 when Soviet troops were moving toward Warsaw and then withdrew after Khrushchev came to Poland to talk with Gomulka. He then proceeded to dissipate a unique opportunity for this country. However, from October 1956 on, Poles were able to take part in public life by expressing criticism. And a Poland in which Wyszynski was able to make a triumphal return to his palace, in which Leszek Kolakowski taught at the university, and in which the distinguished Polish composer, writer, and journalist Stefan Kisielewski, a columnist for the leading Catholic weekly, could speak in the Diet was no longer a purely totalitarian country.

The second great crisis of communism in Czechoslovakia and Poland occurred in 1968, when new political movements appeared whose ideas could not possibly be expressed in the language of orthodox communism. These democratic movements formulated their opposition in the language of “socialism with a human face” and they rejected any totalitarian order. The two countries reacted quite differently to this pressure from below. In Czechoslovakia, reformers inside the Party believed that democratic change was necessary. In Poland, the authoritarian and nationalist tendencies within the Party, associated with Miecyslaw Moczar, the chief of police, became a decisive force.

In both cases, it seems to me, these reactions provided ways by which the Communist system then in power could become less isolated and take root in the national society. In Czechoslovakia, Communist reformers supported democratic ideals in opposition to their Stalinist heritage. In Poland, the leaders of the authoritarian and nationalist wing of the Party, exploiting the fact that members of the anti-Nazi resistance were persecuted in the Stalinist years and later neglected, used the rhetoric of xenophobic nationalism both to attack the intelligentsia and to establish a partnership with the traditional Polish elements that had always represented intolerance. Alexander Dubcek, leader of Czechoslovakian Communists, and symbol of the Prague Spring, embodied the hopes of democratic evolution, genuine pluralism, and a peaceful transition to a state based on law and fundamental liberties. Mieczyslaw Moczar chose a different path, infusing Communist rhetoric with the vocabulary inherent in fascist movements and ideologies; he tried to win mass support by mobilizing the public against “liberal and cosmopolitan intellectuals.”

The forces of Polish liberalization lost their battle against the police; the Prague Spring was suppressed by troops from the five Warsaw Pact states. But in both our countries, 1968 dispelled some illusions and gave birth to a new political consciousness. The Polish Committee for the Defense of the Workers (KOR) and the Czech Charter 77—although born some years later—had their origins in the events of 1968.

Prague Spring and Polish October: both reflected a crisis of the Communist Party. In the name of justice and truth, of modern values and democracy, dozens of members of the Communist Party refused to obey the orders of the nomenklatura. And in this sense, both the Polish October and the Prague Spring are a part of the history of communism, because many former Communists were among the leaders of these revolts; and these events were also turning points in the recent history of our peoples. To characterize this history, as some now do, as solely a matter of quarrels inside the Communist Party is to deny an important moment of national history, and to falsify collective memory.

Indeed, there has always been a deep division at the heart of anti-Communist opposition about the appropriate attitude to take toward communism and Communists. From the first, some dissidents rejected communism in its entirety. And these people deserve our respect because such an attitude required a heroism of which only some were capable. But most people accommodated themselves to the Party line in one way or another, either for intellectual reasons, or because they worked in State institutions, or because of a cool perception that the only hope of helping the country lay in accepting the reality of Communist power. Most of those engaged in the mass revolt against Communist dictatorship, therefore, had to some degree dirtied their hands in their dealings with Communist power.

The rare souls who behaved heroically did not, for the most part, indulge in premature condemnation of those who collaborated; instead they rejoiced to note that in their actions and attitudes people were evolving from obedience to opposition. A new category of citizens emerged—“the prudent, with clean hands”: people who for years had kept themselves at a distance from any political conflict. There was no doubt that these people detested communism and believed it had no value whatever. They stayed apart from official life and did not join the Party. However, their anticommunism, and their sense that the system was beyond reform, led them to conclude that they must remain equally distant from the democratic opposition. While other people went to prison and took risks each day, these prudent people with clean hands lived and worked in safety, inside the official, legal structures.

One cannot reproach anyone who behaved in this way. Further, there were moments when to stay apart was in itself an act of courage. But one can be astonished at the spectacle of these prudent people with clean hands accusing those who participated in the Prague Spring and in the democratic opposition of having maintained links with communism. People who were prudent under the Communists and later on expressed a belated, compensatory aggressiveness toward communism only rarely base their attitudes on genuine moral concerns or have views that are intellectually interesting or creative.

The prudent people with clean hands, however, tend to present matters in a completely different light, dividing society into, on the one hand, heroes who were steadfastly engaged in war against Communist oppression and, on the other, more or less venal people in the service of Soviet power. That is why—as these people see history—it is now more important to stigmatize and eliminate those with dirty hands than it is to recognize and honor the heroes who took a major part in national resistance, for they too had previously soiled their hands by their involvement with communism. For the new Party of the clean and prudent the Prague Spring was an effort by the Communists to show themselves in a fashionable, favorable light—a desperate, last ditch attempt to save Communist power. And that is why, today, even the bravest and most deserving people who took part in the Prague Spring have also become victims of political cleansing and decommunization.

Some might expect that I would think along such lines myself. At the age of eighteen, at a time when such adventures were not entirely fashionable, I found myself in a Communist prison. I never joined the Communist Party, never tried to find myself a niche in any official organization—and yet I consider the punitive approach of people with clean hands absurd and unhealthy, completely at odds with Christian morality, formal logic, and simple human decency. I also see it as yet another example of the dangerous but all too common tendency to ascribe faults to someone else rather than proceed with a thorough review of one’s own conscience. Certainly communism was an instrument of Soviet power used against subject peoples. The regime was alien, imposed on these peoples from without, but it became, nonetheless, a way of life for a large part of the population, setting the conditions under which they were obliged to live. The theory that communism was nothing more than an apparatus in the service of a foreign power creates confusion rather than clarity. Imre Nagy and Alexander Dubcek have become part of their countries’ national legend, but they were both in fact Communists, which adds an element of ambiguity to their biographies.

And when we consider the Polish October of 1956 and the Prague Spring we find the same ambiguity. Both of these revolts, to a considerable extent, arose from the crisis of communism, in which partisans of democratic reform confronted defenders of Stalinist orthodoxy. This conflict always had limits, both geopolitical and intellectual. The geopolitical limits were set by calculations of the likelihood of Soviet intervention and the intellectual limits by the felt requirement that any reforms take place within the frame of socialism. Today, we live and argue in a different political climate, and it is intellectually dishonest to judge the earlier period by today’s standards.

Prudent people with clean hands are quick to remember that many opposition leaders—victims of repression, who served terms in prison—were for a time Communists or close to Communists. But they recall less frequently the conformist moments in their own lives. As I have said, those moments should not be a matter for reproach. Everyone is entitled to be prudent—even afraid. But not to sit in judgment on those who show greater courage.

During the Prague Spring—and afterward, during the period of democratic opposition (between 1976 and 1989)—the discussions that counted were concerned with practical rather political questions. No one asked what philosophical or political doctrine one subscribed to. The primary question was whether or not one was prepared to fight for liberty, to risk one’s skin, to go to prison, and to resume the fight when one emerged. And that is why we should be concerned not only about former believers who have rejected communism but must also give careful scrutiny to all those prudent people with clean hands who today describe the Prague Spring essentially as a conflict between Communists. One must ask if their clean record may not reflect opportunism or cowardly flight from conflict. During the years of Communist dictatorship, to what extent were these prudent people with clean hands the objects of savage attacks and measures of repression? In March 1968, in Poland, as I remember, members of the Polish United Workers Party—Communists—rose in revolt; professors belonging to the Party signed declarations of solidarity with protesting students. Nothing was heard from the prudent people with clean hands.

I do not believe in the self-proclaimed virtue of these prudent people with clean hands. Virtue does not boast; it is not animated by vengeance and does not embrace hate but, rather, seeks understanding, conciliation, and forgiveness. Virtue employs the vocabulary of the defense rather than the prosecution, and never seeks to grind a man into the ground. The Prague Spring and the Polish protests of March 1968 both put forward the fundamental principles of liberty, pluralism, tolerance, and sovereignty, and refused to obey the dictates of orthodox communism. In these events, now a quarter century old, I see not only a rebellion—which is obvious—but also a grand illusion. We thought we could successfully dupe the Kremlin and painlessly shift society from communism to democracy. Our naiveté has become clear. But I shall never forget that the period marked a profound national awakening, which enabled us to express our longing for liberty. And I shall also never forget that the Prague Spring was followed by “normalization,” and the Polish student meetings by a destructive cultural barbarism. The events of 1968, therefore, evoke both pride and shame: Polish shame at having committed troops to the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The experiences of 1968 produced rough drafts of two models, two routes by which to transform Communist societies: one leading to democracy, the other to nationalist ideology. This debate occurred at the heart of communism—and in doing so it gave rise to several misunderstandings. In 1968 the Romanian dictatorship was admired throughout the world for refusing to participate in military intervention against the Prague Spring. Today, communism no longer exists, but we still watch as liberty and tolerance struggle against political revenge, and ethnic or religious xenophobia.

It is worth repeating: 1968 was a time of awakening, when meetings and debate flowered, producing a changed atmosphere and a renewed will to live. But afterward, everything sank back to “normal,” and “normalization” turned Czechoslovakia into a cultural desert. In Poland, a large-scale revolt of workers swept away Gomulka’s gang, but Gomulka was followed by Gierek, who imposed measures of stabilization that were both gross and ineffectual. But we—the children of 1968—were already different; we had already been freed from illusions. And in consequence we did all sorts of things, both intelligent and stupid, but we had at least learned to take direct responsibility for them.

The controversy over 1968 is about both past and future; about the right to take pride in what happened—and our duty to coolly analyze our own mistakes. It also poses the central question: Will the future be one of tolerant, open, liberal societies? Or will the world once again be based on lies, and produce a dictatorship of new orthodoxies?

Translated from the French by Olivia Emmet

  1. *

    Editor’s note: Since neither Czechs nor Poles were allowed passports to leave their countries, they met on the border which runs through mountains, and they thus referred to meetings of montagnards.

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