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Back to the Future

The following conversation recently took place in Warsaw between Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Adam Krzeminski, the editor of the Polish weekly Polityka, in which it first appeared.


Adam Krzeminski: Can we talk first about the hopes and fears that agitate our part of the globe, then about the tensions and osmotic processes that we can perceive, and finally about the state of mind of intellectuals contemplating the hectic changes in the world around them. You both have a record of registering trends before they are generally visible. Hans Magnus Enzensberger once “fled” to Cuba in order to look at socialism in close-up. For his part Ryszard Kapuscinski has been active as the chronicler of the revolution in the third world since the late 1950s, and went from Honduras via Ethiopia and Iran to end up as a witness of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

A brief question to start: When you look at the future, which predominates, your fears or your hopes? Are you fascinated by the new beginnings which Hans Magnus Enzensberger described in the preface to the Polish edition of his essays, or are you horrified by the impending chaos which Ryszard Kapuscinski discovered in Russia?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Perhaps I could start by saying that we Europeans have a genius for historical masochism; we are masters of self-criticism, skepticism, and pessimism. That is also our strength, we are better at it than other people. The reverse side of the coin is that with our panoply of apocalyptic prophecies, historical guilt feelings, and weak nerves, we imagine that we have ceased to be as important as we used to be. There is no need to labor the point that there were times when Europe overrated its position in the world, when it succumbed to the delusions of its Christian, missionary, and civilizing role, and set up the whole machinery of imperialism. Today, however, the opposite is the case. We fail to perceive that, whether we like it or not, we Europeans still have a major part to play. And we find it hard to live up to it. This is particularly obvious in foreign-policy issues, but it is also a general symptom.

Krzeminski: Mr. Kapuscinski, you once claimed that Europe was dead, that only the third world was alive, and that the “third world” was everywhere, especially in the former “second” world of the Socialist Bloc.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: That’s what I said in the 1980s when nothing much was happening in Europe. It is true that for decades I devoted myself to the third world because I was convinced that was where the authentic historical events were unfolding. What fascinated me was the spectacle of history in action. I avoided Europe because it had been set in stone by the Yalta settlement and because everything there was known from start to finish. This picture was shattered by the events of 1989 which created a completely new situation in Europe and have combined to initiate a new debate about its fundamental nature. This debate functions at two levels. One is determined by the question: How can we define Europe and what are its frontiers? The other question concerns Europe’s place within the great transformation taking place throughout the world. This is why Europe suddenly became interesting for me.

Krzeminski: This brings me to a question for Enzensberger. In the 1960s you went to Cuba. At that time the third world revolutions were an object of fascination for many European leftwing intellectuals and also a source of hope. Peter Weiss with his plays about Vietnam and Angola1 is a typical example. In the 1980s you turned your attention to Europe. In your collection of essays Europe, Europe, the center—Germany, France, and England—is absent. Instead we find the periphery: Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Hungary, and of course “Bohemia by the Sea.”2 It is your vision that Europe will be reanimated from the margins. A few years have passed since then and now you are writing, “For God’s sake, we are witnessing the start of a great wave of migration and we are already in the midst of a global civil war.” Does all this represent a retreat from the wider world to Europe, a withdrawal to its internal lines of defense?

Enzensberger: If you put the question like that you compel me to answer in a more personal way than I should like. Our work, Ryszard’s and mine, is a constant struggle against ignorance, not just other people’s, but our own as well. My interest in the third world originated in the fact that it was simply missing from the intellectual landscape. My interest in the Communist countries developed because the nature of communism in practice could not be gleaned from the writings of Marx and Engels. That cost me a year’s stay in Cuba, but it was worth it. While I was there I discovered what was at stake. It will come as no surprise to you that I went there and not to the GDR. As for my European project of the 1980s, that had a polemical purpose. It was aimed at the provincialism of the metropolis. The French imagine that Paris is the only city worth thinking about, the British think the same of London, while the Germans are generally preoccupied with gazing at their own navels. My intention was to take a look at that other Europe on the margins, since in my view ignorance about this Europe is endemic.

Krzeminski: At the same time we hear calls for a great alliance of the White Man—Gore Vidal maintains that the white peoples are becoming a minority, a wealthy minority to be sure, and that the non-whites would have every reason to be rather less than enthusiastic about our achievements over the last five hundred years. For that reason he proposes, only partly jokingly, we ought to create an alliance stretching from North America to Russia and including Europe. This alliance would not of course be directed against all people of a different color, since that would be suicide, but its goal would be the defense of traditions and values, as well as our economic opportunities.

Kapuscinski: I have been living in Berlin for some time now, and do a certain amount of traveling in Western Europe. I visited Russia and the former Soviet Union, quite recently to gather material for my book on empire.3 I have to report that the basic idea that there are two “Europes” is not only still valid, but has even been strengthened since 1989. That has to be explained by the general sense of disillusionment. The year 1989 saw the birth of many naive expectations—on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Both sides have now discovered that this was all very unrealistic. In Eastern Europe people counted on obtaining quite basic things without any delay: economic recovery and the freedom to travel.

Because of the widespread skepticism toward Communist propaganda people also refused to believe its claims that something like a recession was possible in the West. At the same time, many people imagined—and I have seen this with my own eyes in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—that if only you had a new state, you would be given a passport and be able to travel in the West. For its part the West badly miscalculated with its theory that communism was a completely artificial system, and that once it was abolished democracy would instantly break out. They closed their eyes to the fact that the Communist system contained two features that suited Eastern societies: the welfare state and full employment. Today the relations between Eastern and Western Europe are in deep crisis in my opinion. The expectations and enthusiasm have evaporated; what remains are misunderstandings and mutual distrust. For developments have shown that these two Europes are completely different from each other.

Enzensberger: I can go along with that, but would like to shift the focus slightly. This vast psychodrama or sociodrama which we are involved in seems to us to be entirely without precedent. But it could be said with equal plausibility that for the past forty years we have been living in the cocoon of a twofold idyll: a nasty idyll in the East and a more pleasant one in the West. And we could regard this entire period as a deviation from the historical norm. Toward the end, incidentally, stagnation was the rule in the West too.

Krzeminski: Brezhnevism…

Enzensberger: …à l’occidentale. If we take this view of the matter, it could be said that in a certain sense we have returned to a normality which we have never known because we have lived in protectorates, and the essence of a protectorate is that it has no need to take responsibility for itself. It is the protector who assumes the responsibility, for a certain price, of course. At the moment we all find ourselves in a historical situation in which we have become actors again, and have to bear responsibility and solve our own problems. And nothing has prepared us for this. Hence our tendency to make ourselves out to be smaller than we are. No one has taken this further than the Germans. They say, “We are so insignificant, so peaceable, so harmless that there isn’t anything much that we can actually do.”

Kapuscinski: I think that everyone, absolutely everyone, the whole of Europe, has adopted an attitude of utter helplessness. This is evident in reactions to Yugoslavia. None of us knows how to react to the developments unfolding before us in Yugoslavia, Russia, and the third world. Nor should we overlook the fact that the concept of the third world has undergone a change. When the term emerged at the end of the 1950s it referred to the so-called colored continents, the former colonial world of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. That concept was racial, geographical, and historical. Today the third world is a geographical and cultural concept, a state of economic and civilized underdevelopment. The abolition of the conflict between East and West, communism and democracy has been superseded by a new, much simpler division into developed and underdeveloped countries. The latter are what we now call the “third world.” But the underdeveloped countries include “white” ones. So the present division does not run along racial lines, but is defined in terms of living standards and political systems.

Enzensberger: Unfortunately I again find myself agreeing with you. But I think we have to go even further. This so-called third world is not only not a unit in socio-economic terms, it is not even a historical subject. Mao’s theses about the international class struggle maintained a revolutionary perspective: the poor organize in order to fight the rich. But nothing of that sort is in evidence today. On the contrary, the contradictions within Asian societies are extreme and when we look at some underdeveloped nations we are tempted to talk of regression. What we find are losers shooting at losers. The best instrument of analysis today would be the world market, because a fully developed world market has only come into being since the end of World War II.

  1. 1

    The Vietnam-Diskurs and the Gesang vom Lusitanischen Popanz. All footnotes have been supplied by the translator.

  2. 2

    Shakespearean scholars are divided about the meaning of the reference to the ship touching “upon the deserts of Bohemia” (The Winter’s Tale, III, 3). This is as nothing compared to the consternation it has at times provoked in Central Europe where it has been taken as a sign of the ignorance of the region among civilized nations from that day down to more recent times. Much cited is Prime Minister Chamberlain’s reference in 1938 in the context of the Munich agreement to abandon Czechoslovakia to the Nazis to “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

  3. 3

    Imperium (Knopf, 1994). Reviewed in the November 3 issue of The New York Review.

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