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 …

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