Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Hans Magnus Enzensberger; drawing by David Levine

No better moment to introduce Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book to an English-speaking public could have been found than the summer of 1989. This is turning out to be one of the big European years. It is not one of those moments when great powers reshuffle the Continent, as they did in 1919 and in 1945. This year, in contrast, counts among those rarer occasions when the peoples of Europe try to do the reshuffling themselves. If we take 1989 as the title year for a period of upheaval which began before it and will certainly extend beyond it, then “1989” will change more and for a longer time than the events of 1968, and quite possibly more than those of 1848.

The post-1945 settlement is being undone. The soldiers—grandsons of the American and Russian and British soldiers who first moved into those captured Nazi barracks—are starting to go home. The tanks are loaded onto long flatcars, heading east so far but soon west as well. The rockets are being detached from their warheads and scrapped. Above all, the huge, flat stone of Soviet power is being lifted off Eastern and Central Europe, and upon the bare space of earth underneath every kind of wriggling, sprouting, authentic life is starting to appear. The other day I was at what used to be the most iron of curtains—the Polish–Soviet frontier—and heard about the traffic springing up at the reopened crossing-points. Meat and cosmetics and even bread were going one way, while Soviet television sets bought for half the Polish prices in Grodno were being dragged back in the other direction: the “kleine Grenzverkehr” resuming its natural flow. And, not many miles away, Poland was fighting the first half-free election campaign in forty-two years. Official and unofficial Hungarian trade unionists were colliding at Lech Walesa’s door, while a Polish-American baby-powder heiress prepared to save the Lenin Shipyard from unemployment and bankruptcy.

With all this change and liberation come the slogans to advertise them, many of which are misleading. There is praise for the revival of “Central Europe,” often in terms that suggest that Germany has been towed off to some other hemisphere. There is rhetoric about restoring the “unity” of Europe—which has never known anything like political union except through the efforts of Napoleon and Hitler. There is much winning, Gorbachevian rhetoric about “our common European house,” but that phrase has been riddled now by every kind of satirical allusion to houses with upstairs/downstairs compartments or to those residents who have the best bedrooms as opposed to those who have to sleep in the corridors where they get trodden upon. Most annoying of all, there are civic speeches of welcome for the return of “European civilization.”

To all of the slogans, I find Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s reflections a fine corrective. He is alert and unforgiving. His own continent is not a comfortable or reassuring place: if Europe talks big about its achievements, then Europe is probably drunk. Visiting Warsaw, Enzensberger refers to “that smell of fire and carbolic acid, soot, and rubble that everyone who lived through 1945 remembers.” He remembers that smell, rather than scents of rosin, lacquer, old books, and edelweiss, and it is in the capacity for fantasy and self-deception against the background of such savagery that Enzensberger finds any European identity. At the end of his book, he quotes a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann about that gift for evading truth:

If Bohemia still lies by the sea, I’ll believe in the sea.
And if I believe in the sea, I can hope for land…

Enzensberger visited six nations, settling for a respectable sojourn of some months in each of them. And he studied the barbarism that all of those nations possess, in different measures, for it’s Europe that is the barbarous continent—with all the instability, vigor, and imaginative power that barbarians possess, and with all the ferocity too. I notice that Enzensberger belongs to those writers who, for sound enough reasons, don’t use the word “civilization.” Yet if it were usable, the word would apply better to the United States and to the Soviet Union, both essentially Roman in their relationship to Europe. There stand the muscle-bound imperial powers, committed to a severely moral view of the world and of their own behavior. That “civilized” outlook makes it all the harder to administer the reckless and superstitious tribes between them.

For Enzensberger, anyway, the European quality that applies to all of his six nations is dynamic rather than descriptive. The same processes are afflicting them all, but they respond in barbarously different ways. He chooses two aspects of change, but the choice itself—almost as much as his judgments—illustrates the political and moral journey that lies behind Enzensberger, some twenty years after his star first rose so brightly over German literature. I would guess that today, with Erich Fried gone, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is far the most widely read living poet in the German-speaking world. His influence, however, has been not only that of a poet, but also of an outstanding essayist and editor, of a dramatist and a book publisher. The magazine he founded, Kursbuch, formed the literary and political taste of the radical generation of the 1960s, as a pulpit periodical for the New Left and third-worldist currents of thought. His essay “Tourists of the Revolution,” first published in 1973, in which he records how sympathetic visitors to such states as Cuba can distort the reality they have seen, has been even more chastening for readers in Britain and North America than in Germany: its combined sarcasm and strict analysis, moral fire and honesty, are as effective as in the best of Orwell. (It has lately been reprinted in a volume of Enzensberger’s shorter prose, called Dreamers of the Absolute, published last year in England by Radius/Hutchinson.)


Enzensberger has lived through a great deal since the experiences of his stay in Cuba, and since the imprisonment of his friend the poet Heberto Padilla began to qualify his revolutionary faith. Never a Communist, always a free and critical Marxist, he was not obliged to perform one of the somersaults that characterize the age of “gods that failed.” Enzensberger simply grew sharper-eyed. Today, when he looks at capitalism or at socialism, he contemplates the surface first before searching below it for what he imagines to lie hidden there. He records what strikes him, whether it is welcome or “appropriate” or neither.

It has struck him that the state is in full retreat. This is his first theme. Enzensberger sees not only the decline of absolutism and the Party bureaucracy in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland are two of the countries he visits), but the crumbling of all claims to the ability to plan social and economic development at the level of governments. That collapse can be seen in Western societies, especially in those social democratic states which still defend social justice and equality of opportunity by elaborate networks of legislation, welfare provision, and control. Enzensberger starts with Sweden, where this historic collapse has scarcely begun. There the state is anything but a dirty word, and public faith in public servants remains touchingly strong.

The citizens of Sweden regard their institutions with a trust and lack of suspicion that takes good intentions entirely for granted. Such an attitude would be incomprehensible to a Spaniard, an Irishman, an Italian, or a Frenchman,…a lack of experience for which the Swedes can only be envied.

This moral immunity allows Sweden’s rulers, as Enzensberger sardonically puts it, to “appropriate the citizens’ moral values along with the lion’s share of their incomes.”

A network of administrative boards and what in Britain are called “quangos” (quasi-nongovernmental organizations) affect to stand above politics, so that statements that “society” cannot accept this or that merely mean that “the institution which I represent” cannot accept it. The good shepherd gets short-tempered as he grows older. Long ago, as Enzensberger says, it was the left which hoped to liberate human beings from dependency. But in many countries “worship of the state became the credo of the left, while the desire for self-determination came to be regarded as the quintessence of middle-class obduracy.”

Enzensberger goes to the old ironworks at Leufsta Bruk, surrounded by its wall against wolves which is also, as he recognizes, Sweden’s wall against competition, destitution, and unemployment. He thinks that the wall is giving way. A sort of subterranean anarchy is developing in Sweden, and as the authorities lose control of social life, so “new ideas of self-help and self-sufficiency” will emerge. And he welcomes it. “Even if they cannot name their own goal, people’s self-directed activity expresses a practical critique of existing conditions.”

If Sweden pushes Enzensberger toward a position that one could call anarcho-Thatcherism, the “self-help” and “self-directed activity” of Italy and the Italians’ total mistrust of all “official” communication—whether a tax demand or a report in a newspaper—give him pause. Many of the problems that afflict northern countries certainly don’t exist in Italy, where the deindustrialization of Europe is less painful since full employment has seldom existed and where, as a result, “an extremely rich culture of parasitism” has always prevailed. These people, at least, are not unnerved by the decay of the state into a “crazy quilt” of lobbies, of parties decayed into “corrupt self-service stores,” of shadow economies and business subcultures. The absence of a “social conscience” allows the bonds of connection, family, and clientship to flourish, and somehow the absence of any collective commitment to equality means that “every Italian, even the poorest wretch, is privileged. Nobody is a nobody.”


At the same time, Enzensberger writes, there are 100,000 magicians, soothsayers, and clairvoyants in Italy, and even they are less grossly superstitious than those who purvey studies of so-called public opinion. In a memorable passage, Enzensberger sets out to discover just why small coins vanished completely from the economy between 1975 and 1979, to be replaced by toffees, soup cubes, and sticks of chewing gum. Many explanations were offered to him: the Japanese took our coins for buttons, the Swiss used them to make watch cases, the Holy Year pilgrims took all the small change of Italy home as souvenirs. The real reason was simple. The mint broke down under its own inconceivable squalor and inefficiency and mechanical archaism. The reappearance of coins was equally simple to explain: the mint was removed from the Finance Ministry and made autonomous under a new director. Within months, the place was emptied, reequipped, and pouring out the latest designs in coinage under model industrial conditions. But that was not the sort of information useful or interesting to the Italians.

Is it the Italianization of Europe that Enzensberger wants? He certainly sees a lot of the future here: the “crisis of work,” the bankruptcy of the welfare state, and the defeat of the left’s concept of equality and decency, the decay of all economic and social controls, and the arrival of “new strategies of survival…and improvisation.” And yet Italy can’t be a model. Figures show consistently that Italians spend far more than they earn, but at the cost of nightmarish exploitation and poverty, visible in the slums Enzensberger visited: “The Italian model’s…spontaneous cruelty displays elements of cannibalism.” And, in the rest of Europe at least, these processes of simultaneous impoverishment and gross increase in luxury consumption prove not only obscene but explosive.

Enzensberger’s second theme can be defined as narcohistory. All his six nations, with the possible exception of Italy, have come down in the world. Spain and Portugal recently lost empires (so did Italy, but the Italians never took it seriously in the first place), and Swedish imperialism devastated central Europe during the seventeenth century. Hungary is an amputated rump; Poland groans with humiliation under Russian hegemony (or was certainly groaning in 1986, when Enzensberger was there). Almost all of them dope the pain of imperial or royal amputation by resorting to history, sometimes swilled down in entirely fraudulent mixtures, sometimes inhaled as doom-laden pessimism. The exception here is Sweden, which Enzensberger accuses of trying to liquidate its own state history altogether and replace it with soothing exhibitions of social history and the folkways of working people.

Hungary comes out well in this respect. In fact, Enzensberger’s Hungarian chapter is among the best in his book: rich, full of extraordinary and well-observed expeditions and encounters. Most of Europe, Europe was first published by installments in the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, and the Hungarian article was a sensation in Budapest—especially Enzensberger’s interview with an all too recognizable Party journalist whom he calls “the last of the Mohicans.” In an obvious sense, this chapter is quite out of date now. The move or lurch into pluralism and parliamentarism—if not quite into democracy—happened long after the book appeared in German.

But the basic perceptions stand. Enzensberger is fascinated by the manner in which Stalinism and post-Stalinism have acted as a deepfreeze, a preserver of fragments of the past that may have nothing to do with any form of socialism. One of these relics is just “the people,” not some heroic industrial proletariat but those large numbers of shabby, humble, undifferentiated human creatures with memorable faces who wash up and down the streets or crowd the squares. You don’t see “the people” any more in the West. And, in the same way, the author notes the difference between Hungarian and West German techniques of architectural restoration. The German procedure seems to him too thorough. But in Budapest, what restoration produces

instead of a brand-new past is, at most, yet another provisional arrangement,…a conviction that the decrepit lasts longest and that to plaster over the memory of a whole nation would be a futile ambition.

Here, too, there has been a retreat from ideals of community. Mostly because the official ideal was so much despised: the opposition, as Enzensberger puts it, “not only defended the country’s moral standard of living but in fact noticeably raised it.” Some backed off into privacy as the only clean place: “People collected stamps, ate cake, played bridge,” an aristocrat told the writer. Others made money, ignoring the growing impoverishment of Hungary’s “bottom third”—the unskilled migrant workers, above all the Gypsies. Enzensberger went to visit Gypsies at Esztergom—“We have arrived in Bhopal, in Luanda, in La Paz”—and grew justly angry with the new populist strain in opposition: those who “get worked up about the treatment of the Hungarian minority in Romania, but find the complete marginalization of the Sinti…quite reasonable.” That could never have been said about the older, “liberal” opposition, those who raised the moral standard of living not least by protest on behalf of the new and old poor. But their hour, as Enzensberger sensed, was beginning to pass.

“The decrepit lasts longest.” Portugal, much the strangest place studied here, has many of Hungary’s qualities. Portugal, as one of Enzensberger’s acquaintances remarks, is an island far from Europe, indeed a sort of archipelago of time-islands floating about the past. The German writer who in Budapest took such delight in the dim courtyards off Lenin Korut, accretions of petty businesses and antique advertisements and the graffiti and bulletholes of a century, now mounts the No. 28 tram in Lisbon. A traveling museum of leather, worn brass, oilcloth, and polished oak, it squeaks and groans and jangles its way up and down the steep hills of the city, giving Enzensberger acute pleasure. Everywhere around lie poverty, dignity, and an astonishing number of public clocks, most of them stopped. As in Italy, the economic facts about Portuguese life remain not so much a secret as a mystery; the statistics on poverty, mortality, and bad health conditions indicate that most people in Portugal must be dead. Instead, this tough people thrives, affecting a fatalistic cult of melancholy and the Portuguese soul that infuriates young intellectuals.

There are many cults: Enzensberger visited the shrines of Dr. Sousa Martins, doctor to the poor, and leafed through the pages of Jornal do Incrível (“Journal of the Incredible”); he studied the cult of Dom Sebastião (the lost king who will return from the dead and inaugurate the mystical Fifth Monarchy) and the tale of Dona Branca, who persuaded thousands of people to give her their savings by simply promising that she would pay 10 percent interest a month. Then there was Dr. Moniz, that mighty charlatan who invented lobotomy as a cure for memory. Dreams of a lost empire persist—an imaginary empire in which the Portuguese were wise, just, and much loved—and even the revolution of 1974 is dimly remembered by many people. The author runs into a man who was then a Maoist student leader. Now he calls those months a “charade,” in which the people ultimately took no part. “Our revolution has remained a ruin, a new ruin.”

The idea of new ruins leads naturally to Poland, where you can buy exquisite ceramic models of buildings unroofed, splintered, part demolished. Here the time dimension is impressively curved. “Chance led me to the Renaissance castle of the Polish Kings, a new building that had just been completed,” observes Enzensberger. But his irony somehow falls a bit short of its target, and I felt that Poland was the country that the poet liked least. Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a German radical old enough to remember that smell of “fire,…soot, and rubble”; he cannot bring himself to like religious fervor or impassioned nationalism. It was in Warsaw that he quarreled with his guiding angel, Jadwiga, when he suggested that the political hypocrisy of the Communists and the sexual hypocrisy of Catholic Poles on matters like abortion were “two sides of the same coin.”

He quarreled, too, with intellectuals when he tried to defend what he saw as Jaruzelski’s policy of compromise, to which the intellectuals retorted that hanging Communists was a better way out. He grew angry with the apparent Polish indifference, even callousness, toward everyday life; at the provincial small town of Lomza, he described minutely the squalid main square—every detail of it—and concluded that “if one scratches the peeling layers of paint on the façades, more and more layers of repression and apathy appear—the Tsarist regime, the rule of the landowners, the murderous attacks of the Germans, Stalinism….”

What attracts many to Poland repelled him, and Enzensberger is not the first German writer to visit Poland and ask desperately whether “the phrase ‘reasonable Pole’ is an oxymoron, a chimera.” A sardonic aristocrat, now in the computer trade, told him that Poland was not really a tragic country at all, but a place that used to be “a merry extravagant nation lurching from one banquet to the next.” Defining the national cliché, the count adds,

I am afraid there is even a certain kind of tourist who is enthusiastic about it. They look here for what they miss at home: drama, faith, despair, perhaps even heroism. And there are all too many of my countrymen who are ready to oblige with these doubtful virtues.

For all the marvelously intelligent and entertaining passages in this chapter—his visit to the street market in Lódz, for instance—important aspects of Poland have, I think, escaped Enzensberger, partly through his own revulsion against the “mystical union…of patriotism and religion.” His time in Spain, by contrast, seems to have filled him with hope and delight. Here, quite simply, was a country that had emerged from dictatorship into forms of democratic socialism without poisoning its own springs of memory, and had burst out of precisely that “unio Mystica” of patriotism and religion which the Poles imagine to be the contradiction of tyranny rather than—as in Spain—its essence.

They told him that the modern, democratic Spain was a fraud; he should go to the village of Ciempozuelos to see how authoritarian backwardness could survive intact. So Enzensberger went there, and he found a community that had transformed itself in a couple of years, where the police no longer ran things, where the nuns sang songs for Nicaragua, where the ancient lunatic asylum had been replaced with a new hospital. And “the most beautiful thing about their miracle is that they [the people of Ciempozuelos] think it quite normal.”

An old Spain has been destroyed. Reading these pages, I began to understand how fiercely revolutionary the Spanish really are, for the quiet transformation after Franco has actually been as iconoclastic as the burning of churches and monasteries in 1936. An old German émigré living in Spain says to the writer:

The ideological glue that cemented the Spanish consciousness—honor, soul, loyalty, race, pride, fatherland, glory, etc.—has dissolved into nothing…. Spain has completely lost its charm…. But…today in Spain, you will find at least ten completely normal people for every fanatic. After centuries of imbecility, that is indeed a triumph.

What disturbs Enzensberger about the new Spain is the peripheral nationalism. With telling wit, he suggests that the antique vices of Castile—“heroic cantankerousness, zealotry, national self-importance, fanaticism”—have been banished from Madrid to the fringes. But this is one of Enzensberger’s blind spots. It isn’t just that, by overlooking the organic connection between democracy and decentralization in recent Spanish history, he is getting the entire political process wrong. It is that he’s uncharacteristically unfair. He mocks the idea of Andalusian identity, and challenges the basic assumptions of the Basque movement. Its leaders are to him mere ayatollahs, none of whom can explain what this secret essence called Basqueness really is. He is shocked by the cool, methodical approach to the use of violence which the Basques have always explained to visitors, but essentially he cannot stand the implication of specialness, to say nothing of the mythmaking that lies at the heart of every nationalist project.

Enzensberger writes: “It’s always society, never the State, that is decisive for the vitality of a culture and the strength of a language.” It is an assertion that runs right through this book, given that one of its motifs is the decay of state authority in Europe. But it’s an incomplete assertion, for the fact is that the alliance between cultural and political nationalism is logical enough, and governments can indeed give “decisive” help to an ailing culture if they are based upon it. Ask the Poles, who spent so long as a nation deprived of a state, why it matters to have an independent government of one’s own.

The book ends with a brief essay into fantasy, entitled “The Seacoast of Bohemia, 2006.” I found it fun, but thin. It’s a portrait of a continent from which history has moved on, leaving populations quietly amusing themselves or debating or disputing in a variety of harmless ways. Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be the European future. Timothy Garton Ash, reviewing Enzensberger’s book in the Polish review Res Publica, was disappointed with its cultural, antipolitical emphasis, in which every question seemed to have two sides and no more life-and-death issues existed. Garton Ash, I can guess, would have wished Enzensberger to be more of a crusader on matters of liberty and human rights. I am glad, for myself, that he avoided handling those themes headon and that he decided not to visit Czechoslovakia or the German Democratic Republic. He’s more interested in societies further down the road to the future than in the laggards, and his choice of subjects means that it is he—rather than the common consensus—who decides what is important there.

I think that Enzensberger is wrong about nationalism, or at least blocked on that subject, which is a serious limitation for a writer on Europe. But his piercing perception, his talent for evoking astonishing scenes and persons without rendering them in the least grotesque, and finally his angry loyalty to truth, make Europe, Europe a collection to which I’ll resort for inspiration again and again.

This Issue

September 28, 1989