‘More Humility, Fewer Illusions’——A Talk between Adam Michnik and Jürgen Habermas

Adam Michnik and Juergen Habermas, translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone

Adam Krzeminski1 : You both have had very different life histories and experiences with the European left and I would like to bring these distinctions out as we discuss Germany and the “process of coming to terms with the past,” and the ways Poland and Germany are at very different phases of their development. Perhaps we can begin with the events of 1989. Were you both taken by surprise by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany?

Jürgen Habermas: Of course, I was just as surprised as most Germans. But I had first visited the GDR in 1988, for a conference in Halle. The impression I had of the mood among the GDR participants in the symposium was shattering. They were cynical and in despair. Every glimmer of hope for the future had vanished. With hind-sight, the extent to which the system was undermined is obvious. But needless to say, I had not foreseen its collapse.

Adam Michnik: I can remember a conversation with you in Warsaw in 1979 in which you were unwilling to discuss the problem of German unification. To begin with, I was very humble, because it was impossible not to be humble when talking to Habermas. But after a while I ventured to say that in my view the German left was making the same mistake that Rosa Luxemburg had made in Poland, because it was unwilling to understand the dynamic strength of German national feeling. The paradox is that it seems to me that I was right at the time. But when I read your polemic about the Historians’ Debate,2 I thought that you were right to criticize Stürmer, Hillgruber, and Nolte for denying the uniqueness of Hitler’s crimes by comparing them with Stalin’s, and for promoting a revival of nationalism. I have a slightly schizophrenic consciousness in this respect, since I am in complete agreement with you about the Historians’ Debate, and I think that we Poles could benefit both from such a debate and from the presence of a Habermas. However, on the question of German unification, I was probably also right, since German intellectuals as a class did underestimate the problem.

Krzeminski: In the summer of 1989 the Wall was firm as ever, even if the GDR-Germans in Hungary were already packing their belongings, and Adam Michnik and Bronislaw Geremek3 were calling publicly for German unification. On the one hand, that came as a surprise to many in the West, as well as in Poland. On the other hand, our own history in Poland makes us very aware that the division of Germany could not last forever.

Habermas: I did not actually see this statement by Geremek and Michnik in the summer of 1989, but at that time I would certainly have been opposed to any prospect of unification. But let us dwell for a moment on German national consciousness. It should not be forgotten that—for obvious historical reasons—nationalism had, and will continue…

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