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.
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.
Kapuscinski: It occurs to me that there is not a single conflict in the world today that turns on the struggle between rich and poor. There are religious, ethnic, and linguistic disputes, but none between rich and poor. That is extraordinary; the whole of Marxism was based on the thesis that such conflicts existed and now it turns out that there are no such conflicts in any systematic form. And a second point is that what was traditionally the third world now contains the Asian “tiger economies” which have the highest growth rates in the world. This is why we need new criteria to evaluate what is going on in those countries.
Krzeminski: Perhaps Gore Vidal’s ironic call to arms reflects the fear of an American that the United States is ceasing to be “white.”
Kapuscinski: Without a doubt. In America the non-white population is growing much faster than the white, and many Americans are wondering about their own identity, for traditionally an American was a WASP. Nowadays many Americans cannot speak English, and our grandchildren will perhaps live to see the day when the Americans will send an ambassador to Berlin or Warsaw who is not white and who cannot speak English.
Enzensberger: A classical reaction to this situation is the concept of Limes.4 This analogy with the Roman Empire is not mine, but comes from a Frenchman, Jean-Christophe Rufin,5 who has dedicated a whole book to it. What he means by it is not just the construction of a fortress, but also the notion of a Limes as a site of exchange, commerce, of osmosis. I think that this is unavoidable; and it is essential to reflect on the forms and modalities of this osmosis. The simple rejection of “others” leads straight to self-imposed isolation. That is not a realistic option.
Krzeminski: Could we perhaps switch for a moment from America to Russia. Ever since Tocqueville people have made comparisons between the two.
Enzensberger: The only truth in these comparisons is that both are empires and both are very large. And size has consequences. But in their political culture and standard of living Russia and America have nothing in common. Moreover—and this is the decisive factor—we in Europe have never experienced a justifiable fear of America, whereas we have had good reason to fear Russia. Even today Russia could be life-threatening to Europe.
Krzeminski: There is a further similarity. Like the Russians, the Americans are afraid of being outnumbered by nations from the south. In Russia the fear of the Chinese or the Muslims is very much alive.
Enzensberger: The Russians may not have grasped yet that losing an empire, withdrawing to within their own frontiers, can also have a very beneficial effect.
Kapuscinski: That is impossible, for two reasons. First, Russia has never been an ethnically homogeneous state. Russia consisted of the Principality of Moscow which then expanded through conquest to become an empire that was multinational from the outset. The very essence of Russia is that it has no frontiers. When a Russian finds himself in Tashkent, he thinks he is still in Russia.
Krzeminski: The Russians say that the only secure Russian frontiers are those where Russian troops are stationed on both sides.
Enzensberger: Perhaps it is high time for the Russians to found Russia proper.
Kapuscinski: I’ll tell you right away why that is not possible. The parts of Russia where Russians have traditionally settled are only one part, the smaller one, of the Russian empire. And today, after the collapse of the USSR, when we can see the efforts being made to reestablish its frontiers and reassert its great-power status, it becomes increasingly clear that Russia can only be defined in imperial terms. There simply is no other definition of what it means to be Russian. Russians do not see themselves as the citizens of a state like Holland, for example. The vast space and the powerful state are part of the essential nature of Russianness. After all, dozens of generations of Russians have sacrificed their lives, their personal happiness, and their prosperity for the construction of this empire.
Krzeminski: That is true, but many other nations—the British, French, Germans, even the Poles—have all lost their status as great powers at some time or other, and have had to learn to live with it. It was a painful, but unavoidable process. Why should the Russians not succeed in doing the same thing?
Kapuscinski: The fundamental distinction is that all the other colonial powers built up their empires overseas. Subsequently, their colonies were simply struck off the map—they vanished. Russia’s expansion, however, took place on the continent. The metropolis and the colonies were all situated within the frontiers of a single state. This distinction is crucial.
Enzensberger: I would not dispute that. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that withdrawal is a historical option too.
Kapuscinski: That is true.
Enzensberger: No one ever withdraws from an empire voluntarily.
Kapuscinski: But it is conceivable as a possible scenario.
Krzeminski: There is one argument in favor of this optimistic outcome. Russia was not defeated on the battlefield and has not experienced the humiliation of a peace imposed by others. That was the case with the Germans in 1918. They believed that they had been betrayed, not defeated, and had been forced to accept the shameful Treaty of Versailles. The Soviet empire crumbled simply as the consequence of its own incompetence; there are no foreign armies in Russia, no one is dictating terms to her. The Russians have only themselves to thank for the ignominious end of their empire. In Ukraine I have met Russians who said: I do not wish to be Russian anymore because the Russians are bunglers, imperialists, and murderers. Such people may be exceptions, but even so they are symptomatic.
Enzensberger: One consequence of all these disagreements is that the Russians will be fully occupied with the internal problems of the former USSR for a very long time. I see in this a certain element of safety for Eastern Europe.
Krzeminski: Central Europe.
Enzensberger: All right, Central Europe, although I am not certain whether the Baltic countries should be included in Central Europe.
Krzeminski: In Vilna they will tell you that you are in the very center of Europe, in Ukraine they will take you to the Carpathians and show you a granite phallus erected by the Habsburgs. It has a German inscription which states that this is the center of Europe. In Bohemia you will hear that the center is near Prague and in Poland that it is near Lódz…Every underdog wants to be at the center.
Enzensberger: Can we move somewhat farther to the west, to our part of the world? In my view it is of crucial importance to distinguish between institutional Europe, the Europe of Brussels and the statist Europe of the commissars, on the one hand, and the real Europe, on the other. What we have seen is a sort of hijacking of the concept of Europe, a usurpation. Brussels Europe was always a small club from which half of Europe was excluded. That is very different from the real Europe which consists of millions of economic and personal relationships, mixed marriages, movements of people, contacts, and acquaintances. Each of us can take a notebook from his pocket and it will turn out that 80 percent of the addresses it contains go to make up this European network. That is at least as important as the Treaty of Maastricht.
Kapuscinski: I agree completely and can only wish that this network should become even more tightly meshed. I know that you take this view, but I am uncertain whether it is shared by those responsible for the media in the various countries. At all events stereotypes are very long-lived. When I arrived in West Berlin a few weeks ago I received a letter from my London publisher that began with the words, “Dear Richard, welcome to Europe.” The unfortunate fact is that these stereotypes are preserved by the media. A BBC television team came to Poland a while back to make a documentary film about me. We then traveled the length and breadth of the land because they insisted on looking for a thatched cottage. It took them forever to find one.
Enzensberger: The British of course live on an island, but the problem of stereotypes is very much alive. And impatience is the mother of our disappointments. Life is short and history always lasts a little longer. The problem is also that mentalities take so long to change. One example comes not from England, but Berlin. The Berlin Senate obviously does not possess a map of Europe since the senators persist in their belief that Milan is closer to Berlin than Warsaw. They simply need private coaching in geography.
Krzeminski: But aren’t you making things too easy for yourself with your dislike of Maastricht?
Kapuscinski: I share it.
Enzensberger: Maastricht is being undermined from within. The enlargement of the European Union already represents a threat to its substance. The system is simply so rigid that it has to be broken up from the inside. That is to say, we need to give it a much more flexible structure. The European Union cannot be constructed on the model of the French state. Europe does not consist of départements.
Krzeminski: Nor of Federal German Länder.
Enzensberger: No one knows how the system will end up. But one thing is certain and that is that it cannot remain as it is today. So much is clear. The Visegrad nations6 are knocking at the door. One thing that this means is the end of the Common Agricultural Policy as it has operated up to now; its philosophy must change. Over and above that the whole political structure has to change direction, sooner or later. When in doubt reality decides. Communism collapsed because it was too inflexible and the same thing holds good for Brussels Europe. When I think of Brussels its fatal similarity to the Politburo becomes obvious. It lacks any true parliamentarianism, any real constitution. In the long run it will not work.
Krzeminski: But should we join it or not?
Enzensberger: Of course. Scandinavia should join, you and others as well…
Kapuscinski: I had not realized until two months ago just how exclusive a club the European Union is. This was when the question arose of admitting new members. The applications being considered involved such wealthy and thinly populated countries as Norway, a country that has always been part of the West. Where does that leave an impoverished Poland with its nearly 40 million inhabitants?
Enzensberger: Why does everything have to be measured according to the same yardstick? It is idiotic. An organism of this kind should be very pliable and accommodating.
Krzeminski: You seem to be thinking in terms of a new version of the Holy Roman Empire. That was also fairly amorphous and flexible, to the point of complete paralysis.
Enzensberger: For its time it wasn’t such a bad system at all.
Krzeminski: Then I could produce the example of the Polish union with Lithuania.7 That was a commonwealth with an elected monarch and a loose structure. It lasted for several centuries and its final destruction was due to attack from outside rather than internal collapse.
Enzensberger: We have to give up all notions of the state that derive from absolutism. Hegel is of no use to us today. Today in this Brussels Europe all the talk is of money and business. But if this is so, it is a consequence of the undemocratic constitution of the European Community. If you deny proper representation to the peoples, the gap will be filled by lobbies.
Krzeminski: Let us come back to the question of the Limes. If we had a Holy Roman Empire combined with a commonwealth—not a Polish—Lithuanian union, of course, since that would be unacceptable to the Lithuanians, even if they would like to be in the EU—how far would it extend to the East?
Enzensberger: It wouldn’t be as holy as all that.
Kapuscinski: Discussions about the Eastern frontiers of Europe can go on forever.
Enzensberger: We all know, although it may not be politically correct to say so, that neither Russia nor Turkey—in their present form—can expect to find a place in the European Community. That is neither discrimination nor racism, but simply a fact.
Krzeminski: Zhirinovsky maintains that Pakistan and Turkey fall within the Russian sphere of influence. To the objection that Turkey is a member of NATO he replied that no one will ask Turkey for its opinion…
Enzensberger: It is not yet clear whether Russia will not find itself in Islam’s sphere of influence.
Kapuscinski: The Limes normally drawn in Eastern Europe is the frontier between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. But when you look at the frontier of Europe from the Russian side you will find huge divergences of opinion among Russians about whether they belong to Europe at all. In the nineteenth century this was the issue that divided Russian intellectuals. The majority opinion was that Russia was separate from Europe and was Eurasian in character. Furthermore ever since the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century Eastern Europe has lived with the problem of movable frontiers. The historical atlases of this region are just one big muddle.
Krzeminski: We are skating on thin ice here, since the frontier between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets was also far from stable. Either it ran along the Eastern frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, that is to say, to the east of Smolensk, or along the frontier of the Second Partition,8 which was more or less identical with the provisions of the Treaty of Riga in 1921. Or else it followed the course of the Bug, as it does today. There are also other criteria. The West can be said to extend as far as the Renaissance in the sixteenth century and the baroque towers on Catholic churches. But perhaps we should abandon that topic and turn to Polish-German disagreements.
Kapuscinski: That is not a subject on which I have very much to say. I have only spent a short time in Berlin, but am not made to feel like a foreigner. The Germans I encounter are very welcoming. On a lighter note it is the only country in Western Europe where people pronounce my name correctly. But also even to someone as ignorant of German affairs as myself, it is obvious that the East and West Germans have completely different societies. And the interest in Poland, for example, was greater in the East than the West. When I received the Leipzig Book Prize this led to more invitations from the East than from the West. Perhaps a greater understanding of Polish problems is the legacy of the common Communist past…
Krzeminski: But that may spring from an interest in Russia and your book Imperium. After all, the problems you describe there are a part of their history too.
Kapuscinski: At all events, the Communist past triggers far stronger emotions in the former GDR than among us. People talk constantly about their own past, they have deep and passionate discussions. And I have to say that I like this. When I give public readings the East Germans ask questions about the responsibilities of writers and intellectuals, whereas West Germans pose questions about technique. I sometimes have the impression that the East and West Germans have very different mentalities. When I am in the former GDR I find myself normally in an exclusively East German society, even among artists and journalists. Just as if there were no osmosis, no desire for contact, despite the unification. When I was about to give a reading in the Brecht Theater, my Western contacts said openly they were sorry, but they wouldn’t go there. The Germans seem to have a huge identity problem. On the other hand, what I like very much about both West and East Germans is their constant thinking about themselves. The Germans are involved in a perpetual debate about the past and the future, their culture and their present situation, and they are all striving to get to the bottom of things. I also like the respect they feel for their regions, for their internal cultural differences. In many countries when people speak a dialect they try to hide it, because it is not chic to come from the provinces. Whereas the Germans derive an inner satisfaction from it.
Krzeminski: Given this background how do you see German—Polish relations? Not as a reporter, but as a human being returning, as it were, from foreign parts to our part of Europe.
Kapuscinski: My impression is that we Poles normally divide our attention between our two powerful neighbors and treat them separately. A part of the Polish intelligentsia is concerned with Russia, Marian Zdziechowski, for example; while others, such as Zygmunt Wojciechowski,9 are more interested in Germany. I have only recently come to realize that Poland’s problem is the need to assert itself simultaneously between Germany and Russia. Polish identity and Poland’s place in Europe can only emerge from the synthesis of these two relationships. When I pursue this line of thought, it seems to me that the situation that arose in 1989 confronts Poland with a huge challenge. We are positioned between two powerful states and great nations with their own political traditions and their own importance in world affairs. Both Germany and Russia are in a process of transformation; Germany through the reunification, Russia thanks to the collapse of its empire. So here we see two powerful machines in motion. If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, and if we fail to discover our own place between them, we shall have a very difficult time. This confronts Poland with a great challenge, one which calls for serious reflection on our place in Europe.
Enzensberger: I do not want to comment on what Kapuscinski has said about Germany, although I find his views interesting. He is of course quite right to emphasize the role of federalism in Germany. It is also true that the Germans are deeply divided mentally and are obsessed with themselves. On the question of German—Polish relations, however, I have a slightly different impression. What I recollect is that relations between Poland and the GDR were always very tense. The GDR adopted a very negative position toward the Solidarity movement and Poland in general, and a large section of the GDR population supported this policy. They did not want vast numbers of Poles to be allowed into Germany; that led to irritations.
In West Germany, for its part, the government and a part of the left-wing intellectuals had made the mistake of flirting with the Communist rulers while more or less ignoring the real social movement. Nevertheless West German society as a whole had real sympathy with the Poles. My feeling is that the East Germans find it very difficult to identify with the Poles or the Czechs, for if they only compared themselves to them, their disappointment about the consequences of reunification would not be so great. After all, their situation is much better objectively.
By the way, the notion of friendship between nations always sounds a little rhetorical. That holds good for Franco—German relations, even though these have been transformed over the last forty years. We now face the same problem with the relations between Poland and Germany. This problem has yet to find a solution. I am no admirer of Helmut Kohl, but it has to be admitted that he has grasped the essence of this issue better than many other German politicians. Nevertheless, much remains to be done and I believe that the Germans still have a debt to pay. Up to now the Germans have failed to fulfill their historic obligations toward Poland. It is possible that there may be a deficit on the Polish side too, but that is not my concern. At all events we must put an end to blockades.
Kapuscinski: In my view one of the main problems for the new Europe lies in the inadequate commitment of the intellectuals, of those responsible for the media, the opinion makers. I see this everywhere—among the Poles, the Germans, and the French. We need to work much harder at bringing people together, more initiatives, more good will. For the fact is that we all talk past one another. What is needed is a whole mass of initiatives, many of them on quite a small scale. You are absolutely right, friendship between nations is bombastic rhetoric, while contacts between peoples have lasting value.
Krzeminski: In the meantime in the eyes of the Germans the Poles are at the bottom of the sympathy scale, and as for the debt of which Enzensberger has spoken, you sometimes hear people saying, “All right, we have made a bit of a mess in your country during the war, and then you took Pomerania, Silesia, and East Prussia away from us, so that now we are quits.”
Enzensberger: That thesis is not only morally dubious, it is also unproductive. It leads nowhere.
Krzeminski: How should it, when many Germans close their eyes to the real processes unfolding in Poland and which actually bring us closer together. The westward shift of Poland in 1945 has changed our whole geography, and with it our whole environment, the social and ethnic composition of the nation—and even our model of culture. The fact that since 1945 one third of the population of Poland have conceived their children in what used to be German beds has left its mark on those children. No doubt our mentality has not become more “German,” but it has undoubtedly become more “Bohemian.” We have ceased to foment aristocratic uprisings or peasant revolts. Instead we are creating a middle class, we engage in trade, and have witnessed our first economic successes…
Enzensberger: And you have ceased to be a heroic nation, fortunately. But what do we Germans know of Poland? You can still hear the pejorative name “Polack” in Germany. It is an illusion to imagine that the anti-Polish stereo-types will just vanish. But perhaps they will be weakened by the constant process of exchange between our two peoples. Not through governmental interventions, but simply par la force des choses. As soon as the East German economy starts to function and the Poles get on their feet we shall settle down and become good neighbors. The driving force is our mutual dependence, a dense network of normal relationships. That was exactly the situation with France.
Krzeminski: Nevertheless, I would like to ask you whether the loss of Pomerania and Silesia has no special meaning at all for you?
Enzensberger: I shall have to make a personal statement. As a South German I always felt that Berlin was very far away, and my political and social happiness never came from Berlin and even less from Königsberg. Germany has never been a homogeneous country. That goes back to Roman times and the Limes. After all, the first wall to divide Germany was built almost two thousand years ago. It was not until much later that the lands east of the Elbe were colonized by the Germans. In Poland this episode of history is familiar, in Germany less so. I would not like to say that there is a decline in civilization as you move from West to East Germany, but there has always been a difference. For this reason I never had any special affection for what used to be the Eastern provinces of Germany. In contrast there are now interesting nuances on the present frontier between West Germany and the former GDR. West Germans find it easier to accept Saxons and Thuringians than Prussians…
Kapuscinski: I too notice this when I travel through Germany.
Enzensberger: So it wasn’t very hard for me personally to detach myself from the former Eastern territories. Furthermore, I think it is also no great problem for many of the people who were expelled from them. Among those I know no one contemplates returning there. They pay a visit to their old home town and it turns out that their former villas were just rather small cottages and their estates were often nothing more than a vegetable patch. It was in the West that they acquired real wealth.
Kapuscinski: That is exactly the situation with my home town of Pinsk.10 When I walk around Vilna or Lvov today I discover to my surprise that these are the most Polish cities imaginable—not Warsaw, which had many of the features of a Russian seat of government at the turn of the century, but Vilna and Lvov. You can tell from the style of the architecture. But with the departure of the Poles these cities became completely different. Of course, there are many former inhabitants of Vilna or Lvov who collect old picture books of their home towns. And this irritates the Ukrainians and Lithuanians. But no one thinks of returning to them. There is no such problem.
Krzeminski: And what developments in your countries give you cause for alarm?
Kapuscinski: What I fear is the marginalization of Poland, a provincialization, the risk that we shall pass up the opportunity created by 1989. The rate of change is now so rapid that we shall be pushed to one side if we don’t manage to link up with Europe, something that would be exceedingly dangerous in our geographical position. I think it is very dangerous that people in Poland have not fully grasped the fact that we are in the middle of an overwhelming period of change. We tend to immerse ourselves in our own affairs, without noticing that beyond our frontiers they are really of very little importance. I do not envisage any great chaos, a civil war or an outbreak of terrorism, if only because among the Poles aggression is verbal at worst. On the other hand, I do have fears that we shall prove incapable of creating an efficient economy and a properly functioning administrative system.
Enzensberger: I differ from many observers in Germany because I do not regard the problems of the Federal Republic as specific German problems. The Germans have a tendency to self-examination. They believe that unemployment is exclusively a German problem, that multicultural society, competition with Japan, and so on are all problems specific to Germany. In my view it is obvious that these problems are just as real in France, Italy, England, or Sweden. Of course, in the light of German history many phenomena produce greater side effects. But it is not necessary to predict a revival of Nazism every time a foreigner is attacked. The skinheads in Britain are just as violent as in Germany. Nowadays there are not many problems left capable of being solved at a national level. Ecological problems are an obvious example. And that brings us back to the European dimension.
Kapuscinski: I think that you have broached an extremely important topic. The Germans’ habit of concentrating on their own problems is very typical of the postmodernist world of today with its general tendency for people to cut themselves off. When you travel through the world you soon see how weak global structures still are. In that sense Germany’s internal situation corresponds to the presentday mentality of atomization and self-isolation.
Krzeminski: It is often claimed that we are now caught up in a rebirth of European nationalism. It is customary to point to Yugoslavia, to the national interests of the states of Western Europe, the conflicts in the former USSR, and this conjures up the nightmare of ethnic wars of all against all. That is to say, the very opposite of any global solution to conflict. Is this the last upsurge of the nineteenth century, or is history becoming entangled again in new nationalist catastrophes?
Enzensberger: I do not believe for a moment in this alleged explosion of nationalism. Nineteenth-century nationalism arose from the need to construct modern nations, and alongside all the unpleasant chauvinist qualities it had a constructive aspect. That was the age to which we owe our democratic systems and constitutions. Contemporary neo-nationalism, on the other hand, has no constructive aspect whatever. It is a desperate, destructive reflex action. It is the attempt to preserve specific characteristics which for the most part are wholly imaginary. To my mind this has more to do with bad folklore traditions than with matters of substance. Nationalism in our day is no more than violence in historical costume, and violence can of course don other clothes—religious, racial, or subcultural. These things are interchangeable. I don’t believe in the stability of this nationalism.
Kapuscinski: That reminds me of the amusing definition that nationalism is the ideology of those who have nothing to say.
Krzeminski: But in the end no one is really willing to renounce symbols for which generations have fought—flags, anthems, currencies, passports. Is all that nothing but historical dress?
Enzensberger: Of course it is something more as well. I would agree that you cannot simply compensate for things which have failed to emerge historically. For example, it is not possible to build a nation in Mauritania along the lines of England or Poland. The one thing is a reality, the other a fiction.
Krzeminski: At the same time I sometimes have the impression that in this respect the Germans and the Poles are developing in different directions. Not so long ago many Germans envied the Poles their sense of their own national history. Today it is the other way round. The Poles have satisfied their national needs and have opened the door to the outside world, while the—united—Germans are discovering their roots and have turned in on themselves. It is no longer quite so fashionable to say in the first instance I am a European and only after that a German. Today the exhibitions about the Hohenstaufen emperors or the Wittelsbach11 kings are attracting people in the thousands.
Enzensberger: I am not so sure about that. For the Germans history was a melancholy business. If you were seventeen and coming back from the war, history was a horror story. In contrast to that the visitors to the Staufer and Wittelsbach exhibitions have made the moving and nostalgic discovery that history has not always been an atrocity. This is why people spend so much time and effort lovingly restoring old houses.
Krzeminski: We saw the same thing in Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Gdansk after the war.
Enzensberger: That was the greatest forgery in world history, a heroic forgery which I admire.
Kapuscinski: I think that we cannot generalize about these relapses into nationalist feelings. I am still very impressed by a story I was told by an elderly German from East Berlin who ventured into the lair of a group of neo-Nazis. This cultivated man told me how shocked he was to meet young people without a historical consciousness of any kind. They were amazed by the questions he put to them. This is why I think that the return to history of which Krzeminski is speaking only applies to very small groups of people.
Enzensberger: There is such a thing as the discovery of local history, the nostalgia for old furniture, and the attempt to write up one’s own personal history.
Kapuscinski: For me that is what is so fascinating about the Germans. They invest so much energy in regional festivals, dances, and stories, and their small towns have so much local color.
Enzensberger: That is a reaction to the past wave of ruthless modernization. All the things that were spared by the bulldozers in the 1950s and 1960s are held in high regard nowadays.
Krzeminski: In conclusion I should like to put a more personal question to you both. In Germany there is a section of the media that reacts very suspiciously to all the issues you have mentioned: Europe, the Limes, criticism of Maastricht, etc. All that is interpreted as a move to the right. You, Mr. Enzensberger, used to be a representative of the “homeless left.” Whereas nowadays you tend to be referred to in the same breath as Martin Walser and Botho Strauss, 12 almost as a member of the “New Right.”
Enzensberger: I don’t know why this “trinity” should have been created. We have nothing in common. It is a pure invention of the media. Like the left in most countries the German left is in a state of great confusion and disarray. A further factor is the existence of what might be called the left-wing media, people who have never been militant and who just tagged along in 1968. In the climate of the 1980s they imagined that they had acquired a monopoly of all correct ideas. Then their world, their pacifism, crumbled, and now they have to work out their feelings of insecurity somehow. In addition the left was always known for its culture of abuse, for the enthusiasm with which they denounced deviations of every kind, and for a paranoia which sniffs out treachery everywhere. I have not been affected by any of this personally. I was never politically correct and have no intention of changing anything in this respect.
Krzeminski: But did you accept it in the 1960s that people called you one of the “homeless left”?
Enzensberger: Of course. I was too old for the student movement so I couldn’t become a Maoist. But I have remained a bit of a Marxist down to the present day. In my toolbox there is a screwdriver labeled “Marx,” and when I have to remove a screw of a certain size I use it. Why should I take out my pliers instead? But now that we have raised the question, I have always been amused by the idea that Marxism could have been regarded as a recipe for everything. In my view it was simply a way of criticizing things. The whole messianic side of Marxism was always alien to me, perhaps because religion is not my strong suit.
Kapuscinski: I think that this highlights the basic difference between Hans Magnus and myself, or more generally between the left in the West and the East. In the West it was a matter of choice, whereas in the East my entire generation was simply tied to a single ideology.
Enzensberger: Your toolbox contained only one screwdriver.
Kapuscinski: That is why I went traveling in the third world in order to describe life there. Thanks to my travels I have developed a thoroughgoing dislike for two kinds of description. First, for judging a person exclusively by whether he stands on the right or the left, and secondly, for judging a person according to his nationality. Both methods of classification conceal more than they reveal. Both are terribly reductivist and superficial. If someone tells me he is a left-wing Portuguese he tells me nothing about himself, because I still know nothing about the two characteristics which really count: what he is worth as a person and what sort of heart he has. Or in more flowery terms: whether he is clever and is a good human being. These are qualities which are of no interest to the policeman at the frontier who stretches out his hand for your passport, the only thing that matters to him is what passport you have, not whether you are a rogue or a genius. And that is what is so humiliating.
Enzensberger: Well said.
—Translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone
November 17, 1994
The Vietnam-Diskurs and the Gesang vom Lusitanischen Popanz. All footnotes have been supplied by the translator. ↩
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.” ↩
Imperium (Knopf, 1994). Reviewed in the November 3 issue of The New York Review. ↩
A Limes was the fortified frontier of the Roman Empire. One Limes runs through the center of Germany along the line of the Rhine and Main down to the Danube. Hadrian’s wall is another. ↩
L’Empire et les nouveaux barbares (Paris: Hachette-Pluriel, 1992). Jean-Christophe Rufin is a member of Médecins sans frontières. ↩
Hungary, Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. ↩
The union of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lasted from 1386 to 1795. ↩
The Second Partition of Poland was carried out in 1793 by Prussia and Russia. Poland ceased to be a workable entity and was dissolved two years later. ↩
Zygmunt Wojciechowski (1900–1955) was a professor of constitutional law and an expert on Polish—German relations. Marian Zdziechowski (1861–1938) was a philosopher and cultural historian in Cracow and Vilna. A conservative critic of totalitarianism, he wrote on Slav culture and literature and was an expert on Polish—Russian relations. ↩
Pinsk was formerly in Poland and is now in Belarus. ↩
The Hohenstaufens were a Swabian dynasty that supplied some of the best-known German emperors, including Frederick Barabarossa and Frederick II (1138–1268); the Wittelsbachs were the Bavarian royal family (1180–1918). ↩
Martin Walser has been one of the leading West German writers since the 1960s (the Anselm Kristlein Trilogy). Focusing originally on lower-middle-class heroines and writing in a kind of experimental realism, he turned to the New Subjectivity in the 1970s. Several of his novels have appeared in English, including Letter to Lord Liszt (Holt, 1986) and No Man’s Land (Holt, 1989). Botho Strauss, an avant-garde writer of the next generation, is also typical of the New Subjectivity. Unlike Walser, he has never been on the left. Devotion appeared in 1979 with Farrar, Straus and Giroux and The Young Man was published by Knopf in 1989. ↩