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Michnik, Adam: We, the Traitors

A German publicist wrote an article in the German daily Die Tageszeitung in which he stated that Vacláv Havel, Adam Michnik, and György Konrád, who had been the moral authorities for Western Europe for many years, had all of a sudden become the uncritical flatterers of America. For the German publicist, it was another example of betrayal by the intellectuals.

I read that article and was touched by nostalgia. Here we were together again.

Our three names were set together for the first time in a famous essay by Timothy Garton Ash nearly twenty years ago. If I remember correctly, both Havel and I were in prison at the time, and György Konrád was banned from publishing his books in his own country.

I met Konrád in the spring of 1977 in Paris in the flat of the Hungarian emigrant, the sociologist and historian Peter Kende. We were then considering the possibility of cooperation between the opposition circles in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The meeting was also attended by Antonín Liehm, another emigrant from Prague, who was the author of a famous essay at the time, "The New Social Agreement". Today I think with a certain nostalgic pleasure that perhaps this was the first meeting of the Visegrad community.

I met Vacláv Havel a year and a half later in the summer of 1978 at a meeting on Sněžka Mountain of the Workers Defence Committee (KOR) and the Charter 77. We decided then to start a cooperation whose fruit was to be a joint book. For the purpose of this book, Havel wrote his famous essay, "The Power of the Powerless".

I remember it all like shots from a thriller movie, one that could be made of our friendship.

Meanwhile, I met Konrad again in Warsaw during the carnival of the first "Solidarność." I didn't see Havel again for many years, as it happened that either he or I tended to be in prison. We met illegally in 1988 on the border in the Sudetes Mountains, and a famous photo was then taken of the two criminals in their scruffy shirts who soon were to become politicians gracing the front pages of newspapers.

The next shot, January 1990, was taken in Prague. The newly elected President of Czechoslovakia, Vacláv Havel, invites his two friends for a beer - György Konrád and Adam Michnik. Havel is already President, Konrád is soon to become president of the International PEN Club, and I am working already for the Gazeta Wyborcza, as well as being a member of the Polish parliament.

I wonder whether Timothy Garton Ash was right to put our names together, but I have no doubt that during all these years, although we did not meet too often, we still preserved some common foundation in our ideas on values and politics. I think we always had in common that dream of freedom: A dream of a world filled with tolerance, hope, respect for human dignity, and rejection of the conformity of silence in the face of evil. Konrád wrote about anti-political politics, Havel wrote about "The Power of the Powerless," and I wrote about the new evolutionism that was to break the totalitarian principles of the communist world by means of social self-organisation and civic disobedience. We also shared a specific knowledge of the people who had experienced "history let off its chain": An overwhelming feeling of loneliness among people and nations subjected to the pressure of totalitarian despotism and abandoned to the indifference of the world. Each Hungarian carried within him the experience of burning Budapest in 1956, while each citizen of Czechoslovakia had in front of his eyes the image of the tanks in the streets of Prague in 1968, and each Pole had at the back of his mind the memory of Warsaw in the autumn of 1944, murdered by Hitler and betrayed by the allies.

We were not cave-like anti-communism fanatics. We saw in communism a historical phenomenon, and in communists human beings who could change into democrats. It was in this way that Konrád wrote about Imre Nagy and Havel about František Kriegel. Later, after 1989, we disliked - Havel, Konrád and I - the fundamentalism of the anticommunist radicals, especially those who during the dictatorship years had sat quiet as mice, but now wanted to build gallows for the communists.

From: Adam Michnik, "We, the Traitors", in: Rage and Shame, Foundation of Literary Copybooks, Warsaw 2005, pp. 294 - 296.

Adam Michnik
Essayist, editor-in-chief of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Former opposition activist (one of the founders of the KOR, the Committee for the Defence of Workers) and Solidarity activist during the 1980s. Solidarity expert during the Round Table Talks.

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