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“Every country has its own KKK.”

A conversation with Adam Michnik, a leading figure in the 1968 student protests in Poland and the founder and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily. The interview was conducted by Albert Cavallaro (MA Student in Global Studies/REEES Track) during the “1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia in Comparison” conference, which took place at UNC-Chapel Hill on August 31-September 1.

Considering the theme of the conference, what sorts of transnational connections do you remember between students, dissidents, and protestors in Czechoslovakia and Poland before and during 1968?

As far as I know there were no connections between Czech and Polish students. However, most importantly, the processes in the two countries took different paths. In Czechoslovakia it was a so-called late 1956, a continuation of de-Stalinization and the rehabilitation of the victims, and a quest for a previously censored truth. The Prague Spring was about tearing apart the bonds of government control on society, while in Poland it was a desperate protest against the tightening bonds of government control.

What were the perceptions in Poland of the reforms being enacted in Czechoslovakia and the student protests?

During this time, communism was not very popular in Czechoslovakia nor in Poland, but the language of the protests was leftist in both countries. The anticipation was a change towards democratic socialism. In Czechoslovakia it was called “socialism with a human face,” but in Poland we wanted the freedoms of democracy.

The student movement in both countries was closely tied to the arts and culture, most notably literature and cinema. In Poland everything started with the showing of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve). When the government banned this play for showing alleged anti-Soviet and Russophobic themes, it became clear that the Polish state, out of fear, was willing to destroy masterpieces of culture. In Czechoslovakia, there was an important conference on Franz Kafka, whose works were banned in Czechoslovakia before this. People realized now that they could read Kafka as a someone who foresaw the rise of totalitarianism. At this time, the first essays by Vaclav Havel were also published, and the forced resignation of Antonin Novotny [the President of Czechoslovakia from 1957 to 1968] created a political debate about society within the communist party. Ultimately, in Czechoslovakia there was both pressure from above with the government and from below with the students. However, in Poland there was only pressure from below: from the intelligentsia, writers, and academic circles. That is the reason why in Poland the government responded with repression, and in Czechoslovakia they responded with dialogue.

What was the role of the Catholic Church in ’68?

The church did not play a role in Czechoslovakia, as it was one of the most secular countries at this time. Meanwhile, Poland was very Catholic, but in the academic circles the church was absent. But a change did occur in Poland: Catholic journalists of the newspaper Znak published an appeal to defend the students against the government repression and the episcopate published a letter advocating for the freedom of students. This initiated a change in the relationship between the church and this revolting democracy which, in big part, spoke in the language of the leftists.

You have described 1968 as a “dry pogrom.” Could you further explain this?

The term “dry pogrom” means that businesses were not vandalized, because there were no Jewish businesses at this time, and Jews at the universities were not physically attacked because the academic milieu was “anti” anti-Semitism. However, people with Jewish names were expelled from universities and from the government. This accompanied a campaign in the media to fight against “Zionism.” Any Zionists had already left before 1968, so these were just Jews of Polish nationality who simply wanted to serve and work loyally for Poland, and their only fault was that they were of Jewish background. This is what I mean by “dry pogrom.”

It should be noted, that communists in Poland had a complex of not being rooted in the society. They were typically seen as an imported power from the Soviet Union. In 1956, in the Polish October, a liberal group among the communists, mostly of Jewish background, made an attempt to get rooted in democratic tradition. In 1968, another group of communists made an attempt to get rooted in the traditions of Poland through nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionist campaigns. Every country in the world has its own KKK. And this government group pushing for an anti-Zionist campaign and the attendant xenophobia and anti-Semitism was our Polish KKK. During the campaign, Jews were vilified in two main ways: as an element of former Stalinists who wanted to regain control of the country, and as part of a Jewish attack on Poland. Most people during this time didn’t even know what Zionism was before or during this campaign.

The events of 1968 showed that there was a dormant anti-Semitism in Poland which doesn’t wake up until it has permission from the top. It’s the same with the KKK in the US. It was enough when Trump said there was equal portions bad and good on both sides in Charlottesville, referring to the Nazi sympathizers and those protesting them, to wake up the dormant antidemocratic impulses of the people.

Thinking about this dormant anti-Semitism, was the outcry to Jan Gross’s book Neighbors and the Holocaust bill related to this, or was it the result of other factors?

There was a connection to the outcry about Jan Gross’ book, but it wasn’t unprecedented. That was a publication in English, and Poles are generally cautious about anything that comes from abroad. In the 1970s and 80s there was Jan Błoński’s article “Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto” and there was a debate about the murder of Jews during the Warsaw Uprising. There is also a popular notion in eastern Europe that the Jews were victims of someone else. Even Russia has this idea of being free of any guilt or responsibility, so if you are saying to the Poles that they are responsible for something, it always results in a defensive reaction.

Authoritarian tendencies seem to be rising worldwide right now, not only in Poland but across Europe and in America, too. You have previously characterized the primary political conflict today as one between “open” and “closed.” Is this conflict primarily about immigration today?

This is a new conflict because it substituted the traditional differences between the left and the right. But it is not only about immigration. It is primarily about defining what is a nation; it can be based on blood, ethnic identity, language or it can be about people who identify with a certain country, which could be a multinational country.

Is it the conflict between these two modes of conceiving of a nation that is responsible for the rise in authoritarianism worldwide?

This is simply just the face of this movement, and it is not the reason, just the face. There are many reasons: globalization, the crisis of big narratives, and that there is no longer a clear liberal or conservative explanation of the world. Today we have a danger of new generalizations, which is, in fact, not new because the stereotypes are not new. I remember when [in 1989] the Israeli Prime Minster [Yitzhak] Shamir said that every Pole sucked anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk, which is complete nonsense, but the stereotypes has survived.

How does an intellectual today look at and understand the rhetoric surrounding Russia as a threat to Poland’s domestic security and policies? A lot of illiberal trends in East Central Europe are being ultimately connected to Russia. Is this a deflection of responsibility?

The goal of Putin in regards to Europe is destruction. He supports populist movements, both xenophobic and progressive, that seek to undermine the European Union. He knows he can’t find the pro-Russian camp in Poland because it doesn’t exist. Plus, Putin can count on Trump’s support. I have never been this worried about the U.S., and subsequently, the whole world. When Poland is in the hands of incompetent people it is bad for Poland, but when Russia is in the hands of Putin and when America is in the hands of Trump, it is bad for the whole world.

You have led an incredibly active life: as a student protestor and dissident in communist Poland, you played an important role during the Polish Round Table Talks, and as an essayist, public intellectual, and editor-in-chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. What do you see as your role in modern day Poland?

Well, I am already in a museum. There is a new generation, which has to take on the role of standing against government oppression. It is obvious what side of the political spectrum I claim in Poland, and I am traveling through Poland meeting people and giving talks, but I am reducing my public role, as now is time for today’s generation to take charge. One has to know when to exit the stage: whether it is the time when everyone begs you to leave, or while everyone still loves you.

* Adam Michnik’s answers were translated from Polish by Oskar CzendzePh.D student in Eastern European and Jewish history. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 


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