Adam Michnik looks at the revolutions that brought about the fall of communism.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was defined by Soviet propaganda as an instrument of imperialist aggression against the camp of socialist states. For us it was a blessed instrument. For us it was a community of democratic countries based on an anti-fascist philosophy with an aim to safeguard the democratic world against the expansion of communist totalitarianism.
When I speak about “us” I have in mind the people who lived behind the Iron Curtain, condemned to Soviet domination by the agreement made at the Yalta conference. We were the “younger brother” of the great Soviet Union, which was striving for imperial world domination.
It was the world of the Cold War, which at times became hot – for example in Korea, or later in Vietnam. It was not, however, a world that could be divided simply into black and white, good and bad. The expansion of Soviet totalitarianism was accompanied by an anti-colonial revolution and the great attractiveness of Marxist ideology, which promised freedom, equality and justice.
The political map of the time gave some people hope, while it produced anxiety in others. An increasing proportion of the map was turning red, especially after the communist revolution in China.
At the same time, it was a period of blindness among many eminent intellectuals and artists from the West. Criticizing the Soviet Union was not fashionable, nor was it in good taste. Jean-Paul Sartre did not want to take hope away from workers in Billancourt, but in doing so he took away the hope of workers from Laba to Vladivostok. Sartre did not want to accept the fact that the last colonial empire was in fact the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians certainly felt the full brunt of it, as did the Ukrainians.
Poland was one of the countries without sovereignty. The oppression in Poland was not as brutal as it was in countries that were hitched onto the Soviet Union. Poland was also not a garrison country like the German Democratic Republic (GDR); the Poles were not Russified like the Ukrainians or Belarusians, but brutal censorship, mass repressions and discrimination of cultural elites were the norm during the Stalinist years. After Stalin’s death, the harshness of the regime softened, but the softening had its limitations. Revolts were bloodily suppressed, like in Berlin in 1953 or Budapest in 1956. In 1968, attempts to give the governing Communist Party in Czechoslovakia a human face were quashed by military force.
All these revolts were accompanied by silence from the West. The Atlantic Pact protected Western Europe, but we the citizens of the worse part of Europe were left to ourselves, thereby extinguishing all hope. The feeling of being abandoned by the West was an enduring syndrome and forced us to adapt to the new reality. Rebellion was a crazy idea and Soviet policy seemed triumphant. The Helsinki conference (1975) gave the final seal on the decisions made at Yalta, where it was decided that the countries of Central Europe would remain in the Soviet sphere of influence but would be able to decide their own internal policy. Yalta gave the promise, therefore, of being a Finlandization rather than a Sovietization of Central Europe.
Helsinki was a return to the language of Yalta and a so-called third basket was added regarding civil liberties, the adoption of which Soviet diplomacy regarded as trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Luckily, the elite that formed the opposition in the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were of a different opinion. The ideology of human rights became the core of the emerging democratic opposition.
This was helped by the eastern policy of Willy Brandt, the leader of the German social democrats. By improving relations with Moscow and Warsaw, Brandt destroyed the radical anti-German rhetoric, which was the only effective way to integrate the communist regime with an anti-communist society. It had been easy to convince Poles, who well remembered Nazi brutality in Poland, that Germany remained a threat – a bomb that could explode at any moment. Anyone who criticized the communist government could be accused of supporting German revisionist policy. The fact that successive German governments refused to recognize the Polish border on the rivers Oder and Neisse made it all the easier.
Brandt’s policy, and also the decisions made at the Helsinki conference, coincided paradoxically with a new wave of democratic movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Voices started to come out of Russia from great scholars such as Sakharov and writers like Solzhenitsyn, while Ukraine and Lithuania started to talk of national freedoms. In Poland, the Workers’ Defence Committee was established, and in Czechoslovakia the Charter 77 movement started. President Carter announced that human rights were central to his policy, and in 1978 a cardinal from Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, became Pope. The world had changed.
The policy of detente had two faces; the first face was Nixon’s Realpolitik, namely treating the world as it was within the borders that existed. The second face of the policy was detente with a human face. This was the policy of Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In August 1980, a wave of strikes spread through Poland, which in consequence led to the establishment of the Solidarity trade union by people from the democratic opposition, which was in actual fact a national confederation for Polish freedom. The communist dictatorship, which liked to call itself the dictatorship of the proletariat, lost its legitimacy through a proletarian revolt. It was the greatest moral and political defeat that the communist dictatorship had suffered. The communist authorities answered this defeat with the only weapon they had – military force.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan said at the time the famous words “empire of evil.” For us Poles, those words were much more pleasing than they were for many Americans. For us, the military crackdown on Solidarity highlighted the Manichaean division of the world into good and evil. Thinking in Manichaean terms, we were not in the right, but the main objective was to survive at all costs. The words of the U.S. President were a sign of support and hope, as was the presence of NATO, which stood behind the words.
Of course, most important for us were the words of John Paul II, who did not doubt for a moment the sense of our struggle. Two convictions supported us unceasingly: the conviction about the economic failure of the communist system, and also the conviction that, thanks to the existence of NATO, there exists a better, free world. In this way, we managed to hold out until Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Today people argue about why communism fell. In the Vatican they say that it was a result of the policy of John Paul II – and they are right. In Washington they say it was a result of the U.S. policy of U.S. presidents Carter and Reagan – and they are also right. In Germany they say it was the result of the sage eastern policy of Willy Brandt – and they’re also not mistaken. In Moscow they say quite rightly that the road to the fall of communism was opened by Gorbachev’s perestroika – and they are even more correct. In Kabul they assign the fall to the valiant anti-Soviet fighters – and they are not making a mistake. We in Poland are convinced that the Polish rebellions, Polish ongoing defiance and Polish Solidarity had a deciding significance.
Gorbachev opened an area for freedom, which was filled by the Polish compromise of the Round Table and the decision of the Hungarian government to open its western border. However, the will of the nation had a deciding significance, and in the case of the Berlin Wall it was the East German nation. It was these people who, small in numbers and marginalized at the beginning, were able to cause a rebellion and bring down the wall. 1989 was a year of miracles in which the whole political map of Europe changed. At the time, Poland had three neighbors: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the GDR. Today, none of those countries exist.
In the new geopolitical reality, Poland chose the path to NATO and the European Union. It was the correct decision and none of us regret it. We had a sense that our place was in the world of countries with civil liberties and a market economy. I am convinced that we showed ourselves to be loyal allies in difficult moments: at the time of the conflict in Kosovo and after September 11, 2001.
Today, NATO is standing at a crossroads after being divided by a conflict between the United States and the European allies. Our conviction was to try to ease this conflict. We believed that a strong Europe was necessary as a pillar of the Euro-Atlantic alliance and not an opponent of the United States. We still believe this today. Ideological anti-Americanism seems to us to be harmful nonsense. However, we believe that the U.S. policy should be to look for friends among the states of Europe and not treat them as yes-men. The alliance should not be directed against Russia; it should be a continual warning against the imperial and expansionist trend appearing in Russian policy.
Our world is full of worrying and turbulent events. The end of history did not happen and shall not happen as long as human civilization exists. While history is the permanent struggle of the spirit of freedom against the world of enslavement, the world of enslavement is made up of systems, ideologies and totalitarian methods; it is dictatorship, fundamentalism, chauvinism, populism as an article of faith and terrorism as a method of action. These threats should be faced head-on. This is the reason for the military presence of NATO in Afghanistan.
NATO is needed today because there are still many enemies of freedom.
Adam Michnik was one of the leaders of Solidarity and the founding editor of Gazeta Wyborcza. This piece is selected from Freedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.