- Michnik’s Homage to Havel
An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik opens with an account of the famous meeting of dissidents from Poland and Czechoslovakia that took place on Mount Snieżka at the restricted border between the two countries in the summer of 1978. The clandestine gathering initiated sustained collaboration between the two countries’ principal dissident groups—Poland’s Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), which had been established in response to the crackdown on labor protests in June 1976, and Charter 77, which was launched the following January in Czechoslovakia to oppose the suffocating “normalization” imposed by the communist regime in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The meeting also brought Michnik and Havel together for the first time. It was a partnership that energized the dissident movement in both countries from the very beginning.
Michnik and Havel differed from each other in significant ways. Michnik, the son of Jewish communists, was an underground editor and activist and a leader of the student uprising during the Polish political crisis of 1968. Havel, a decade older, was the son of a wealthy entrepreneurial family and a recognized playwright. He had already achieved stature as a dissident intellectual by writing powerfully argued letters and essays directly challenging Czechoslovakia’s communist [End Page 183] leaders, including Alexander Dubček, president during the Prague Spring in 1968, and Gustáv Husák, the longtime secretary-general of the Communist Party. The letter to Dubček, urging him to behave as “an honest person” and not capitulate to Soviet pressure by repudiating his policy of “socialism with a human face,” contained a sentence that resonated with many dissidents who insisted that their struggle was not hopelessly quixotic. “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect,” Havel had written to Dubček, “can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance” (p. 7).
When Havel reiterated this argument on Mount Snieżka, Michnik urged him to turn it into an essay and promised to publish it in Krytyka, a new underground quarterly that Michnik coedited in Warsaw. An underground courier delivered the completed essay to Michnik’s home three months later. It was entitled The Power of the Powerless, and it became an instant classic. Its central message—that a system based on a lie is threatened by people who live in truth—helped to inspire a movement of peaceful resistance to communism throughout Central Europe. This is how the Solidarity activist Zbigniew Bujak described its impact:
The essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR, we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?
Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later—in August 1980—it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them the astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and the knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.
An Uncanny Era is not, as its subtitle seems to suggest, a collection of conversations between Havel and Michnik. It consists mostly of interviews with Havel, conducted by Michnik and some of his colleagues, that probe Havel’s thinking on issues of politics and morality. It concludes with a biographical essay of homage to Havel...