Something old, something new

Not unlike an 18th century novel, the story of the divide between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe over the Iraq war can be told through a series of letters.

The first letter, signed by eight member and prospective European Union states, appeared in late January 2003. It endorsed Operation Iraqi Freedom in the name of shared values, namely democracy, freedom, human rights and the Rule of Law. The second, signed by ten eastern European states and published soon afterwards, derived from an email penned by an American diplomat.

Both had an incendiary impact and forced a re-assessment of relations not only between the United States and Europe, but also within the borders of Europe itself. Media commentary has focused on diplomatic spats triggered by the two missives. Behind the scenes, however, a more philosophical drama is being played out that privileges a particularly eastern European mindset.

And, as in any drama originating in this part of the world, the best lines are reserved for the dissidents.

In the early 80s, Adam Michnik was repeatedly jailed because of his involvement in the radical trade union Solidarity and its opposition to the Polish regime. Two decades on, Michnik is now editor of Poland’s most important newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. He says his experience of persecution is the central motivating factor in his support for the US-led Coalition and its invasion of Iraq. ‘I’ve always looked at this war from the point of view of a political prisoner in Baghdad’, he told Le Monde last year.

In the Le Monde interview, he acknowledged the existence of dictatorships as pernicious as Saddam Hussein’s (in Uzbekistan, for example) but said none of these required military intervention, as they did not directly threaten global peace. He then made two points that provide the basis for his pro-US position, while demonstrating just how much his worldview had been shaped by a lifetime spent in a country that has been used as the playground of the great powers.

‘Inside the United Nations there are two forms of arrogance,’ he said, ‘That of the Americans and that of the anti-war Paris-Berlin axis’. Both equally, he said, were dangerous for the democratic world.

When asked if he had any concerns about what would fill the vacuum following the fall of the Ba’athist regime, Michnik returned to history. ‘War is always a political defeat’, he said. ‘But the logic of those seeking peace as if it were an absolute value is the same as Munich, 1938.’

Intellectuals from eastern Europe often use history—with its litany of 20th-century betrayals and bloody debris—as a talisman when voicing their most strongly held positions. Others in western Europe and elsewhere also use historical examples, but there is a difference. Whether it is Adam Michnik, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, or Hungarian sociologist and writer Gyorgy Konrad, there is often a sense that for these thinkers whose words have a greater import because of their suffering.

Gyorgy Konrad, one of the major figures of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and later member of the democratic movement in the 1970s and 1980s, published a book called Why I am for the War in 2003. In it, he said he was unable to hide his disappointment about the newfound divide between the United States and Europe, in its current form, as it is dominated by the governments of Berlin and Paris. ‘For those in central Europe, any kind of transatlantic divorce is a potentially risky situation,’ he said.

‘For us, the former dissidents, our central objective is to have fewer dictators on the earth.’ But, of equal concern, he said was the mindless trashing of anything put forward by the Bush administration. ‘If anti-Americanism has become the dominant stance worldwide for those on the left, it has its counterpart in the East in right-wing, anti-Semitic populism.’ He also thought it ‘racist’ when people said it was impossible for an Islamic country, such as Iraq, to become democratic post-Saddam Hussein. Similar arguments, he said, were used in relation to the countries in central and eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Such bitterness is surprising when we remember how successful the transition to free-markets and free elections has been among most of the post-communist countries from the Eastern Bloc. It is also unexpected, perhaps, when we recall how these dissidents are based in countries eagerly waiting at the gate of the European Union.

Jacques Rupnik, the French eastern Europe specialist, says that the re-emergence of the dissidents now reflects changes within their own homelands and their loss of status abroad. In the 1980s, there was a convergence between Western intellectuals and those in the East over fundamental principles—human rights and the importance of a ‘civil society’. Following the fall of the Wall, the importance of such dialogue faded, if not disappeared altogether.

As new elites emerged within the post-communist societies, Rupnik says, these former heroes lost some of their gloss. Here, too, we find the foundations for what Rupnik has described as the tendency among the former dissidents to use hyperbole when speaking of ‘The West’, as evidenced by Czech novelist, Milan Kundera’s use of the phrase the ‘kidnapped West’.

It would be highly inaccurate to suggest that all the contributions streaming forth from the former dissidents on the topic of the Iraq war are of such a serious vein.

The beginning of Adam Michnik’s ironically titled essay, ‘We, the traitors, In support of President Bush’ has a distinctively wry, even playful, tone. He recounts, with his tongue in his cheek, how he read an article published in German newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, in which the journalist claimed that Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik and George Konrad—‘Europe’s longstanding moral authorities’—had become ‘undiscriminating [sic] admirers of America’. Possibly indicating concerns over fading relevance referred to earlier, Michnik writes, ‘I read that article with a twinge of nostalgia. Here we were, together again’.

What united the three men then, as now, Michnik said, was a common dream of a ‘world infused with tolerance, hope, respect for human dignity (alongside) a refusal of conformist silence in the face of evil’.

United too, by the specific wisdom of people familiar with ‘history unleashed’, the experience of acute loneliness of people subject to the pressures of totalitarian despotism and doomed to the world’s indifference.
‘Every Hungarian citizen had retained the image of Budapest burning in November, 1956. Every citizen of Czechoslovakia was haunted by the sight of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968’, Michnik writes. ‘Every Pole was to keep in the back of his mind, the memory of Warsaw in the fall of 1944, murdered by Hitler and deserted by the allies.’

In The New Yorker, David Remnick writes that on Vaclav Havel’s last day as Czech president he did two things: he taped a farewell address to the nation and took a telephone call from US President George W. Bush.

Only a few months earlier, Havel had hosted a NATO summit at the Prague castle, with George W. Bush, US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld and dozens of other generals and politicians. During the summit, Havel—the former playwright — personally arranged a series of theatrical performances.

‘The NATO visitors watched an ersatz 18th-century dance (complete with powdered wigs and simulated copulation) that might have been considered obscene had it not been so amusing’, Remnick writes. ‘They listened to booming renditions of the “Ode to Joy”, a souped-up “Marseillaise” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People”.’ In a humourous aside, Remnick cites the Bush administration’s chief strategist, Donald Rumsfeld as saying, ‘I didn’t understand anything, I’m from Chicago’.

When asked later about the significance of the performance, Havel said, ‘The ballet was set in central Europe and featured Mozart’s music, and it also included elements of the American grotesque, to underline the Euro-Atlantic character of the gathering’.

Then, in a comment that suggests more scepticism, or indeed a clearer view of the relationship between those supporting the war and those leading it, Havel said that his stage-managed performance ‘may have been on the verge of what Mr Rumsfeld and certain others could tolerate’.

The Czech Republic was one of the eight, alongside Britain, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain, to sign a letter in early 2003 that called for the disarmament of Iraq—with, or without UN involvement. ‘The Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security’, it said. ‘Europe has no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Indeed, they are the first victims of Iraq’s current brutal regime.’ Rather the goal of the eight leaders was to ‘safeguard world peace and security by ensuring that this regime gives up its weapons of mass destruction’. If it failed to act, the leaders warned, the credibility of the United Nations was also at stake.

When asked why he signed the letter, Havel, like his former anti-communist foe, Adam Michnik, used the example of history. ‘The Czech experience with Munich, with appeasement, with yielding to evil, with demanding more and more evidence that Hitler was truly evil’, had shaped his position. But, there were other factors, too.

‘Civilisation has changed’, he said. Whereas, at one stage, the world had been divided between two poles, that is the former Soviet Union and the United States, the current multi-polar world introduced newer, more random threats.

‘It is a matter of the functioning of the world’s immune system’, Havel said, ‘and whether the world can deal with a case of such extreme evil before it is too late’.

On the day the ‘letter of eight’ supporting the Iraq war was published, the Financial Times reports, ten more countries in east and central Europe received a text for a declaration of their own. Written by a US envoy Bruce Jackson, who worked for the Bush administration in a non-official capacity, its intention was to ‘demonstrate solidarity’ with the US just weeks before Congress was due to vote on accepting seven of the countries into NATO.

Bruce Jackson wrote the statement that, when signed, became known as the ‘Vilinius Ten’. He emailed it to the Lithuanian Embassy, which emailed it to the other nine countries. The Financial Times report includes the comment that the text had the line: ‘Take it, or leave it’.

When drafting both documents, none of the standard European Union procedures had been followed. Neither Greece, the state holding the rotating presidency, nor the Union’s ‘high representative’ for foreign policy, Javier Solana had been informed beforehand.

The motivation for the first diplomatic Molotov cocktail, the original ‘letter of eight’ appears to have been French president, Jacques Chirac’s comments during the 40th anniversary of the Elysée treaty. His paean to the unique Berlin-Paris relationship apparently infuriated the governments in both London and Madrid. During the celebrations, Chirac said, ‘Experience shows that when Paris and Berlin agree, Europe can move forward; if there is a disagreement, Europe marks time’.

Only making the situation worse, in a now famous outburst upon hearing of the letter, Chirac scolded the EU candidate countries for their pledges of support to the US campaign. Using words that furthered accusations of French political arrogance, Chirac said, ‘It is not well brought up behaviour’, before adding, ‘They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet’.

The French President then warned the EU candidate countries their stance could be ‘dangerous’ as the Union had not yet ratified its decision to accept the ten new members.

Both Romania and Bulgaria, Jacques Chirac said, could not have chosen a better way to spoil their chances. He said, ‘When you are in the family, you have more rights than when you are asking to join and knocking on the door’.  

Nadja Breton is a broadcast journalist, whose articles have been published in Australia and overseas.



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