Civil society begins at home. It means that citizens start working on things themselves and don’t wait for the authorities to do it for them. It often starts small, e.g. by cleaning a local park or plastic bottles from a river. It is people who think of what they can do as citizens of this village or a town, instead of just talking about it in the pub. Someone said that the role of the state is to bring citizens happiness. Heaven forbid a state that promises its citizens happiness. If they leave that to the state, they are starting on a road to hell, or at least to the purgatory.
I believe that in normal circumstances civil society and politics should be separate. But there are times when civil society can affect change in politics. For example, in Slovakia several years ago, when Mečiar was considered a danger to society, it was civil society, not political parties who toppled him. So in times of danger civil society must intervene, but it shouldn’t meddle in politics constantly.
In Slovakia, in the mountains, they produce wonderful ewes’ cheese, oštiepok. In Poland they have a similar cheese, with a similar name, oscypek. Now Brussels is to decide which name it should go by. But why the hell should Brussels tell us what we should call our cheeses? If we are to bring Europe closer to its citizens we have to get rid of regulations that are only important for certain interest groups. We don’t have a common foreign or energy policy and we want to regulate the name of a cheese? This annoys the citizens.
We have omitted to mention the real founders of Europe: it was Hitler and Iosip Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili who gave us this idea, without them Jean Monnet wouldn’t have come up with the European project. Now we no longer feel threatened and that is why we are less interested in the EU. In the 1940s and 1950s, when imminent danger came from the USSR, we stuck together, only Austria tried to stay neutral at all cost.
If we are complaining that Europe has progressed so little, let us look back in history, at the big unifying movements in 19th century – Germany, Italy, US – they all became unified only after a big war. We, hoverer, have achieved this without wars, we have left wars behind. But that might explain why the momentum has slowed down – patriotism is an issue of emotions. Beautiful documents written in Brussels don’t inspire patriotism. I hope we don’t have another war but we should be more patient and tolerant of the European progress because we have achieved it without a war.
If we can preserve some form of civilized life instead of destroying it, we will still have civil society. I wouldn’t reduce civil society to a bunch of human rights defenders. For me it is something that happens from the bottom up, something that is important in the parishes, on the campus, in NGOs. Civil society means young people who graduate from Oxford or Cambridge and instead of becoming fat cats they start local NGOs.
My city, Vilnius, is impossible to imagine without the German culture and legacy, it had French, Scottish merchants, lots of cultural segments but by and large it was a German town, so if I don’t know anything of German culture, about Jewish or Polish culture, without an awareness of diversity, I cannot be an active citizen.
Democracy never benefits from comparative martyrology, a kind of Olympics of suffering, as Anthony Polonsky calls it, of people saying: we have suffered a lot, now we have the right to settle the accounts. Democracy never benefits because instead of taking account of real problems, we come up with idiotic pieces of legislation.
It is a profound misunderstanding in Europe to talk of human rights as something imposed by the West on the East. In fact, it was the other way around. If it hadn’t been for the dissidents and the Helsinki Accords it would never have happened. Human Rights Watch started as Helsinki Watch. The real founders of human rights are East Europeans.
I don’t think Europe needs a unified narrative. We had that in the USSR. What is unique about Europe is its fabric of many cultures and languages. The dialectic of war and peace, of admiration and disenchantment – this is what Europe is all about. It is unique in the world and we don’t need any single narrative.
There is something we can learn from the history of the Habsburg Monarchy: they were in power for 500 years and every political union has something to learn from a political organisation that lasted that long. We now tend to reduce the Habsburg Monarchy to the defeat in World War I, and the successor states tend to view it only in terms of the 1918 independence, as if it mattered only by coming to an end. However, it represents a durability that reveals a lesson about European history, which is quite obvious, though quite counter-intuitive: nation states don’t have a history. The moment a nation state comes into existence, it is swallowed by something else, such as the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.
The Habsburg Empire also had a civic culture: it began with the monarch who learned all the languages of his subjects so that he could exchange at least a few words with them when he visited so there was a reciprocity. But towards the very end even the monarchy was a liberal order, more liberal than the US in terms of voting rights. It was a civic culture in the sense that people took it for granted that there were complex national conflicts but they were settled by means of gradual compromises. You start with a small compromise, 30 years later another boring compromise follows, etc. The Habsburgs did this to this very end, the Polish-Ukrainian compromise in Galicia being an example. Conflict has always been there but civic culture means always finding a compromise that is right for the given moment.
There is a distinction between national patriotism and populism. Populists say: everyone else is lying to you but we will tell you the truth. They don’t mean the truth, they mean secrets you’ve been only telling in your family, and they are going to tell them publicly. Treating private sphere as public is a breakdown in civility. And the “truth” is: we are the victims. Populism is the breaking of taboos: I speak to you about your private fears and call it politics. Populism is more dangerous than extreme nationalism. It suggests that there is one secret story and it’s just a matter of finding out what it is. It is not true but it gives you the power of narration, the power to interpret. This is an old problem coming back in new form. The only response would be for the EU to have some kind of a mystery.
I want to rehabilitate dissidents: two aspects of the East European idea of civil society are still relevant. The first one is: politics shouldn’t involve violence. This seems obvious now but it was part of this concept, reflected in the name of the movement that led the Velvet Revolution here in Slovakia, Public against Violence. The other aspect is responsibility. Even though we may be victims, we are going to act as if we have responsibility even thought we don’t have control. This is might be useful today.
Civic society is something that is separate from the state. A fascist system strives to destroy civil society, to make a country into a single entity led by a single party but these attempts have failed. If you want to support civil culture the problem is that democracy allows us to be only a part-time citizen rather than total citizens. By contrast, a totalitarian regime is based on permanent mobilisation. The charm of a democratic country is that you have the privilege of not going to communal or presidential election. You can sit in your bubble, surrounded by small groups of people interested only in their private affairs, separated from the life of the collective.
We live in a contained, fenced-in area and feel comfortable. When we look at Russia or the Maghreb, we have the luxury of being interested only in ourselves. Europe is really a miracle but we don’t realize it for the miracle that it is. If we want it to continue we have to realize the dangers outside, we have to be aware of our enemies who want to destroy us. We should be aware of both aspects, both of the positive and the negative.
The EU has done away with the sovereignty of individual states but didn’t replace it with European sovereignty. Brussels decides on the size and shape of bananas but any serious decisions are not taken in Brussels but in Berlin or Paris. We have no king, we have nobody who would govern or who would take this global position and even Barroso or anyone else has the power to head this big union. That is why local patriotism is winning in some countries.
The status of victim always depends on context. We have dynasties of victims where the status has passed from father to son. As for the guilt complex in the West – the East was colonized by the Soviet Union. France, on the other hand, is a former colonial country and we have guilty conscience. We are constantly reminded of this by the descendants of the people from former colonies. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon model, we place our bets on multiculturalism. When someone from a former colony comes to France, the Republic considers them to be fully-fledged French but these people still have their original heritage and find it hard to integrate into society. The economic crisis exacerbates the current problems. When immigrants came to France in the past it was easy for them to find a job or to buy a car, and identity was not as important as it is in times of crisis.
Europe no longer creates history but when we look back to 19th and 20th century, all we see are torrents of blood and suffering, it is a caricature of history. It is a continent of killings but also the continent that has invented human rights. By pointing only to the horrible aspects we forget that we have emerged in good health and that we are alive. We have a vision that paralyses us, due to historians who stress the guilt of Europe. But most big nations have admitted the guilt. Europe is the only continent that distances itself from barbarities it committed.
My fictional characters would say that they largely agree with the EU bureaucracy. But they would also note that no civic society, no matter how developed, has a real influence unless it has influence on the political power represented by parliament. If the disparity between the two is too large it deprives people of the desire to do anything. Civil society is composed of people who live in the real world, not in the world of grand ideas – of people who lead normal lives, bring up children, who have their own ideas about various topics. The Polish debate about civil society is a very rich one but these days political parties seem to withdraw, lose contact with reality, they’re turning into bureaucratic institutions of a market character. So I agree with those who say that power holders want to weaken civil society by limiting the issues it can deal with to the very basic ones.
The people who are objects rather than subjects of politics tend to think in terms of conspiracies, and this is a source of populism. Populism derives from the stories of those who have no influence. People have lost their voice, they cannot participate in public discussion. I would like to defend those people because this is where the conspiracy theories come from. Nobody respected the views of these people, nobody tried to get them involved in the debate.
For me Europeanism is something broader than just feeling like a Pole or a Slovak. It is a house where everyone can find a place. I once went to Korea and longed for Polish food, for cabbage and schnitzel. Suddenly I heard someone speak German and although I don’t speak German but it felt like meeting a brother or a sister. The people who spoke German hugged me, they felt the same and we spent an evening together. We felt that our countries used to have conflict, tensions for centuries but at that moment this wasn’t important at all. This is how I feel when I come home to Europe after being abroad: whether I land in Paris or Bucharest I feel I’ve come home. So for me Europeanism doesn’t contradict nation, together they form an entity.
Photo: Peter Župník