Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Niemdller's Letters from Moabit Prison
By Hubert G. Locke
Pages: 172 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
The 20th century boasts a dolorous achievement: its persecuting governments have provoked an extraordinary body of writings by political prisoners. Our century did not invent this phenomenon; to the contrary: in the early days of our era some men even foresaw the approaching end of the practice of incarcerating dissenters. Such optimism was not groundless; even admitting that the habit persisted (the tsar, for example, kept his prisons well stocked, and there were always benighted Latin American despotisms to contend with), it could be blamed on backward or half-barbaric regimes that were out of tune with the enlightened and progressive tendencies of the Western world. Such thinking did not reckon with what would become a characteristic feature of the age: murderous ideologies coupled with totalitarian thugs. Instead of the fulfillment of two centuries of hope for the reign of freedom and tolerance, the 20th century-witnessed the perfection of repression in gulag, concentration camp, “re-education center,” and maximum-security prison. The infamy engulfed the globe: Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China; Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America – havens were scarce, refuges few. Iron bar, steel door, and barbed wire became apt symbols of a century that evinced a rage to imprison, torture, and execute.
A world rife with prison cells evokes despondency, yet from these cells – from the men and women who have paced their constricted perimeters – have come writings that quicken hope. They tell of horrors endured, but they also bear witness to the indomitability of the human spirit. Solzhenitsyn, Evgenia Ginzburg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Armando Valladares: they shock one into recognition of the staggering evil that claws its way out of the depths of the psyche, but they also remind one of the unquenchable humanity that man possesses. To the list of triumphant sufferers one should add the names of Martin Niemoller, Milovan Djilas, and Adam Michnik. Their voices, too, sound across the desolation of our century. Americans must especially heed these voices, must listen attentively to their message, for these men have seen things that we – sated on freedom – can only imagine.
Their names are hardly household words, although two of them – Niemoller, only recently deceased, and Djilas, now an old man – once commanded considerable attention; Adam Michnik is known mainly to those who have charted the fluctuations of recent protest in Poland. Martin Niemoller, then a Lutheran pastor in Berlin, began his sojourn in hell in 1937, when he was arrested for organizing opposition to Hitler’s meddling in German ecclesiastical affairs. He spent eight months in Berlin’s Moabit prison – a confinement that produced the letters contained in Exile in the Fatherland. Upon his release, the Gestapo seized him and imprisoned him first in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen and then at Dachau for the remainder of the war. While Niemoller was running afoul of the Nazi authorities, Milovan Djilas, a young Communist, was provoking the Yugoslav monarchy, which rewarded him with a stint in the royal jails. Djilas fought as a partisan against the Germans during World War II, and after the war he quickly ascended to a top position in Tito’s government. His apostasy from the true faith landed him in Tito’s prisons for nine years, first from 1956-1961, and again from 1962-1966. Polish Communism has its own apostate in Adam Michnik, who has graced Polish prisons with his presence on several occasions.
How does one survive the torment of prison? Tedium and anxiety alternately jerk the prisoner in opposite directions: the sheer monotony of interminable days encumbers the spirit; gut-wrenching fear of the unknown gnaws at the soul. Imagination is the prisoner’s relentless antagonist, for as Djilas remarks, in the absence of the known, one imagines the worst. The captive frets over those on the other side of the walls: How is his wife faring? What will become of his fatherless children? Will the regime persecute his loved ones in retaliation for his “crimes”? And what of the cause for which he has been jailed? Will his compatriots falter? And will he, offered the chance to recant, betray the cause? Time: nothing but time – leaden, endless time – in which to agonize over these questions and to dread the future. Death or madness promise the only surcease.
Only the “idea” can save one, writes Djilas; the idea can transform a cell into a realm of freedom. For Niemoller, the idea manifested itself in the utter simplicity of his faith in God. Like St. Paul, he counted it a privilege to suffer for the gospel. He recognized that the Nazis had not imprisoned Martin Niemoller the man, but Pastor Niemoller, the symbol of the Church’s refusal to render all unto Caesar. An inspiriting truth bore in upon him: through his irefragable witness the cause of the “Confessing Church” (that part of German Protestantism that scorned accommodation with the Nazi leviathan) would be vindicated. He wrote to his wife: “And I think my imprisonment belongs to God’s holy humor as well. First the mocking laughter: ‘We have him now!’ And then eight hundred arrests – and the result? Full churches, praying congregations….” Niemoller relinquished his freedom to remain loyal to the faith, but in that relinquishment he gained a freedom that not even death can extinguish: the liberating knowledge that, as he wrote from Moabit, “It’s not this little bit of earthly life that is important in the long run.”
Milovan Djilas, an atheist, could not turn to God for succor when the Yugoslav government threw him into jail in the 1930s. But this first term was easy, for he possessed “a faith that was stronger than the allure of all of life’s pleasures”: communism, which he, a young man bursting with the promise of futurity, equated with the dawn of “universal freedom.” In the wake of the postwar triumph of communism in Yugoslavia, Tito strangled the idea that had buoyed Djilas through imprisonment and war; repression assumed a new guise and changed its name. In 1956 he found himself behind bars once again, this time for his support of the Hungarians’ attempt to overthrow their country’s version of “universal freedom.”
Here, in the prison of the regime he had helped to bring to power, Djilas grasped the idea ever more tightly. The idea had not betrayed; it had suffered betrayal at the hands of the commissars. Through a long night of the soul, Djilas battled his “own demons and isolation.” Doubts assailed him: Was the idea no more than a chimera? His jailers dangled before him the delectable rewards of recantation; what did the idea matter when confronted with the promise of “privileges a hundred times greater than those…already taken away”? But he clung to his faith in the possibility of a free, open society. “Confirmed and final, crystallized in the crucible of pondering and endurance,” his belief in a humane and democratic socialist order enabled him to survive Tito’s jails; it remains his creed today. As he writes in Of Prisons and Ideas: “The idea as faith is a necessity for all of us. Without it, there is no way out of the present predicament, out of the world prison in which all of us live.”
Djilas is old now, but he – and others like him who have been tried in the fires of resistance to communist totalitarianism – has bequeathed the idea to younger men and women. He will die, but the idea will live in the minds of such men as Adam Michnik. Michnik was clapped into jail in December 1981 when General Jaruzelski unleashed his troops upon Solidarity. Released for a brief time in 1984, he was arrested again and sentenced to three more years in prison. Michnik is a casualty in what he calls “this strange war that is a new embodiment of the age-old struggle of truth and lies, of liberty and coercion, of dignity and degradation.” He seeks no solace in self-pity, nor does he burn with the embittered fanaticism that tempts the political prisoner. Like Niemoller (but without Niemoller’s religious faith), Michnik accepts the role of witness, of the bearer of a truth that cannot be stifled by tanks and guns and cells. During his first incarceration the government offered release if he would exile himself from Poland; he refused: “To forsake your dignity is not a price worth paying to have the prison gates opened for you.”
In the West Michnik benefits from a certain cachet for Poland and things Polish that arose with John Paul II’s pontificate and the brave resistance of Solidarity. Americans whose previous acquaintance with Poland had never progressed beyond the ubiquitous question of how many Poles it takes to change a light bulb, suddenly began to enthuse over “heroic Poles” and the “marvelous Polish pope.” I was no such Johnny-come-lately, for I have long reserved a special place in my heart for the Polish people. Of all Europeans (save possibly the Irish), they appeared most akin to my own Southern ancestors. Poles were a romantic and quixotic people, much given to futile uprisings, noble defeats, devotion to lost causes, and a certain melancholy preoccupation with death. But Michnik – in company with Solidarity and John Paul II – limns a different image: the people of Poland teach us of life more than of death, of steadfast tenacity rather than of romantic gambits, of the long and arduous (and problematicabpstruggle for victory more than of gallant defeat. In that, one finds a measure of hope in Djilas’s “world prison.”
The Poles demonstrate that the fate of captive peoples is not the ineluctable choice between resignation to oppression or blood-sodden revolt. Adam Michnik repudiates violence, because he realizes that a decent and humane social order seldom arises out of a baptism by blood. By the same token, he knows that a people cannot forever be denied their freedom. He does not promise the invigorating tonic of instant change or of Utopia aborning. Instead he proffers only the strategy of the “long march”: a resistance that seeks small victories and incremental gains, one that “requires consistency, realism, and patience.” Through the “idea” that he shares with Djilas, he endeavors to infuse Poles with an intrepidity and resoluteness that will carry them through the darkest days that lie ahead. Michnik’s greatest fear arises not from the possibility of failure – for he knows that there are no “final defeats” – but from the risk that the rigors of the struggle will warp the democratic vision. “I pray,” he writes, “that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.”
How to obviate this threat? Michnik is uncertain, but he draws confidence from an unexpected source – unexpected for one who is not a Christian. No less than his compatriot Lech Walesa, he looks to the Church to play its role in the Polish drama. He does not want a Church fabricated by liberation theologians who hurl a politicized faith into the cauldron of revolution. “We need…a church that will teach us moral values, defend national and human dignity, provide an asylum for trampled hopes.” Far from mere pragmatism, Michnik’s call to the Church is rooted in profound respect for an institution that embodies the deepest longings – even deeper than his “idea” – of the Polish people. One wonders if Michnik is not a better “Christian” than many professed Catholics in the West.
One dreams of a world in which such men as Adam Michnik, Milovan Djilas, and Martin Niemoller will never again have to pay for their convictions behind bars. One hungers for a world in which there will be no more Jaruzelskis and Hitlers and Titos (and all the other tyrants, large and small, who have cursed our century) to imprison them. Implicit in such longing is the bitter knowledge that it will never come to pass in this fallen existence. The stories of Michnik, Djilas, and Niemoller – and the countless thousands of men and women like them in this century – evoke a mingling of despair and hope in one who ponders their lives: despair, because they confront one with the palpable brutality of our age; hope, because they did not abandon hope. Adam Michnik speaks for all of them in a letter smuggled out of Bialoleka internment camp in 1982: “You are casting your declaration of hope out of your prison cell into the world, like a sealed bottle into the ocean. If even one single person finds it, you will have scored a victory.”
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