Sunday, August 15, 2004

Once again we must pause to remember

Not long ago on this blog and everywhere else we recalled the great leader of the western world, Ronald Reagan. Today we must pause to remember a man, who is, perhaps, less well known but whose thoughts and writings, whose very existence symbolized all that has ever been finest in the true European culture, which cannot be contained in directives, regulations or, even, the Lisbon agenda.

Yesteday Czeslaw Milosz’s family announced that he died peacefully in Krakow, at the age of 93.

Milosz personified in himself both the glory and tragedy of Europe. He was born in Lithuania in 1911, then a part of Tsarist Russia. His parents were part Polish, part Lithuanian. He was educated in Poland and France, became a journalist and joined the Polish underground after the Nazi German invasion of his country.

Unlike many, he survived and tried to serve the new Poland in its diplomatic corps. Unable to submit to the other great totalitarian system, he left the Polish diplomatic service and remained in the West for thirty years, where he taught and wrote, both prose and poetry.

Undoubtedly, his greatest book is The Captive Mind, published in 1953 and one of the finest analyses of the Communist system and what it does to people. Part memoir, part analysis, the book deals not so much with the obvious horrors – the mass murders, the torture chambers, the prisons, the labour camps, the “rehabilitation centres” – but the more subtle oppression. Milosz had witnessed and was anxious to tell the unsuspecting western public about the destruction of the human psyche, the breaking of the spirit, the capturing of the mind. To him the subversion, terrorization and conscription, either willingly or unwillingly, of the intellect was, perhaps, a greater crime than the more obvious gangsterism of Communism.

It is good to know that Czeslaw Milosz went home after thirty years of exile. To many millions the word “home” acquired a mystical and unattainable meaning in the twentieth century. But some managed to go back to it either permanently or just for a while.

The greatness of our history and of our culture can be achieved only if, like Czeslaw Milosz (or like Ronald Reagan, whom we honoured not long ago) we believe in liberty, in the untramelled human spirit.

We are fortunate. For us the fight is not against the terrifying monsters of Nazism and Communism, but the monster, who wants to smother the spirit and capture the mind is there nonetheless, even if he wears the (relatively) friendly face of an EU Commissioner.