Killing your icons

Now more than ever it appears that all of our icons have feet of clay. Why don’t we just let heroes remain heroes instead of looking for some invisible skeletons in their wardrobes?

Recently, it has become popular among the post- communist countries to look at the past as at the mutable taffeta of history and see it in a different colour. Today’s sophisticated, aggressive media delves into political dissidents’ past and sees it in black instead of white, polarizing public opinion against what were once untouchable icons of freedom.

This is the problem currently faced by Franco-Czech anti–communist writer- Milan Kundera and Lech

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera

Walesa, the Polish Noble Prize winner who led the Soviet block’s first independent Trade Union. Both are currently disrespected in their own countries and accused of being a former stooge of the Communist Secret Police.

Milan Kundera is the second best known Czech in the world, after Vaclav Hava. His books have been credited with shining a light on the darkest days of communist rule in Europe. Unfortunately one month ago Kundera was embroiled in a scandal involving espionage and secret police after being accused of denouncing an agent to communist authorities in the 1950s, after which the victim narrowly avoided the death sentence, but spent almost 14 years in labour camp.

The article appeared in a reliable press source and caused shock waves through Czech and French society. The writer vehemently denied the claims, calling the attack ‘the assassination of the author’.

The aftermath of this event has been that the Czech media have constantly drawn attention to Kundera’s attitude towards his native country, saying that he was always carefully covering his tracks and visiting his homeland only incognito. They are constantly digging up past references to communism in Kundera’s speeches. Respekt’s editor-in-chief, Milan Szimeczka, recalled Kundera’s last public speech, where the author stated “the artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.”`

One may wonder what the Czech media is aiming at. Is it really to do with administering justice or is it just an effort to tarnish the reputation of one of our greatest living novelists? No answer exists, all that is left is a debate. Amongst those who would not lower themselves to take place in such a debate are eleven internationally well-known writers, who came out in defence of Kundera.

What we call ‘Walesa’s casus’ is slightly different than what happened to Kundera. Walesa is a great icon, more celebrated in Western countries than in Poland, especially of late, when a large part of the Polish nation became more sceptical about Walesa’s heroism. The Polish people have been witnessing what may be called the `great humiliation`. “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.”-“I have made a monument more lasting than a bronze”, said the Roman lyrical poet- Horace.

Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa

Walesa’s monument seemed to be imperishable, however the media seem to have achieved the impossible. In June this year Poland’s Nobel Prize-winning former president was at the centre of an explosive political row following publication of a book which claims that the ex-Solidarity trade union leader worked was a secret police informer under Communism. “The Secret Police and Lech Walesa”, which was written by two historians at Poland’s Institute for National Remembrance was a success comparable with Harry Potter. People were queuing from the early hours to buy the book. The book’s launch entailed lots of reviews and interviews, thousands of questions were asked. Walesa denied everything, calling the book libellous and finally counter-attacking with his new autobiography “The way to the truth”. Once again we have to ask the same question, why would the one who was considered to be at war with communism, flirt with communism? Indeed, it is a big paradox. The leader of the revolution that brought communist rule crashing down is being accused of collaborating with Communist officials. People are asking questions which cannot be answered, but the disrespect showed to the national icon still remains and is not going to vanish.

There is an obvious comparison between those two affairs. In both cases we can ask, what are the Media trying to achieve? What or who are they aiming at? Is it an attempt to destroy the ‘Men of Iron’ and the reputations of those heroes in their native countries and overseas? Both protagonists are more famous abroad than in their motherlands. They have both been accused of crimes from decades ago. Why are these cases coming to light now if the communist archives have been available to be checked for the past 20 years?

These two affairs are not identical, but the similarity of many aspects leads the press to make various reflections. What gives us right to judge national heroes if the only basis for this are documents, which have been habitually falsified?

Evidently modern media are happy to take part in a performance which is an adaptation of Kafka’s Trial, however they would not make any attempt to check if those who take a role of Mr. K are also enjoying being involved in the show…nevertheless, the show must go on…