Adam Michnik


The expansion of the European Union inspired the Foundation to make ‘Cultural Fault Lines’ the theme of the 2001 Erasmus Prize. This referred to the confrontation that takes place whenever boundaries – cultural boundaries in particular – shift. Two individuals were awarded the prize: Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik. The work of both laureates is strongly linked to the turbulent history of Central Europe. Both men have shown us how our perceptions of identity and events can be influenced by changes in the political system or by shifts in geographic borders.

The theme ‘Cultural Fault Lines’ was as applicable to Adam Michnik as it was to the other laureate of 2001, but in a different way. Like Claudio Magris, Adam Michnik used the essay as his medium to contribute to a more democratic society based on such principles as tolerance and the acceptance of differences. In their work, both laureates described the dilemmas to be faced when accepting personal responsibility in times of political occupation and suppression.

Born in 1946 in Warsaw, Michnik joined non-conformist groups at a young age and became a critic of the communist regime. After studying history, he became involved in the Workers' Defence Committee, the ‘flying universities’ and the independent trade union ‘Solidarity’. Michnik spent six years in prison. In his essays he explores the relationship between heroism and treachery, activism and collaboration, and shows how he has mastered the art of compromise and tolerance. He thus provides an example for achieving non-violent change. After the revolutionary reforms of 1989, he became a Member of Parliament. Since 1989 he has been editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper he founded himself, which is now one of Poland's most influential newspapers.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism, and un-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means; a money prize is awarded to a person or institution under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Foundation, has confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2001 to Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik.

The prize is awarded to mr Magris and to mr Michnik jointly on the following grounds:

  • Through their actions and their writings, both mr Magris and mr Michnik have contributed to a democratic society based on values such as tolerance and acceptance of differences.
  • To convey their thinking in writing, both authors have used the genre of the essay in an optimal way, switching from personal experience to wide-ranging reflection and detailed description.
  • In their work, the laureates have insistently described the dilemmas of taking personal responsibility in times of repression and foreign rule.
  • Both men have demonstrated how our awareness of identity and perception of truth may be affected by a change in the political system or by shifts of geographic boundaries.
  • They have shown that the history and culture of Central Europe should be of concern to all those who are interested in European diversity and European integration.
  • In his essays, Claudio Magris presents intimate, micro-descriptions of places and persons, with an implicit message that warns us not to forget the history of the present.
  • In a rich and elegant narrative prose style, Claudio Magris demonstrates the effect of boundaries and frontiers on our perception of the world, forcing us to view the world from different perspectives.
  • In his essays, Adam Michnik explores the space between heroism and treason, between activism and collaboration, and demonstrates how he has mastered the art of compromise and tolerance.
  • In an original and persistent manner, Adam Michnik has been instrumental in building up a democratic and pluralistic society in a country where there is no strong democratic tradition, and has thereby set an example for similar non-violent transitions in other countries.
  • The Erasmus Prize is awarded to Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik jointly, because their qualities can be viewed as complementary aspects of the same message, a message that is perfectly fitting the 'Erasmian' virtues of tolerance and un-dogmatic thinking.


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is for me an honour and a pleasure to address you from this chair, on behalf of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. I shall do my best to express the warm commitment of the Patron of our Foundation to the cause of our celebration and convey his admiration for the two laureates who are our guests today. We are happy, Your Royal Highness, that you are prepared to present the Prize yourself, as of old.

Central Europe and the cultural dividing lines in that region are the regional focus of this year's Erasmus Prize. This is a common denominator in the work of our two laureates today. Central Europe is not just a definition for a geographic region between Germany and the countries belonging to the former Sovjet Union, it is also a rendering of the notion of Mittel-Europa, which is a concept of historical, geographical, political and cultural nature. This notion is controversial and has given rise to a lively debate on what precisely it stands for, and how it should be defined. Historically, there are good reasons - for instance in terms of religion and architecture - which justify the use of the term Mittel-Europa for a cultural-political region in the heart of Europe, an area, which broadly speaking has the contours of the former Habsburg Empire, or an even larger area covered by the mediaeval concept of christianitas. The problem is where exactly to draw the boundaries.

Indeed, in our effort to define cultural and geographic entities, we are constantly confronted with the complex history of boundaries. Central Europe in particular is a mosaic of old and new boundaries, separating people, cultures, ideologies, and nations. What we see is that old boundaries lead a tenacious life and continue to influence our thinking and our loyalties, even when they are no longer a physical reality. After the fall of Communism, for instance, older and deeply rooted cultural and ethnic loyalties came to the surface, and - in some areas - were exploited for political purposes, as we have seen on the Balkans. At the same time we are creating new boundaries. Against the background of the enlargement of the European Union to the East, for instance, the boundaries between the countries that will and those that will not yet form part of the European Union, will occupy us the coming years. It is also in these border areas, where the question of the relationship to Europe as a multi-cultural community will arise most dramatically. How far can Europe be stretched, while acknowledging regional identities and at the same time creating a new economic superstructure? How can we prevent the rise of sentiments of exclusion and humiliation?

Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik, among others, have chosen the essay as the vehicle to raise questions such as these. The essay is the medium par excellence in which such problems can be addressed. Unconventional in style, the essay cuts across the territories of journalism, academia and the arts, and combines seemingly conflicting characteristics: on the one hand the detachment needed for reflection and on the other a personal commitment of the author, a genre in which universalism as well as local roots find expression. A flexible genre therefore, which, in able hands, can be a pervasive instrument of expression and of self-reflection.

We found that this balancing act - between personal experience and the inclination to view things from the other side of the fence, as it were - is a characteristic feature in the essayistic work of Claudio Magris and Adam Michnik alike: We are looking at an oeuvre which is complementing and reinforcing each other, as it conveys different aspects of the same basic message, namely, that a truly democratic society ought to value cultural and political pluralism. Historical awareness and individual responsibility are preconditions for an understanding of our differences and allow us to practice tolerance and make wise decisions. By awarding the Prize to Magris and Michnik jointly, we think we are sending the strongest possible signal to highlight the importance of Cultural Faultlines in Europe, this year's theme of the Erasmus Prize. Through their writings and their conduct, these two men demonstrate a combination of sharp observation, compelling literary qualities, and personal commitment to the fascinating, multicultural chaos that is Mittel-Europa.

Mr Magris, the book Danube brought you international readership, on top of the academic acclaim that your scholarly work, for instance that on the Habsburg Myth in Austrian Literature, had received already. While masquerading as the description of "a sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea" the book Danube is in reality a profound analysis of the history and cultures of the whole of Mittel-Europa. It is the story of the river, which can be considered the spinal cord of Central Europe. The story follows the course of the river and at the same time makes the reader, who is used to viewing Europe from a western perspective, turn his face to the East. You have a well-known fascination for boundaries and frontiers. Boundaries separate and unite, boundaries are both perpetual and fluid, go underground and pop up again, they can or cannot be crossed, they are - in short - ambiguous, a subject that is featuring prominently in all your work. Your two best-known books, Danube and Microcosms, are pearl strings of portraits, persons, places and landscapes. Trieste, a provincial town at the crossing point between East and West and North and South, your home base and inspiration for much of your work, is the fixed point of reference in your book  Microcosms. The history of this border area between Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria, comes alive in the almost tactile descriptions of villages, landscapes and persons. Your style of writing follows the topics, sometimes rational and brief, occasionally baroque or full of melancholy. In your work you offer a wealth of observations, implying that variety and pluralism are of crucial importance in societies characterised by geographical division. The proclivity for an imagined purity, in your view, leads to excesses. It is rather a blend, a mosaic of peoples - which is the natural resultant of history - that best fits the human dimension. Apart from being a testimony to the great erudition of a professor of German literature, your writings are a struggle against forgetting and intolerance, and a deeply engaging personal account of your experience with the mixture of identities around you and - on closer inspection - also the identities in yourself.

Mr Michnik, in one of your essays in the volume Letters from Prison, you have thanked your captors for locking you up in jail, because this allowed you to study and write undisturbed. Your literary productivity during about six years of imprisonment has indeed been remarkable, as is attested by your book Letters from Prison. In these as well as your other essays such as Letters from Freedom, and L'Eglise et la Gauche, you have left us a rich oeuvre of thinking on different subjects related to Polish history, an oeuvre in which the commitment of the dissident and the detachment of the historian are combined in a unique way. Your interest regards the narrow path between subjection to foreign domination and the romantic stance of resistance; historical persons who were faced with hard choices; the borderlines between what can be considered a honourable agreement and treason. Where are the limits of a compromise in times of suppression? Faithful to the art of the compromise, you realized that factors such as the Catholic Church were a crucial part of the social reality of Poland. Your insight in the role of the Church in the Polish tradition has paved the way for a workable rapprochement between opposition forces during the communist regime, and this alliance gave rise to the solidarity movement, the first independent union in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s you kept reminding your colleagues to imagine what they would become when freedom arrived. You showed respect and understanding also for your adversaries and while you suffered under repression, you wrote: "I am not afraid of what they will do to us but of what they can make us into," and anticipating the victory over communism, you wrote: "I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards." You wanted a new Poland founded on civic rather than ethnic-national or religious principles. You wanted tolerance, even for communists, an attitude that was difficult to sell in those circumstances. The eighties of the last century now seem so remote and your essays of that time on the whole so optimistic in tone, that the modern reader tends to forget under which dire circumstances these pieces were written. We are now, so many years later, in a position to recognize how critically important the year 1989 was not just for Poland, but for the non-violent revolutions in other East-European countries as well. But your role did not end there. You remain an influential factor in Polish society. Your voice continues to be heard through the Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper founded by you, which has become the largest in Poland; you are an optimist and believe that Polish democracy is slowly finding itself, although it is still in many ways imperfect. The fact that pluralism and democracy have found their way in Poland at all can, at least in part, be attributed to your inspiring efforts. Your basic rule of conduct is of deceptive simplicity: "do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely."

Ladies and gentlemen, the essays of our laureates take us to parts of Europe where most of us know too little about. Even so, the problematic which Magris and Michnik address, is of crucial importance for all of Europe today and independent of the geographic areas, which are their specific points of departure. The European Union countries are facing the task to integrate not only new economies, but also the cultures of Eastern Europe, which have been separated from us for about half a century. Through this year's Erasmus Prize, we are expressing our admiration for two oeuvres, which deserve to have a lasting impact on our thinking about European civilisation, namely a Europe as a mosaic of cultural dividing lines. In the work of Magris and Michnik we find a vision on the practice of tolerance, which holds out a challenge and is a source of inspiration.

Gentlemen, armed with courage and an open mind, both of you have addressed intrinsic human dilemmas. You have delved deeply into the intricacies of compromise and the need for tolerant behaviour. In an engaging, personal style, you are exploring such existential questions as of where to position oneself between the extremes of principal resolve versus treachery, of zealotry versus indulgence, or between the poles of utopia and disenchantment. To these questions there is no single answer that is valid at all times. Your personal response is best described in two key words: imagination and broad-mindedness.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be here, the recipient of the Erasmus prize. I am convinced that this award is an expression of respect for the dissident movement, of which I had the privilege of being a part. Among my predecessors I find names such as Leszek Kolakowski, my teacher, and Václav Havel, currently President of the Czech Republic, who has been my friend for 25 years - however, in the past a criminal and a prisoner, as we all were. I believe that I need to add to this list the name of a great Russian, that of Andrey Sacharov. He was the first among the just and the first to challenge the Communist dictatorship.

What was the essence of the dissidents' attitude? I believe it was their courage in the face of dictatorship, and the reconciliation they sought after the victory. I believe that I also owe this great award to my friends from the dissident movement, such as Jacek Kurón, Bronislaw Geremek and others; but also my current friends, my friends at Gazeta Wyborcza, the most important newspaper in Poland which is led by the men from the resistance, by the former prisoners - the newspaper of freedom and tolerance, the newspaper that is palpable proof that we can work in the media in a modern democracy successfully without corruption and without being forced to conform. I also believe that this great honour is a sign of respect for the democracy of Poland, for my democratic fatherland, my fatherland that now, after decades of dictatorship, is free and democratic. It is a signal and is proof that Poland is indeed an essential part of European civilization, a sign of hope that we will soon be part of the European Union.

You know perhaps that the Netherlands has often functioned mythically for the most important personalities of Polish culture - for Leszek Kolakowski for example, who wrote on the work of Spinoza, on Dutch mysticism and on the second wave of Reformation; for Zbigniew Herbert, the author of great works on Dutch painting. But in the first place for the great Polish sociologist Stanislaw Osowski, who after the Second World War wrote a short essay before the greater wave of dictatorship and terror occurred. He wrote for his countrymen that you provide a good example for Poland: the Dutch democracy. The Netherlands, a country that has few mineral resources, no gold and not much coal or oil, has two characteristics that are very important for Poland. First of all, the republican monarchy, truly a singular phenomenon. As for myself, I was my whole life long a Jacobin, republican and revolutionary, but now I am jealous that we in Poland do not know a monarchy along the Dutch model - it is just like Erasmus, that prince of the republic of letters, the godfather of European intellectuals, not a man of dispute but of dialogue.

Finally, I am very pleased that I have been distinguished together with my friend Claudio Magris, the great Italian writer. An author who is particularly important for us of Central Europe, because Donau, Claudio's book, was a Bible for us. It means that you - Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians - are necessary for us, for modern Europe. Claudio breathed new life into the more universal ambitions in Central Europe during the time of the dictatorship.

I believe that this ceremony offers a nice epilogue for Claudio's book. The Donau has finally reached Amsterdam. It is just as in a bad American film: we finish with a happy ending.

Thank you very much.


Adam Michnik (Warsaw, 1946) studied history and economy. When he was fifteen years old he joined a forbidden, non-conformistic group and from then on he has been a critic of the communist regime. In 1976 he was ideologist and co-founder of the KOR (Workers Defense Committee) and in 1978 created the so-called 'flying universities'. In the '80's he became advisor to the free union Solidarnosc. Adam Michnik spent in total six years in prison because of subversive activities against the communist regime in Poland. He declined offers to depart to the West. After the velvet revolution in 1989 he was a member of the round table conference and a member of the first non-communist parliament until 1991. In 1989 he founded the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, now the biggest daily in Poland, and became its chief editor. He has published widely in for instance Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, New York Review of Books, The Washington Post and he has written a number of books such as L'Eglise et la Gauche, Le dialogue polonais (1977), Letters from Prison (1985), La deuxième Révolution (1990) and Letters from Freedom (1998). Adam Michnik holds doctorates honoris causa of The New School for Social Research, New York, the University of Minnesota and Connecticut College. He has won a great number of prizes, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1986, the Jurzykowski Prize in 1989, the Brücke-Preis in 1995 and the Francisco Cerecedo Journalist Prize in 1999.

November 2001

Bruggen en Breuklijnen

Claudio Magris ontving de Erasmusprijs in 2001 in het thema van 'Culturele Breuklijnen'.