The Captive Mind Critical Essays

Czesław Miłosz


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The picture presented in The Captive Mind is a dark one, but very characteristic of the time in which it was written. Miosz wrote in the early 1950’s, during the last years of Joseph Stalin’s rule. Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, had been laid waste by the most destructive war in history. Except for Yugoslavia, where a home-grown police state had triumphed over Stalinism, every state east of the Elbe, with the exception of Greece, had been transformed into a totalitarian monolith with institutions modeled on those of the Soviet Union. Democratic and socialist political parties had been crushed or absorbed by the Communists. Land had been collectivized, economic infrastructures destroyed, churches dismantled, and ordinary citizens terrorized. Even Communists who had stayed home during the war found themselves purged, often in the most brutal fashion, by those who had spent the war in Russia and returned to their homelands in the baggage trains of conquering Soviet armies. At the time of writing, it was assumed by many Europeans, from all parts of the continent, that it would be only a matter of a few years before the fiction of Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Romanian independence was brought to an end and these countries, like their Baltic counterparts before them, would be absorbed directly into the Soviet Union.

The Captive Mind, Miosz tells the reader, was written primarily for the still-free populations of Western Europe and the United States and was both an explanation and a warning. Many Americans and others had been critical of the seemingly indecent haste with which non-Communist intellectuals in Eastern Europe and the Balkans had collaborated with their newly constituted puppet dictatorships after the war. Miosz rejected assertions that these men were simply quislings and attempted to explain their dilemma to those who would cast the first stone. The United States and Great Britain, he reminded his readers, had never had to undergo the agony of occupation. Even in France and the rest of Western Europe, the Nazis exerted some measure of restraint in their dealings with civilian populations. Not so east of the Elbe. Here, whole areas plunged into a kind of Hobbesian jungle, a world of all against all, in which basic rules of civilized behavior ceased to apply. In one of his most striking passages, Miosz recounts walking through the ruins of Warsaw, stepping over bodies of the dead and watching top-secret papers from a government ministry blowing forlornly in the wind, paper symbols of the collapse of the old order. Granting such unprecedented conditions, he asks, was it any wonder that many men of goodwill, drowning in despair, grasped at the only straws available to...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)