How utterly simplistic to call a blog post to such a task. This does not pretend to do that. It’s merely intended to be a signpost along the way.
It’s a different path. We are coming up to speed on revolutions these days. But we are not attuned to profoundly enduring leaders.
Vaclav Havel was one.
The son of a wealthy developer who toiled as a lab assistant and lowly brewery worker after being denied a higher education, Havel’s works earned him five years in communist jails, where the chain smoking writer fell ill with chronic lung problems that eventually contributed to his death on Sunday at 75.
A playwright whose work was banned following the 1968 Soviet invasion of then-Czechoslovakia, he rose from political prisoner to become a president-philosopher who continued to fight for human rights until the end of his life.
Which is why we’re now hearing the tributes this man has deserved for so long. Like this one by NRO editors, well stated.
Czech Communists were brutal, but temperamentally Havel was not prepared to give way to persecution. His defense was to write plays, comedies of the absurd with humor and vitality within them. Several of the plays had a dissident writer as hero and leader of unofficial opposition like himself. A favorite subject for mockery was Communist language designed to present falsehood as truth.
How familiar. Since the time of the Sophists, in fact, who have their modern inheritors.
Havel caught our attention on the way to becoming an unlikely president of people he personified. Wherever that media fascination went, it returned for worthy tribute now. The CSMonitor:
Friends say he was an unfailingly polite, humble man who was not cowed by the threat of imprisonment.
“Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance,” he wrote in a letter to Czechoslovak President Alexander Dubcek in 1968.
Jailed in the 1970’s for criticising the government’s human rights record and twice later, he eventually led some 300,000 protesters to topple it in the Velvet Revolution…
Known as a freedom supporter, he was fired from a theatre where he worked following the Soviet invasion and became a dissident, organising people who did not support the regime.
In perhaps his most famous work, the essay “Power of the Powerless”, Havel explained why.
“You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances,” he wrote in 1978. “You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
“It begins as an attempt to do your work well…” What a remarkable, fundamental statement. How perfectly (and defiantly) human.
NRO editors continue:
Hundreds of thousands of people at last began to gather in Prague as in other Soviet-occupied capitals and to call for Havel. “I am only on supply, an amateur standing in for a professional politician,” he said in an improvised speech to the expectant crowd. He meant it. Slight and stooping, casually and even slovenly dressed, with a moustache that gave his face a somewhat woebegone expression, a heavy smoker, he wished to be taken then and afterwards not as a president but as an artist and, in certain engaging moods, even as an eternal student. His offices were in the Prague Castle (immortalized by Kafka), and he was known to ride a scooter along its immense corridors. The thrust of his later writings and speeches was that Communism had made everyone morally ill, or “spiritually impoverished,” in another phrase of his, and it was humanity’s task to recover what had been forfeited.
I keep thinking of the similarities to Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope…
NRO didn’t stop with that editorial. The editors asked contributors for a symposium, and they willingly submitted tributes.
…Havel stood for principles that are increasingly seen in today’s West as quaint and irrelevant to its politically correct, multicultural, and progressively less democratic present — an attitude succinctly summarized by the Guardian in its eulogy of Havel, “whose spirited defiance of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism . . . [has] nothing to offer to the Czech or European experience of today.”
And so what most tributes focus on are Havel’s great literary accomplishments, his moral courage, and the peaceful nature of the Czech revolt against Communism.
This is all true, of course, but Havel was anything but the peacenik these portrayals make him out to be. For Václav Havel was first and foremost a freedom fighter against the totalitarian evil that had descended on Europe after WWII and enslaved his people along with all of Eastern Europe.
Self-deprecating to a fault as he was, this self-proclaimed “confused intellectual,” who believed that “there’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side,” never once compromised his firm conviction that evil must be confronted, with force if need be, for freedom to be victorious. And so, at a time when the West was doing its level best to appease Communism through Ostpolitik, détente, arms control, and assorted delusions, Havel called it “Absurdistan” and the sterile culture it had imposed “Biafra of the spirit.”
Throughout his political career and after it, in countless writings, speeches, and interviews, Havel stood in defense of the politically oppressed, whether in Burma, Iran, or Belarus, and never shied away from the struggle for freedom. As late as two years ago, he signed an open letter to President Obama warning him of the threat Russia continued to present and of the danger of appeasing Putin.
It was said of Churchill that upon coming to power during WWII, he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Perhaps the most appropriate eulogy to the great Czech would be to say that, alongside fellow freedom fighters Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Margaret Thatcher, he mobilized the language of freedom and sent it to defeat Communism as the last and greatest curse of the 20th century.
In this past week, three well-known figures have passed away. Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il. I’ve posted on the first, will leave to other media the news out of North Korea, and hope to inspire someone to reflect on the great spark of humanity Havel leaves us in his witness to hope, much like Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.
My esteemed editor Michael Cook is far better than I at saying what should be said about these things. But let me not miss the opportunity to express appreciation for a life well-lived, a courageous stand for human rights and dignity and grace. Especially at a time when we crave leaders, but identify…at least some of us…less and less with defined political parties.
Victor Davis Hanson says it well enough…
Václav Havel was one of the great men of letters, who, like an Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Mario Vargas Llosa, used his towering cultural and literary stature to war against the fascism of the Communist Left. Therein the rare Havels of the world became veritable men without a country — not only are they hated by the state machinery of totalitarianism and put in mortal danger, but after the storm has passed, the liberal intellectual community never quite welcomes them back, and is privately a bit embarrassed by them, as if there must have been a better way for men of such intellect and caring than adopting a loud and unequivocal rejection of leftist statism. And yet they are not quite conservatives either, or at least conservatives in the contemporary American sense, and so these independent-thinking intellectuals and writers who enter politics with a deep suspicion of the state never really have a home — which makes their courage and candor all the more striking, as they are rare.