The curtain came down on the amazing life of the playwright-president this weekend. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who helped oust the political leaders who imprisoned him, died at 75 in his country home in Bohemia on Sunday.
Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. What he didn’t do in both offices far outweighs anything that he did do.
Born into privilege in 1936, Václav Havel lived under persecution for the better part of his years. The Communists expropriated his family’s property in the ’40s, blocked his education in the ’50s, banned his writings in the ’60s, and imprisoned him in the ’70s and ’80s. If ever a man had cause for retribution, Havel did. Yet, when he took power he treated his oppressors the way he wished to be treated—“in a cultured, legal, and civilized manner”—and not in the thuggish manner that they had treated him. “We are not like them,” Havel once told fellow democrats gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He proved it.
He proved it again upon the breaking up of the multi-ethnic Czechoslovakian state. With the bloody backdrop of the Balkans, Havel wished to preserve national unity and avoid disaster. He succeeded in the latter but not in the former. The idea of war, the first impulse of other national leaders placed in this difficult spot, was not even on the table for Havel. He neither wished to attack his countrymen for seceding nor to preside over his country’s break up. So he resigned his position, becoming Czechoslovakia’s final president. Rather than descend into a second Yugoslavia, Czechs and Slovaks parted as friends. Europe has the peacemaker Havel to thank for this.
Havel shouting “the emperor has no clothes” does much to explain how his rule replaced his oppressors’ rule. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth,” Havel wrote in 1978’s “The Power of the Powerless.” “This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” Havel “living the truth” proved so contagious to others living behind the Iron Curtain and so threatening to the Czechoslovakian government that they confined him from 1979 until 1984. The example set by one man saying publicly what he believed privately led others to follow suit.
When Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” it could be read only in samizdat form. In the winter of 2006, I freely picked it up, along with other of Havel’s bound essays, in a thriving little bookshop on the Prague Castle side of the Vltava River. At the same shop, I also bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto, which had escaped a samizdat fate in post-Communist Prague thanks to the city’s new live-and-let-live spirit and Penguin Books.
It was in one of Havel’s former jail cells that I first encountered him—not the man himself but this volume of his letters, speeches, and essays. The cell had originally been part of a convent. The mission of the nuns who occupied it, according to the hoteliers now occupying it, “was to serve the poor, ill, maltreated.” The mission of the Communist secret police who evicted them was to make people poor, ill, and maltreated. They certainly did this to Havel.
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