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Why We Need More Leaders Like Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel died today at age 75. As Bruce Bawer wrote in 2008, the courageous playwright who destroyed Communism in Czechoslovakia could teach us much about the need to defend Western freedoms against totalitarian Islam. (Read more from Michael Ledeen at the Tatler.)

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Bruce Bawer

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June 6, 2008 - 12:40 am
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Vaclav Havel died today at age 75. As Bruce Bawer wrote below in 2008, the courageous playwright who destroyed Communism in Czechoslovakia could teach us much about the need to defend Western freedoms against totalitarian Islam. Read more from Michael Ledeen at the Tatler.

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In these decadent times when powerful people in the West cannot conceive of any response to totalitarian jihad other than rank appeasement, and when the name of Che Guevara, a bloodthirsty Stalinist and enemy of freedom, is synonymous with heroism, it is vital that free people be familiar with — and honor — the examples of those valiant few who, living under totalitarianism, have stood up to it with a courage that today’s appeasers of Islam could hardly imagine.

Among the greatest of these heroes is Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel spent his early years under the two major twentieth-century varieties of totalitarianism — first Nazism, then Communism. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia after World War II, instituting a system under which, as Havel biographer Edá Kriseová writes, “[e]veryone was afraid of his neighbor” and “[p]eople disappeared without a trace,” they confiscated the Havel family’s money and the theater they owned. In 1949, Havel’s father was imprisoned and interrogated for several weeks; three years later, the Havels’ home and possessions were taken from them as part of a new policy under which class enemies were to be removed from Prague. News of the latter development gave Havel’s maternal grandfather a stroke from which he died; meanwhile Havel’s uncle Miloš, after spending two years in prison and labor camp as punishment for having run a movie studio, escaped to West Germany with the help of American troops — whereupon his name, according to Kriseová, was “erased from the history of Czech film.”

Prohibited from being a full-time university student because he was the son of bourgeois parents, Havel cobbled together an education by working as a chem lab apprentice, attending night classes, and studying economics and, later, drama. In 1952, when Havel was sixteen, the Czechoslovak government tried thirteen people on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to overthrow the Communist regime. The questions and answers were scripted, the defendants found guilty (the verdict, of course, having been preordained), and all but two of the convicts executed, their ashes, as Kriseová writes, “shoveled into sacks and scattered on an icy side road in the outskirts of Prague.” This was only one of many “crazed experiment[s] in the arts of legalized terror” that took place in Czechoslovakia at the time, the purpose of which was not to punish real criminals or dissidents but to maintain an atmosphere of terror and reaffirm the state’s power to do what it pleased. Such “experiments” had the desired effect: most people in Czechoslovakia kept a low profile. But not Havel: determined to work in the theater, he continued to write plays — mostly critiques of Communist utopianism and dogmatism — even though their production and publication were banned.

Then, in 1968, something remarkable happened: the “Prague Spring,” during which Alexander Dubček’s government lifted censorship and travel restrictions and granted freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. But not for long: Russian tanks moved in, and Dubček was handcuffed and shipped to Moscow, where he was interrogated, isolated, threatened, bullied, and humiliated. After he finally agreed to sign a document capitulating entirely to the Kremlin, he was allowed to fly back to Prague, where he sobbed his way through a radio speech announcing his capitulation. The Communists then proceeded to whip Czechoslovakia back into line by (among other things) purging most government ministers, top diplomats, and company officials; firing thousands of teachers, school principals, and professors; persecuting actors and artists; forcing almost half of the country’s journalists to resign and replacing everybody at the management level of news organizations; dismissing the great majority of writers from the Writers’ Union, imprisoning or exiling many of them, and removing books by scores of them (including Havel) from libraries. The lesson was clear: in the words of Havel biographer John Keane, the people of Czechoslovakia

were expected to join what Havel’s friend Ivan Klíma called the “community of the defeated,” and to abide by its basic rules: that there would only ever be one governing party, to which everything, including truth itself, belonged; that the world was divided into enemies and friends of the Party and, accordingly, that compliance with Party policies was rewarded, dissent penalized; and, finally, that the Party no longer required the complete devotion of its subjects, only the quiet acceptance of its dictates.

It is a mark of Havel’s character that when Czechoslovak officials, eager to be rid of him (one of the country’s leading troublemakers), actually offered to let him move to the West and take a dream job he had been offered with the New York Shakespeare Festival, Havel, who at the time was working in a brewery, refused. “The solution to this human situation,” he wrote, “does not lie in leaving it.”

Years passed. Organized dissent in Czechoslovakia disappeared. Then, in 1976, a rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe was arrested. The musicians were not dissidents, or even politically inclined; but in the eyes of the Communist leaders, their music was, in and of itself, subordinate. The group’s arrest underlined the fact that what was at issue in Communist Eastern Europe was not simply the right to political dissent — it was the right simply to be oneself, to spread one’s wings, to do one’s thing. The trial led Havel and others to found Charter 77, a group that called on the government to live up to its obligations under international human rights agreements. It was a new tactic: Czechoslovakia’s leaders, like the heads of other Communist countries, had entered into a number of such agreements, of which their very system of government was, of course, a violation; signing them was an act of pure cynicism on which no one had ever challenged them. At first the Plastics didn’t even know whether to align themselves with Charter 77; but they eventually decided to stand up for themselves — and with Havel. “In this trial,” Kriseová would later write, “the human desire to lead one’s life freely was in the dock. It was a trial in the name of sameness, indifference, bureaucratization, total obedience, and conformity. Anything that deviated from the norm in any way had to be liquidated.” Or, in Havel’s words: the trial was “an impassioned debate about the meaning of human existence, an urgent questioning of what one should expect from life, whether one should silently accept the world as it is presented to one and slip obediently into one’s pre-arranged place in it, or whether one has the strength to exercise free choice in the matter.”

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