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Why We Need More Leaders Like Vaclav Havel

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.


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.”

Eventually over a thousand people signed Charter 77’s manifesto, and many were punished severely for it. Havel — already under the watchful eye of the Czechoslovak government — became a constant target of its attentions. The secret police interrogated him regularly. “He received threatening letters and anonymous telephone calls,” writes Keane.

His life began to feel as if it was one continuous round of threats, bright lights, padded doors, wooden desks, sliding chairs, handcuffs, truncheons. … When it became clear to the authorities that the man was not for giving up … Havel was arrested, charged … with committing “serious crimes against the basic principles of the Republic.” He was confined without trial “in total isolation” for four and a half months in Ruzyně prison. After his release, he and other Chartists were beaten brutally by police at a ball for railway workers.

In all, Havel was imprisoned four times. “Prison hammered into Havel’s hide the painful realization that responsibility is the key to human identity,” Keane writes.

Courage did not come easily to Havel. It was a matter of will, of resolve. In prison, swarming with worries about what prison would do to his soul, his sense of humor, he struggled to keep up his spirits. … He was riddled with guilt over having dragged other people into Charter 77. He was deeply suspicious of utopians with their “radiant tomorrows”: “What is a concentration camp but an attempt by Utopians to dispose of those elements which don’t fit into their Utopia?”

After the Charter’s appeal was made public, the Czechoslovak government put together a group of artists, musicians, journalists, and performers who publicly declared their enthusiasm for the Communist system and who condemned Havel and others as imperialist agents. To read their testimonies now is to be reminded of today’s Western apologists for jihadism. (The difference, of course, is that the latter, who are not yet living under the totalitarianism they so reprehensibly defend, have less excuse for their cowardice.)

In 1978 Havel wrote a long essay that would have an extraordinary impact and that should be required reading in Western schools. “The Power of the Powerless” explained on a profound human level why Communist tyranny should be resisted with all one’s heart and mind and soul. It wasn’t a dry political treatise — it was a work of deep thought and feeling that accomplished the apparently impossible: it enabled many Eastern Europeans to look with fresh eyes at the oppression that they had long taken for granted as the way of the world. And in doing so, it persuaded them to abandon their meek passivity and stand up for their liberties. Only on a very few occasions in history has a writer attained a unique insight into his society and expressed it in words that moved mountains; Havel is one such writer. His essay took Eastern Europe by storm. Solidarity member Zbigniew Bujak later said that it came along at a time when he and many of his fellow Polish activists felt dispirited and had decided that it was pointless to challenge their Communist masters. “The Power of the Powerless” changed that. It articulated, in words that touched them to the core, the spiritual need to resist oppression. “Reading it,” explained Bujak, “gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later — in August 1980 — it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us.” Of the spectacular successes of Solidarity in Poland and of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Bujak said, “I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.”

In the essay, Havel imagined a man who runs a fruit and vegetable stand in Communist Czechoslovakia (runs, not owns: in Communist Europe, of course, all businesses were owned by the state). The man puts in his store window a sign bearing a Communist slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why, Havel asked, does he do this? The answer: he’s afraid. He wants to live “in harmony with society,” and must prove he’s obedient. Havel noted that such a man might hesitate, out of shame, to post a sign explicitly admitting his fear; but the sign bearing the Communist slogan helps him conceal his cowardice from himself by hiding it behind the façade of ideology — an ideology that offers people “the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” Communist ideology, Havel pointed out, obliges people to “live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” Moreover, while life in free societies “moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization,” life under Communism “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.” People like Havel’s greengrocer, by going along with all this, become not only victims of the system’s oppression but also collaborators in it — for the sign in the window, in addition to testifying to the shopkeeper’s meek compliance, increases pressure on other merchants to put signs in their windows lest the authorities start asking why they haven’t. So it is that ordinary people, by kowtowing to the system, become its enforcers. (Thus are the subjects of Communism the equivalent of dhimmis under Islam.)

Havel went on to ask: what if the greengrocer takes down his sign? In doing so, he will have “shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system,” and “shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth” — and thereby illuminated the lying around him. The Plastic People trial, Havel noted, had helped Czechoslovaks to understand that their government wasn’t just attacking a rock group — it was attacking “the very notion of living within the truth.” People saw “that not standing up for the freedom of others … meant surrendering one’s own freedom.” To be sure, Havel thought that “[p]rospects for a significant change for the better” were “very long range indeed.” Yet he wondered if he might be mistaken: what, he asked in closing, if “the brighter future … has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it round us and within us, and kept us from developing it?” This intuition would prove correct. Communism in Czechoslovakia had little time left — and Havel’s essay, which of course had to be distributed in secrecy, had much to do with that. Only eleven years later, the system collapsed — and Czech leaders, weakened beyond redemption, were forced to accept what would have been unthinkable a few years earlier: the establishment of a coalition government with Havel’s newly formed group, Civic Forum. This miracle — the overthrow of Czech Communism without a shot being fired — came to be known as the “Velvet Revolution.” On December 29, 1989, Havel was elected interim president of Czechoslovakia; the following June he was returned to office in an election that also gave Civic Forum, a Czech group, and its Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence, overwhelming control of Parliament.

No one could have blamed Havel, in the flush of victory, for feeling less than charitable toward the Communists. But he refused to wreak vengeance, rejected calls to outlaw the Communist Party, and strove to transcend old hatreds; he asked that all Czechs and Slovaks work together to repair the damage Communism had caused — damage to everything from the nation’s infrastructure to its very soul — and to build a new, free society of which everyone could be proud. In “Power and the Powerless” he had imagined the modern world surpassing not only totalitarianism but also Western democracy in its present form and attaining a “post-democracy” even more fully dedicated to individual liberty; in reality, it became difficult enough to take the wreck that was post-Communist Czechoslovakia — a country whose economy was a basket case, whose rivers were sewers, and whose people had been rendered ill-equipped by decades of fear and oppression to make the most of living in freedom — and turn it into a modern democracy with a functioning market economy. Yet Havel and others, to their everlasting credit, managed within a reasonably short time to achieve just this.

In his first New Year’s address to Czechoslovakia, Havel noted that during the Communist era the country’s leaders had filled their New Year’s addresses with glowing words about “how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were.” Havel noted that in fact Czechoslovakia’s economy was a joke (“Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone”), that it had “the most contaminated environment in Europe” (at the time, the country’s name was synonymous in many people’s minds with waterways polluted beyond belief), and that, worst of all,

we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. … We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. … None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

Yes, co-creators. It was necessary, he insisted, that Czechs and Slovaks refuse to see themselves as victims — for only thus would they realize it was up to them to change their lot. It would do no good to spend their time blaming their former Communist masters for their troubles.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split peacefully into two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with Havel becoming president of the latter. He stepped down in 2003, but continued to fight oppression. (He was admirably outspoken, for example, in his criticism of Fidel Castro, whom many other European leaders adored.) He has also talked about Communism’s psychic legacy, which, though in the main profoundly negative, as it stunted its subjects both morally and spiritually, also had a positive side: for it taught people like him to cherish the freedom they didn’t have. And after they had won it, they knew they must never take it for granted. To stand up for freedom — not only theirs but that of others — was for them a profoundly felt moral obligation. It was worth their vigilance, their sacrifice. In the West, Havel knew, this kind of awareness and commitment were largely absent: “Naturally, all of us continue to pay lip service to democracy, human rights, the order of nature, and responsibility for the world,” he wrote, “but apparently only insofar as it does not require any sacrifice.” The West, he worried, had “lost its ability to sacrifice” — a point also made by Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a 1978 commencement address at Harvard. “A decline in courage,” Solzhenitsyn told the graduates on that day three decades ago,

may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. … Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

When one examines the responses of many in the West to the challenge of Islam, it’s hard not to feel that Havel and Solzhenitsyn were absolutely right. Living a lie, once ubiquitous behind the Iron Curtain, is now widespread in the West owing to a profound fear of Islam. Every Western journalist who writes that Islam is a religion of peace, who chides terrorists for hijacking a peaceful religion, and who celebrates Muhammed as a messenger of ecumenical harmony — all the time knowing that these are lies — is doing the equivalent of the greengrocer putting a sign in his window to avoid trouble. For most of us in the West today, life is extraordinarily easy compared with life in a dictatorship — and it’s precisely for this reason that jihadists are making inroads upon our freedoms with so little effort. “The only genuine values,” Havel has written, “are those for which one is capable, if necessary, of sacrificing something.” By this measure, how many people in the West today are truly dedicated to liberty? Today, in the Western world, if a group of Muslims starts bullying non-Muslims and seeking to limit their freedoms, most of the latter will not raise a peep in protest — instead, they’ll criticize those who resist. For those accustomed to the comfort of life in the West — a life that’s free of the perils of totalitarian societies and that rarely requires courage — standing up to bullies doesn’t come naturally. It’s scary to confront jihadist gangsters, and far easier to join the mob of people shaking their fingers at the few who dare to confront them. It’s also easy — and self-flattering, and immoral, and irresponsible — to pretend that you’re living in a totalitarian society when in fact you’re free. Those who say that America has become a totalitarian state either don’t have the slightest understanding of totalitarianism or are cowards playing at being heroes.

A dissident hero under Communism, Havel became in the post-Cold War world an international symbol of the triumph of individual conscience over the forces of tyranny. He traveled the world, won prizes, addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, back home in Prague, he suffered the fate of all politicians. Though in his first years as president he was almost universally admired, even revered, over the years he was increasingly criticized on a variety of fronts. He was attacked both for being too informal and for putting on airs; for being too conciliatory with the Communist ex-rulers and for being too hard on them; for being too enthusiastic about the free market and too hostile to it. As a dissident, Havel had stood for principle; as a politician he was obliged to make compromises. Keane, who writes respectfully about Havel the dissident, snipes tirelessly at Havel the post-revolution politician, apparently cataloging every last gripe that anybody in Czechoslovakia might have had about him. Keane even goes so far as to describe Havel’s life as a tragedy — the noble crusader who bested the powers of evil ending up just another politician at a desk. This interpretation, however, is obscene; it smacks of Communist-style utopianism. For a person living under totalitarian terror, the greatest dream is simply to be able to lead a normal life. Havel’s triumph is that he and his countrymen liberated themselves into a world in which they were no longer forced to live in terror, a world in which they didn’t put their lives on the line with every action they took and every word they spoke. Havel himself considers his life story inspiring, as well he should — for it shows, as he has said,

that an apparently hopeless cause can have a happy ending. That story may seem somewhat like a fairy tale, somewhat kitschy; you can laugh at it, but at the same time it wouldn’t be entirely right to laugh at it. It’s good when people admire such an outcome. It speaks well of their understanding of values.

Indeed. The person who can’t be moved by Havel’s triumph has no appreciation for his own freedom and can’t imagine what it would mean to lose it.

How familiar are people in the West with Havel and his accomplishments? When he arrived at Columbia University in late 2006 to spend a few weeks on campus delivering lectures and taking part in panel discussions, few of the undergraduates could have picked him out in a lineup. Gregory Mosher, director of the university’s Arts Initiative program, admitted to the New York Times, “They had no idea who he is. … [They] thought he was a hockey player.” Yet is it possible that any of these Ivy Leaguers — supposedly among the best and brightest of their generation — had not heard of those fabled First Amendment heroines, the Dixie Chicks? How many of them not only knew the name of Che Guevara, that bloodthirsty Stalinist, but also thought he was cool (and had t-shirts to prove it)? When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up a year later to give his address at Columbia, was there a single undergraduate on Morningside Heights who didn’t know who he was? In a time when freedom in the West is seriously threatened by Islamism and its Western allies and appeasers, it’s imperative that young people cherish their freedom, that they sincerely honor the memory of the men and women who fought and died for it, that they recognize the forces in the world today that threaten it, and that they be prepared to make an effort — and, yes, even make sacrifices — to preserve that freedom for future generations. In order for them to be able to do this, it is vital that they have before them the rare and remarkable example of individuals such as Vaclav Havel.

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