Vaclav Havel was both a political and an intellectual hero
By Zed Books at Dec 19, 2011
Havel, who died today in the Czech Republic, was something rare in history. He was one of the heroes of the anti-Communist movement, but uniquely he was both one of the great intellectual heroes of the Eastern Bloc and one its political heroes. Indeed in politics, where more often than not vapidity and managerialism is rewarded, he was an unusual thinker-statesman. How many other politicians of his era had a Samuel Beckett play dedicated to them, or were genuine friends of leading musicians and poets? While the Communist leadership was ugly, old, predictable and pedestrian, its number one critic was cooler than a rock star.
It was Havel who helped, as much as anyone, to put across the idea that Communism was built on an illusion and that, once people began to doubt the illusion, it would collapse. His essay "The Power of the Powerless" described a system based on the Emperor’s New Clothes, a fairytale that would perfectly suit the bizarre shadow world of Marxist-Leninism. In Czechoslovakia the “brotherly help” given by the Soviet Union in 1968 was followed by “normalisation” whereby 145 historians were expelled from universities and any praise for the inter-war Czechoslovakian democracy banned. Havel, in trouble with the authorities from 1968 when he worked for a radio critical of the Soviets, and spending many years in jail, expertly described the world of “Post-Totalitarianism”, where people “live within a lie”. (Or as the Russian joke went: we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.) No political system based on a lie could ever be just. So his slogan, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”, was not an empty one.
It must be remembered that, though a generation later Communism’s downfall seems inevitable, it was by no means so and was not achieved without sacrifice. After Poland’s Communists took 10 years to fall, Hungary’s 10 months, and East Germany’s 10 weeks, the 10-day collapse of the Czechoslovakian regime was shocking and wonderful. Havel toasting the crowd in Wenceslas Square became, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, symbolic of the end of the short 20th century and the battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
He was a great man, and I should imagine visitors to Prague will see plenty more of this great European’s gentle image around that beautiful city.