Sunday, December 18, 2011


"The role of Havel was equally crucial - no one individual of comparable public standing emerged in any other Communist country, and while most of the practical ideas and even the political tactics of the Civic Forum might have been forthcoming in his absence, it was Havel who caught and channeled the public mood, moving his colleagues forward while keeping the expectations of the crowds within manageable bounds. The impact of Havel and his public appeal cannot be overstated. Like Tomas Masaryk, with whom he came increasingly to be compared, the improbably charismatic Havel was now widely regarded by many as something akin to a national saviour....It was not just Havel's multiple incarcerations and his unflinching record of moral opposition to Communism that place him upon this pedestal: it was also his distinctly apolitical disposition."

Tony Judt. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. (2005), pp. 620-621.

"A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent'. This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting. It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such non-conformity to be implemented within its official structures....The profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie, a crisis which in turn makes such a life possible, certainly possess a moral dimension as well; it appears among other things as a deep moral crisis in society. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it is in fact a projection of it into society. Living within the truth, as humanity's revolt against an enforced position, is on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one's own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act."

Vaclav Havel. "The Power of the Powerless," in Open Letters: Selected writing, 1965-1990. Edited & translated by Paul Wilson. (1990), p. 127 & 153. First written and distributed in 1979.

"When I have gone, perhaps the age will have played out its role."

Charles de Gaulle quoted in Andre Malraux, Fallen Oaks. (1971), p. 16.

The passing away of playwright, ex-dissident, ex-President, Vaclav Havel encapsulates a moment, nay an era of European history. In some respects, Havel can be said to have been the last 'hero' in European history. In an age when public discourse is dominated by the banalities of International Economics and Finance, Havel spoke to a period in time, which while not so long ago chronologically speaking, seems centuries away in terms of dominant ideas. The period being that of the latter half of the Cold War, when ideas concerning 'truth', 'human rights', 'honesty', 'justice', in the Communist-dominated half of Europe suddenly seemed to acquire an intrinsic importance. When the 'machtpolitik' realities of diplomacy and International politics gave way to concerns about the fundamental importance of the individual and his place in society. Then and only then could someone of Havel's ilk have made his mark. By background coming from a haute-bourgeois family in Prague, Havel was by virtue of the same, completely excluded from participating in public life in Communist Czechoslovakia 1. Something which meant that unlike say his older contemporaries like the writer, Milan Kundera, Havel never had any illusions about 'reforming' Communism and never associated himself in any way with the post-February 1948 Communist regime 2. And yet by not emigrating, Havel was able to participate fully in both the Prague Spring of 1968 and the dissident movements of the 1970's and 1980's. His participation in the latter costing him several years in Czech prisons.

The above background, while unusual, was hardly unique to Havel and cannot per se explain his importance in the 'Velvet Revolution' of November 1989. What made Havel the indispensable man in Prague at that time, was the fact that due to his time in prison and his involvement in the dissident movement of the 1970's, he had given a great deal of serious and involved thought to the quandaries posed by both the totalitarian society and the banalities and alienation of modern-day, Western existence. As rendered in his essay, 'the Power of the Powerless', Havel sketched out an idea of a 'post-political' form of politics. The fact that this form of politics has not (post-1989) gained much traction in any of the other former 'Peoples Democracies', nor in the rest of the Advanced, Industrialized world, much less in the place of its origins, does not obviate the seminal importance of Havel's concept in the transition from Communism to Capitalist Democracy. Alongside the cry of 'return to Europe', Havel's ideas concerning 'post-politics' politics, exercised for a short, but needed amount of time, enormous influence on the course of events in Central & Eastern Europe 3. The fact that within a few years time, Havel's ideas and indeed Havel himself became to a degree passe, were in retrospect, par for the course. Like Churchill, like De Gaulle, Havel could be said to have been appointed by History to play an important but finite role. Once completed, Havel became politically sidelined and superfluous and his remaining years in power have an element of constant frustration to it. As more natural political animals, like the Cech Premier (and eventually Havel's successor as President) Vaclav Klaus, came to the fore. The fact that Klaus was able to steamroll the partition of the formerly unified Czechoslovak state in 1993-1994, over Havel's opposition being sine qua non of the new realities in post-Communist Cech politics 4. Havel's subsequent complaints about "the reemergence of Czech (sic) small-mindedness in Czech politics", while no doubt accurate enough are the off-stage laments of what Henry Kissinger once characterized as a "prophet" 5. Someone who:

"is less concerned with manipulating than with creating reality. What is possible interests him less than what is 'right'. He offers his vision as the test and his good faith as a guarantee 6."

As Kissinger notes, the prophet is opposed to the "Statesman", someone who is primarily interested in manipulating reality and whose 'first goal is survival'. Once again, like his historical confreres in European heroic status, Churchill and De Gaulle, Havel was in essence, a prophet with little or no honor in his own country at times. The only difference being that while Churchill and even De Gaulle were greatly honored in retirement by their countrymen, Havel was viewed more skeptically by his own. He was truly the last European Hero. I very much doubt that we will ever seen another one of his type on the European continent.

1. Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace. Edited and translated by Paul Wilson. (1990), pp.3-8, et passim.

2. Ibid., pp. 93-99 & 171-178, et passim.

3. Besides Judt's book, see: Gyorgy Konrad's 1984 book, Antipolitics, as well as Adam Michnik's essays from the period (especially 'The New Evolutionism'), for the latter see: Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays. Translated by Maya Latynski. (1985), pp. 135-148.

4. Havel's description of Klaus in his memoirs are especially insightful as to why Havel became sidelined in the post-1989-1990 period: a "smart politician who is not overly burdened by scruples." See: Vaclav Havel, To the Castle and Back. Translated by Paul Wilson. (2007), p. 133 et passim.

5. For Havel's complaints about Cech 'small-mindedness,' see, Havel, To the Castle and Back, op. cit., p. 12, 117, 133, 173, et passim, see especially the latter for its complaints of Cech: 'mediocrity, banality, and a kind of middle-class philistinism'.

6. Henry A. Kissinger, "Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy. " Daedalus. (Spring, 1966), pp. 526-527.


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