Vaclav Havel: Europe's Leading Light

Unlike the orchestrated Crying Game of sobbing citizenry that passes for bereavement in North Korea, the mourning this week in the Czech Republic is not only real, but it is for a truly Dear Leader: Vaclav Havel.


A brute in life, Kim Jong-il, was true to form in death: he had the indecency to meet his maker on the same weekend as the playwright-president who brought us the Velvet Revolution – and changed Europe’s trajectory forever.


Yet while the Grim Reaper may take delight in hijacking the obituary columns – and diverting our attention away from the truly worthy man – History (with a capital ‘H’) won’t be fooled.


Long after the tears for Kim Jong-il have dried, millions of Czechs will be able to count themselves lucky that their lives and destinies coincided with Havel’s.


Hero of our time


And of course, it’s not just Czechs.


The tributes to Havel are a measure of just how much his life as an accidental dissident, standing up to corrupt power and telling the truth to lies, left an indelible mark on his peers.


The European Parliament’s Polish president, Jerzy Buzek, said: “Vaclav Havel was and will remain a hero.”


Buzek’s compatriot, Lech Walesa, the shipyard worker who forged the Solidarity movement that ended Communism in his country, said he thought Havel should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that Havel was “one of the greatest Europeans of our age”, while Barack Obama, the US president, said in a statement that the disident’s "peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon."


This is more than just fulsome praise for a universally admired man.


It reflects a real sense that humanity has lost an icon of the latter half of the twentieth century, one whose absence will be viscerally felt since there is no one on the European stage who comes close to filling his shoes.


France’s Le Monde put it eloquently in a front-page editorial, writing: “Just about anywhere we look in Europe, the heirs of Havel’s generation are nowhere to be seen.


“Yet his values, his vision and his open-mindedness are necessary now more than ever.”


Havel to the Castle!


Candles left by mourners in Prague’s Wenceslas Square this week were arrayed against a poster of a younger, slightly impish-looking Havel.


Alongside the image, running down the side of the poster, ran the words, “Havel na Hrad!”, or “Havel to the Castle!”


For a fleeting interlude, in late 1989, those words became the rallying cry for tens of thousands of Czechs as they massed at the same historical spot where Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring 21 years earlier.


I had visited Prague for the first time in early June of that year, fresh from a study programme in Moscow, before the Velvet Revolutionary ferment had begun.


Vaclav Havel had met with François Mitterand a few months earlier, during a visit to Prague by the former Socialist president – and was subsequently returned by the then-Communist authorities to a place he knew well: jail.


The heady days of November 1989 burst upon the nation in a blink.


One of the enduring images from that period is of Havel emerging onto a balcony above a teeming Wenceslas Square, on November 24th. He stood deferentially behind an older, greyer man.

The balcony scene


That man was Alexander Dubcek, the former Czechoslovak Communist leader who had introduced the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring a generation earlier, before being kidnapped to Moscow and expelled from the party. (He ended up working in the Forestry Service in Slovakia, before dying in a car crash in 1992.)


Havel had stepped out onto that balcony as an understudy to revolution, Dubcek’s young protégé. But when Dubcek’s performance fell short of expectations, Havel took history into his hands as he stepped forward to rapturous cheers from the packed square below.


Later that night, while Havel and Dubcek shared a stage at the Magic Lantern theatre – Havel’s old stomping ground as an up-and-coming dissident – the Communist leadership resigned en masse.

A month later, Havel was president.


In his New Year’s speech to the nation that year, his first as his country’s chief executive, Havel made the ringing proclamation that stands as testament to his life’s work speaking inconvenient truths to power: “People, your government has returned to you!”


Havel, beset by deteriorating health brought on by bouts of pneumonia contracted during years spent in prison, and a lifetime of chronic smoking, removed himself from the political stage in his later years.


The spectre’s back


He blamed himself for failing to prevent Czechoslovakia’s break-up. Yet he remained long enough in office to oversee the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union and NATO.


Havel began his most famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, with an allusion to Karl Marx.

“A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe,” he wrote. “The spectre of what in the West is called 'dissent'. This spectre 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.”


As protest movements gain traction across the globe, and Arab Springs lurch towards an unknown destination, that haunting spectre is back.


Perhaps Havel’s guiding spirit is there, spurring it on.

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