With the death of the playwright, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel on Sunday the Czech Republic has lost its philosopher king and Europe one of the few figures who can comfortably be compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela in terms of intellectual clarity, personal bravery and mule-like stubbornness in the face of oppression.
Many people played their part in helping bring down communism and piece together a divided continent. But few did it with the consistency of purpose as Havel, whose 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of authoritarian regimes across eastern Europe.
In one of the most memorable passages in the essay, Havel ponders why a greengrocer feels compelled to place a “workers of the world unite!” slogan in his shop window among the onions and carrots on display. Not through any sense of conviction, he concludes, but because the shopkeeper wants to declare: “I am obedient and loyal – leave me alone and I’ll leave you.” It is nothing more than political window-dressing in a system where meaningless rituals have replaced meaningful thought.
Having witnessed the devastating effects of fascist and then communist ideology on his native Czechoslovakia, Havel was deeply suspicious of all closed thought systems. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he wrote. “It offers human beings the illusion of identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
Havel accepted that most people would publicly hide behind the facade of ideology and “live within a lie.” But he was also aware from the example set by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union that just one person “living within the truth” would pose an existential threat to the regime and the hollow ideology it was based on. “Every free expression of life indirectly threatens the post-totalitarian world politically, including forms of expression to which, in other social systems, no one would attribute any potential political significance.”
Havel refused to live the lie – and paid the price. After the Prague Spring of 1968 his plays were banned, his appartment was bugged and his name was tarnished. He suffered countless arrests and interrogations and was imprisoned for three years – during which he was hospitalized with pneumonia. But Havel refused to be silenced, continuing to harangue the communist regime in essays, articles and open letters to the president.
In his 1975 ‘Letter to Gustav Husak’ – the then president of Czechoslovakia – Havel compared the outward calm imposed on his country after the crushing of the Prague Spring as “calm as a grave or morgue.” When I visited Prague for the first time in September 1989 the city was still gripped by fear. Troops patrolled the streets and badly disguised secret policemen lurked in hotel lobbies. There was little to suggest that the communist system was on the verge of collapse, although Havel – as he observed in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ – would have recognised the scene as a “world of appearances trying to pass for reality.”
Two months later, the whole hollow edifice came crashing down in the ‘Velvet Revolution’ that Havel played such an instrumental role in fermenting. By the end of the year the chain-smoking writer of absurdist plays was installed as president in Prague castle.
Havel, a man with a shuffling gait and mumbling, monotonous speech, represented a radical break from the ossified politics and personalities of the past. In addition to books and beer – he worked in a brewery for nine months in 1974 – the man who paved the way for the Czech Republic’s entry into the EU and NATO loved rock music.
He founded the Charter 77 movement in protest against the arrest of members of the rock group Plastic People of the Universe. He appointed Frank Zappa as a special ambassador shortly after his election as president. And when the Rolling Stones rolled into Prague in August 1990 he welcomed the group on stage. So when a jean-clad man tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a cigarette at a punk-rock concert in Prague that summer I wasn’t entirely surprised it was Vaclav Havel. “Sorry, Mr President but I don’t smoke” I replied. For once in my life I wished I did.
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