By Andrew Nagorski
Visiting playwright Vaclav Havel in his Prague apartment overlooking the Vltava River in the 1980s, foreign correspondents were often stopped by police or secret police watching his building, who demanded to see our identity papers. The authorities, of course, knew who we were and who we were seeing, but they wanted us to know that they knew. Havel, who died on December 18 at age 75, always knew that they knew what he and his fellow dissidents were doing, because his defiance was deliberately public.
In an era when most people in the Soviet bloc kept their real thoughts strictly private, this left Havel and his colleagues exposed and vulnerable. Their manifestos, which were distributed illegally and broadcast by Western radios, prompted frequent prison terms. Even when they were ostensibly free, they were under constant surveillance. It’s easy to forget how few the active dissidents were right up until the cataclysm of 1989 that led to the collapse of communist regimes across the region, propelling the protesters, seemingly against all odds, into positions of power.
Looking back at my encounters with Havel both before and after 1989 when I covered those upheavals for Newsweek, I’m struck by three dominant character traits: his moral courage, his ability to recognize and live with the contradictions of human behavior, and his sense of the absurd. All three were essential ingredients of his improbable success. They also offer lessons for others seeking to overthrow dictatorships—and for those who are trying, as is the case today in much of the Arab world, to figure out what comes next.
Havel’s moral courage was long evident, but the thinking behind it was what was truly remarkable. In his seminal essay “The Power of the Powerless” and interviews, he would harp on the theme that individual actions matter, pro forma subservience to a totalitarian regime matters, and that non-violent defiance matters even more. So long as such regimes could maintain the pretense of unity, with citizens going along with such empty rituals as phony elections, the powerful weren’t threatened and any dissidents remained isolated. But Havel had an almost mystic belief in the “radioactivity” of words that exposed the lies of the system. “When free speech is suppressed, speech paradoxically has a special weight and power,” he told me in 1986.
A society might appear completely conformist, as Czechoslovakia did then or Tunisia did before a street vendor set himself alight last year, but the powerful example of even a small number of souls who were willing to speak the truth could abruptly change everything. If that implied that one day the truth might really set Czechoslovakia free, Havel wasn’t basing his actions on any calculation that he would live to see that day. In fact, the surest way of guaranteeing inaction, he reflected, was to try to calculate whether dissent could succeed. The only sure path was to follow one’s conscience, no matter what the price.
But Havel was anything but a humorless moralist. Just as he recognized the contradictions and ironies of a totalitarian society where public and private perceptions of reality were completely at odds, he immediately noted the irony of his ascension to the presidency of a free country. “God has punished me,” he joked when I met him in his office at the Prague Castle in July 1991. As a dissident, he had carefully chosen each word of his appeals for maximum impact; as president, he was forced to speak constantly, producing a flood of words with rapidly diminishing impact.
In his writings, he was quick to admit that newly liberated societies were full of disappointments, including “an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” With the disappearance of the police state followed by a period of uncertain transition, free speech and the arts flourished, but so did aggressive criminal behavior. Thus, he was less startled by such negative developments than many of his compatriots, while remaining optimistic that new societies based on individual responsibility would gradually evolve and begin to reverse such trends. I suspect that today he would be far more troubled by some of the political forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, but he would still counsel patience, avoiding a rush to judgment.
Havel considered the early suggestions that he might seek the presidency an “absurd joke.” In his world, though, jokes always had meaning. Shortly after the first free elections in neighboring Poland in June 1989, a group of Solidarity activists who were now suddenly elected to parliament paid a visit to Havel at his country house. Over a hearty meal served by Havel’s wife Olga, everyone consumed copious quantities of beer. Then, Havel led his guests outside to relieve themselves—offering a full frontal view for the secret police surveillance cameras deployed around his house.
Czechoslovakia’s final reckoning with its Communist system was still several months away, but a police state that prompted such open mockery was doomed. It was a scene that fits perfectly into the play that should be written about Havel’s life.
Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, is author of the forthcoming Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.