The death of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, has obscured the passing of a truly heroic figure: Vaclav Havel. The Czech writer and dissident who became his country’s first postcommunist president died Dec. 18. Mr. Havel was Mr. Kim’s worst nightmare — an incorrigible and irrepressible dissenter, who never lost his moral compass, remaining suspicious of power even when he was his country’s leader. The world is surely smaller after his passing.
Mr. Havel was born into a bourgeois family. His father was a successful real estate developer, a life that quickly ended when the communists took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. As he explained in his memoir, the new regime “confiscated all our family’s property and we became objects of the class struggle.”
Denied a higher education because of his background, Mr. Havel began working as a teenager as a stagehand at the ABC Theater in Prague. Night school afforded him a degree in economics at the Czech University of Technology.
All the while he was writing literary criticism and plays. His first full-length play was produced in 1963. “The Garden Party” was a satire of the illogic of the communist bureaucracy. Several other productions followed, earning him an international audience and several awards. All his writing explored the contested space between the individual conscience and the demands of the state, an approach that forced him to oppose the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that crushed the short-lived Prague Spring.
His writing and commentary in support of the deposed Alexander Dubcek got him banned from working in the theater and resulted in the repression of his writing. He was under constant surveillance and arrested several times.
Unbowed, he continued to protest the regime, earning yet more arrests and detentions. He was one of the most visible supporters of Charter 77, a Czech human rights movement. His decision to help found the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted won him a 4½-year prison sentence in 1979.
He was released for health reasons, then experienced a burst of creativity that was unrivaled in his life. As always, he combined the personal with the political, continuing his role as the conscience of the repressed nations of Eastern Europe.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the first shoots of reform took root in the hard soil of the former Soviet empire, Mr. Havel helped found the Civic Forum, which provided the leadership for what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
Mr. Dubcek was named the first president of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, but when he decided to step down, Mr. Havel was the only name put forward to succeed him. Even as leader, Mr. Havel remained a philosopher first.
In his first address to the country as president, he decried the “monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine” of communism that created a “spoiled moral environment.” When Czechoslovakia was to split into two countries, he stepped down, but he was then re-elected as president of the new Czech Republic, a post he held for another decade. During that time, he oversaw his country’s entry into NATO and the European Union.
For all his gravitas, Mr. Havel was a free spirit with a mischievous sense of humor. He rode a scooter around Prague Castle and appointed the eclectic American musician Frank Zappa as “special ambassador to the West” for trade and tourism. He hosted the Rolling Stones along with other rock-and-rollers.
Over time, he lost some of his stature and force. Some blame the speed with which he remarried after the death of his first wife, a woman who was known in her own right for her charitable work as well as her unflagging support for her husband. For others, the problem was Mr. Havel’s refusal to bend to prevailing winds.
He opposed a law that deprived the former communist officials of their rights. He insisted that the state should maintain a large role in the economy to mitigate the hard edges of unbridled capitalism. That put him on a collision course with “the other” Vaclav, Mr. Vaclav Klaus, a conservative politician who served as prime minister and was forced to resign in 1997 over allegations of corruption — and whose government Mr. Havel excoriated.
He set the tone for his term in office in his inaugural speech when he told the nation that “for 40 years you have heard from my predecessors on this date in various forms the same thing: how our country flourishes … how happy we all are. I suppose you have not nominated me for this office so that I lie to you too.”
Instead, Mr. Havel always told the truth, no matter how unpopular, defying the communists who ruled his country, just as he had defied the government in Beijing with his support of the Dalai Lama, and other repressive governments around the world by backing dissidents.
While Mr. Havel may have delighted in confounding the powers that be, he was driven by more than that. He believed. He struggled and he sacrificed for those beliefs. He showed real courage — paying with his health and even gambling his life — to protect “the authority of truth and the authority of conscience that demand it speak the truth.” We need more like him. He will be much missed.
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