The world is a poorer place this week with the loss of Vaclav Havel — playwright, dissident, humanitarian, last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic — who died at the weekend at the age of 75.
I first became aware of Havel at the end of 1988 when I read Timothy Garton Ash’s essay The Prague Advertisement in the New York Review of Books, which beautifully captures the absurdity of communist Czechoslovakia in its last days and the quiet but slighly mischievous dignity of Havel, its most prominent opposition figure.
A year later, the dominoes had fallen, glasnost had done its work, and an almost bloodless revolution took place in Prague: Alexander Dubceck, the hero of the 1968 “Prague Spring”, became chairman of the parliament, and Havel himself was elected president. Three years later he presided over the “velvet divorce” in which the country’s Czech and Slovak components peacefully separated.
The Czech Republic has been one of the most successful of the many successes of post-communist Europe. Havel’s tenure as president and the spirit with which he infused its revolution have helped to make it a stable democracy, fully integrated with the mainstream of European economics, politics and culture. The seemingly endless plane loads of drunken British party goers are a small price to pay for that rediscovery of modernity.
Yet Havel was always an unlikely politician. He remained primarily an intellectual, and on leaving the presidency happily went back to writing plays. Both as dissident and as president he enjoyed the company of writers and musicians; his New York Times obituary recounts how “On a trip abroad in 1995, he ignored awaiting dignitaries and lingered on an airport tarmac for a chat with Mick Jagger.”
Havel defies our simple political stereotypes because his heartfelt anti-communism came from what can only be described as a deeply left-wing sensibility. He hated tyranny in all its forms, and although he helped open central Europe to the free market, he warned against the abuses that came with the transition. His feud with his prime minister and successor Vaclav Klaus became legendary, although Klaus (now most famous as a climate change denialist) praised him on Sunday as “the symbol of the new era of the Czech state”.
Havel’s roots were always in 1968: not just the Prague Spring, but the counter-culture of the West. He may have been an unlikely revolutionary, but he was an even more unlikely poster-child for the Nixon- and Reagan-era anti-communist politicians and propagandists. He saw as few others have the connection between political liberation and personal liberation — that one cannot hope to free others without first freeing oneself from the shackles of tradition and conformity.
We need that message now more than ever, when so much of politics is driven by a clash of fundamentalisms and our leaders seem to work on the basis that they have to destroy freedom and democracy in order to save them. Havel’s example is there to remind us that, as he put it, “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”.
A.J.P. Taylor once called Garibaldi “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.” When the history of our times comes to be written, a similar tribute awaits Vaclav Havel.