Confronting Truth
Václav Havel’s courage


Václav Havel, the playwright who led the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, died this weekend. National Review Online gathers experts to discuss the impact of his life on history and the lessons he taught about protest and leadership.

As thousands gather again in Prague’s candlelit Wenceslas Square to honor Václav Havel, and tributes pour in from around the world celebrating his life, it is worth reminding ourselves again of the great man’s legacy. Especially because Havel stood for principles that are increasingly seen in today’s West as quaint and irrelevant to its politically correct, multicultural, and progressively less democratic present — an attitude succinctly summarized by the Guardian in its eulogy of Havel, “whose spirited defiance of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism . . . [has] nothing to offer to the Czech or European experience of today.”

And so what most tributes focus on are Havel’s great literary accomplishments, his moral courage, and the peaceful nature of the Czech revolt against Communism.

This is all true, of course, but Havel was anything but the peacenik these portrayals make him out to be. For Václav Havel was first and foremost a freedom fighter against the totalitarian evil that had descended on Europe after WWII and enslaved his people along with all of Eastern Europe.

Self-deprecating to a fault as he was, this self-proclaimed “confused intellectual,” who believed that “there’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side,” never once compromised his firm conviction that evil must be confronted, with force if need be, for freedom to be victorious. And so, at a time when the West was doing its level best to appease Communism through Ostpolitik, détente, arms control, and assorted delusions, Havel called it “Absurdistan” and the sterile culture it had imposed “Biafra of the spirit.” A firm believer in President Reagan’s “peace through strength” philosophy, he was a strong supporter of NATO as an alliance for democracy and freedom and compared Czech opponents of anti-missile-defense deployment to the Nazi apologists at the time of the shameful Munich Agreement of 1938.

Later he was accused of being a warmonger by the European bien-pensants for suggesting the use of force against Milosevic and for welcoming the bombing of Yugoslavia as justified “in the face of evil.”

Throughout his political career and after it, in countless writings, speeches, and interviews, Havel stood in defense of the politically oppressed, whether in Burma, Iran, or Belarus, and never shied away from the struggle for freedom. As late as two years ago, he signed an open letter to President Obama warning him of the threat Russia continued to present and of the danger of appeasing Putin.

It was said of Churchill that upon coming to power during WWII, he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Perhaps the most appropriate eulogy to the great Czech would be to say that, alongside fellow freedom fighters Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and Margaret Thatcher, he mobilized the language of freedom and sent it to defeat Communism as the last and greatest curse of the 20th century.

— Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Václav Havel was one of the great men of letters, who, like an Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Mario Vargas Llosa, used his towering cultural and literary stature to war against the fascism of the Communist Left. Therein the rare Havels of the world became veritable men without a country — not only are they hated by the state machinery of totalitarianism and put in mortal danger, but after the storm has passed, the liberal intellectual community never quite welcomes them back, and is privately a bit embarrassed by them, as if there must have been a better way for men of such intellect and caring than adopting a loud and unequivocal rejection of leftist statism. And yet they are not quite conservatives either, or at least conservatives in the contemporary American sense, and so these independent-thinking intellectuals and writers who enter politics with a deep suspicion of the state never really have a home — which makes their courage and candor all the more striking, as they are rare.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.