Confronting Truth
Václav Havel’s courage


Václav Havel was the hero that when we were boys we would have all longed to be: a world-significant artist, the dissident who suffered for his bravery during four years of imprisonment, the wise and eloquent president of his newly liberated nation, a man as patently honest as all those who “refused to live by the Lie.”

Once when the Slovak World Congress was at last free to meet in Slovakia, in 1990, I traveled with the Congress to the famous mountaintop pilgrimage site where, during the bad times, every year scores of thousands of Slovak peasants and others would hike by foot, and camp out in the open two or three nights, in order to meet for prayer — and to defy their aggressively atheist regime. This time, the new president Havel traveled from the Czech Republic to honor this mountaintop dear to Slovaks, to dedicate a monument. The leaders of the Congress sent me in the delegation to speak with the president. He told me he and his friends had been studying The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism a chapter at a time, in his hideaway cabin outside of Prague. He invited me to visit him in Prague.

Several times I took him at his word. On these occasions I was nearly speechless; he did the talking — with his famous mixture of passion and detachment, long perspective and close engagement. There are few people in this world in whose presence one felt such quiet and tested greatness. And a burning fire of truthfulness.

But President Havel, dramatist Havel, political Havel were generous, too — and faithful to those he befriended. He invited about 50 artists and intellectuals to his private/public “Forum 2000” meetings held every year until this past one. Most were from Europe, a handful weer from America, and another handful were from Asia. Papers were given. A brief political manifesto was discussed with deliberation and passion, signed, and issued in a public meeting. During the year, flagrant abuses of human rights being ignored by most of the press would be met by a letter from Havel and those close to him in Prague, and sent round for signatures.

One year he invited me to Prague to award me the highest honor the Czech government can give a foreigner: the Thomas Garrigue Masaryk Award — named for Havel’s personal hero, whose analysis of Communism, written in the 1920s, was said to be the best analysis ever of Marxism in practice. In Havel’s presence, and that of so many other heroes who had suffered much, I felt like a hypocrite.

Another example of what those around Havel were enduring for those long years, while I had lived comfortably: A brave young man from Prague, Pavel Bratinka, was among those arrested. He had been a very promising nuclear physicist, and his father-in-law was a high official in the Czech Communist party. That did not save him from being stripped of all his educational and professional possibilities, and sentenced to years of hard labor as a stoker of coal in the furnace room of a large residential building. Instead of bewailing his lot, Bratinka found that he could load the stoker quickly if he worked energetically — and then spend hours reading. Reading about freedom.

Spied on by informers placed all around them, sometimes among their own friends and even trusted neighbors, these heroes were told that they were powerless, that no one would ever know their fate, or care, or be able to alter it. Not a day went by, when they could entirely escape the Lie. On days of religious pilgrimage or festival, for instance, the Communist weather reports, to discourage turnout, invariably predicted stormy weather. “Under Communism even the weather reports are lies,” dissidents said wryly to one another. And they made up painful jokes about the way it was in daily life in the “Socialist Paradise.”

As far as they could see into the future, they were going to be ruled by thugs. The hardest thing of all, Bratinka (and others) told me, was the seeming certainty that there is no justice in this world. Thugs rule, and keep on ruling. The dissidents were pressed down with a bleak inner certainty that there would not be relief from what they were enduring for another 50 years or more, long after they were gone. That was the hardest thing of all.

Those of us in America faced nothing like what these extraordinary men and women did. These were the men and women who refused to live by the Lie. Even when that Lie was blasted into the air all around them, theirs was a steady bravery that Havel himself showed, and inspired in many others.

Havel is the leader of those who “freed the captives,” undermined the omnipresent public Lie with simple honesty, suffered terribly for generous, good, brave, and persevering deeds (“No good deed goes unpunished”) — and, then, in the last act, brought that evil Wall down, not by violence, not in bloodshed, but with a velvet glove. The velvet glove of telling the truth steadily.

It may be a long era until we see another like Václav Havel.

— Michael Novak’s latest books are All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire and, with William E. Simon Jr., Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. His website is