Václav Havel’s public roles — organizing dissent and eventually large demonstrations against Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime and then serving as his country’s president — will probably end up as small parts of his legacy. This is not to diminish his activism, but rather to take the true measure of his enormous contributions to the literature of human freedom and dignity.
A century from now no one will care about the details of Havel’s political successes and mistakes. But they will still read “The Power of the Powerless,” “Politics and Conscience,” “Dear Dr. Husák,” and the hundreds of poignant letters he wrote to his wife from prison. These writings will endure because, together, they are the most penetrating critique of anonymous, unaccountable power ever written.
Stalin famously asked how many divisions the pope had. In terms of practical politics Havel, like the pope, never looked like a genuine threat to Communist rule. At a time when Poland’s Solidarity could put a million members on the streets, Havel’s Charter 77 attracted only a few hundred followers. Still, the regime persecuted him mercilessly, interrogating and imprisoning him at will, forcing him into grueling manual labor, cutting him entirely off from the life in the theater he had loved.
In retrospect it’s clear that Havel’s Communist tormentors were right to fear his words. Whose essays, after all, were those Poles reading?
Havel was a threat to Communist authority because he exposed how shabby it was. Stalin had been a monster, but Havel’s generation faced something different. This “post-totalitarianism” was a plague of petty commissars so lost in the fog of their own obfuscations that they themselves seemed unsure who was really in charge. Their rule posed a genuine threat to humanity, Havel thought, but it was the threat of soul-destroying compromise as much as of nuclear annihilation. The more we compromised with aimless and directionless power, the farther we were all dragged away from the promise of creative and purposeful lives.
This threat of compromise was a real and constant mortal danger. Communist ideology’s promise of peace in the abstract was the peace of moral collapse. The slogan “Better Red than dead” struck Havel as “an infallible sign that the speaker has given up his humanity. For he has given up the ability personally to guarantee something that transcends him and so to sacrifice, in extremis, even life itself to that which makes life meaningful.”
At a time when it seemed Stalin’s heirs would rule forever, Havel sacrificed nearly everything he cherished for the hope that his fellow Czechs would throw off their degrading corruption. In the end Havel’s sacrifices filled his own life with meaning but also restored dignity to the lives of millions in the Eastern bloc.
Tonight, somewhere in China and Burma and Cuba, more hopeful men and women will reread Havel’s words — posted furtively on a blog or passed on by a thumb drive. And they too might well dream of risks that could restore their worlds.
— Chandler Rosenberger teaches in the International and Global Studies Program at Brandeis University.