In long-ago 1976, Václav Havel took a step that was novel for his absurd country. He coauthored Charter 77, which called on the Communist government to respect its agreements. He had in mind provisions of the Helsinki Agreement that, in return for Western acquiescence to the European territorial status quo, obliged the nations of the Communist bloc to respect human rights and the free flow of information.
By signing the Helsinki Agreements, the Communists were promising to honor principles that were the opposite of those they practiced. But they were sure that no one would challenge their claim to be democracies, because they had an entire coopted and intimidated population behind them. In this lay the greatness of Havel: Like the members of the Helsinki groups in the Soviet Union, he said there was a discrepancy between the Communist government’s commitments and its actions, and he called attention to it.
As the imaginary world of Communist ideology recedes into the past, it is sometimes difficult to remember that in a country like Communist Czechoslovakia, the simple fact of calling attention to the truth, of denying that 2 + 2 = 5, was an act of supreme courage. It punctured the wall of lies with which the Communist regimes kept millions of people in thrall and laid the moral groundwork for a new age of freedom. This is what Havel did, and in this lies his contribution to the never-ending fight for truth as the foundation of human dignity.
The first time I heard of Václav Havel was in 1968, when a Czech theater company was scheduled to perform his play Open Air Feast during the Shiraz Festival. Havel was presented as a young dramatist in the line of festival favorites such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jerzy Grotowski, among others. With hopes raised by the Prague Spring, everyone waited for the Czechs with great expectations.
However, just days before the festival opened, Soviet tanks moved into Prague. We had to be content with a reading of a translation of Havel’s play. Here was a free man, thinking outside the iron frame fixed by Communism and speaking of “the precarious state” of all dictatorships.
Over the years, Havel emerged as a symbol of resistance against totalitarianism. Together with other Czech freedom fighters, he showed that even the most powerful armies are “helpless when facing a force they are not trained to fight.” According to Havel, dictatorship operates by terrorizing, neutralizing, and eventually co-opting its victims into the cobweb of corruption it weaves in society. Those fighting for freedom should protect their dignity by projecting “the power of the powerless.”
When I met him as president of Czechoslovakia, Havel offered a mini guided tour of the presidential palace. He showed me a Persian carpet presented to a king of Bohemia. A few lines by Saadi, the great poet of Shiraz, adorned the carpet:
Humans are members of a single body
For in creation they are from the same essence
He who is unaware of the suffering of others
Does not merit the name of human!
When I translated the lines, Havel shook his head and said: “That is a lesson for us all!”
To extend Fr. Józef Tischner’s brilliant metaphor about the Solidarity movement beyond the borders of Poland, the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe was a “vast forest planted by awakened consciences.” The awakening of those consciences was, of course, a very private, one-by-one thing; everyone had to make up his or her own mind to “live in the truth.” That new “great awakening” was, however, embodied, even as it was led, by two men of conscience, Blessed John Paul II and Václav Havel. They were both literary men, both playwrights, and their writers’ souls gave them unique insights into the specific, lethal wickedness of the Communist project: that it was a structure of lies built on the Big Lie, which was Communism’s denial of the spiritual nature of the human person. Every other idiocy and cruelty of Communism flowed from that. Men who spat in the face of God ended up spitting in the face of their fellow human beings, and built societies in which mendacity dominated the ambient public culture. Conscience demanded that such lies be fought, and the fighting was best done with the weapons of truth — that was the lesson taught by Havel, as it was by the Polish pope.
Václav Havel had a complicated relationship with Christianity and the Catholic Church, but I cannot get out of my mind the image of Blessed John Paul II showing the former president of the Czech Republic the ropes around the Throne of Grace. It must have been a moving reunion.