Politics & Policy

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.


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 www.michaelnovak.net.


The 1989 fall of the Kremlin’s East European viceroys was so peaceful that it enriched our vocabulary with the expression “velvet revolution.” At its soul was a man who was playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, political leader — and staunch anti-terrorist.

In 1990, as soon as he was elected president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel informed the world that in the 1970s, the KGB community had established a “division of labor” for supporting terrorist states and movements with intelligence, weapons, and explosives. Czech intelligence’s slice of that pie had been to develop and produce an odorless plastic explosive (Semtex-H) that could not be detected by sniffer dogs at airports. Havel called a halt to its production, but he acknowledged that his country’s former Communist regime had already secretly shipped 1,000 tons of this dangerous explosive to Palestinian and Libyan terrorists. According to Havel, tests held in November 1984 by Czech experts had showed that a mere 200 grams of that explosive was enough to blow up a commercial plane in flight. “World terrorism has supplies of Semtex to last 150 years,” Havel concluded.

Western experts have expressed the belief that Semtex-H was used by Qaddafi’s terrorists to blow up Pan American Flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988, killing 270 people, and to bring down a French DC-10 plane in Africa in 1989.

Havel’s revelations helped our experts develop methods for detecting Semtex-H. He should be remembered for making the world not only freer, but also safer.

— Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa is the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His book Red Horizons has been republished in 27 countries.


I met Pres. Václav Havel at the Prague Conference on International Security and Democracy in June 2006, along with Pres. George W. Bush, Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, and Polish president Lech Walesa. In that convention, prominent former dissidents from the Soviet Bloc, including Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik and ex-refusenik Natan Sharansky, sat next to emerging reformers from the Middle East, engineers of the so-called Arab Spring. Dissidents from Iraq such as MP Mithal Allousi, from Syria such as MP Ma’mun Homsi, and others from Libya, Egypt, and the Cedar Revolution of Lebanon stood shoulder to shoulder with Iranian students and women in exile. We were all mesmerized by the mature Czech playwright and ex-detainee in totalitarian prisons, Václav Havel. He addressed us as the new dissidents of the 21st century.

“You have seen us battle against Soviet oppression with our bare hands and words. You can do the same against the region’s dictators,” he said. But after he listened to some of us, he understood that the Middle East’s task of liberation would be harder — not because of the nukes and the tanks, but because of the deep roots of the jihadi ideology. Havel, a lifelong expert on totalitarianism, told the Middle Eastern dissidents that there was no empire more powerful than the Soviet Union. The Soviets, however, crumbled when their ideology was rejected by their own citizens. As we ponder today’s Arab Spring and as we realize that it is not being won by the dissidents of the region, but instead being seized by totalitarians — the Islamists — we must also understand that it is the task of the Middle Eastern people to collectively reject the extremist ideology in order to achieve lasting freedom in their lands. The Central European Havel is gone, but his achievements will no doubt inspire the next Havels of the Middle East.

— Walid Phares is the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.


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.


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.

— David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, is just out from the Yale University Press.


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!”

— Amir Taheri is author of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.


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.

— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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