Vaclav Havel: the passing of one of modern Europe's greatest sons
Vaclav Havel was one of the most remarkable political intellectuals of post-war Europe. He died on Sunday at the age of 75
Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday at the age of 75, was the greatest of the East European dissidents, but he was so much more than that. Indeed to describe him solely in terms of his anti-communism is not merely to miss the contribution he made after communism’s demise, it is to misunderstand the nature of his dissidence.
Born in 1936, Havel’s upbringing took place against the most turbulent backdrop in modern European history. By the time he was 12 he had lived through the end of a liberal-democratic republic, occupation by the Nazis, “liberation” by the Soviet Union, the deportation from the Czech lands of approximately one third of its (Sudeten German) population and a communist coup d’etat.
As a teenager he would witness show trials and political executions. As a young adult, politics would affect him directly in that he would be denied the opportunity to study the humanities at university because of his “bourgeois” background.
These were the formative years of a man who would later be jailed for resisting his communist oppressors and would eventually lead a “Velvet Revolution” against them.
Who was Vaclav Havel?
Playwright? Essayist? Dissident? Revolutionary? President?
He was all of those things, of course. And simply from reciting the essentials of his curriculum vitae it is obvious that there was a greatness about the man. Any one of those appellations would satisfy most people that they had led an extraordinary life. To claim all of them at once bespeaks something exceptional.
Lying at the core of it all was Havel the thinker. Though better known as a playwright, he was in fact one of the most important political intellectuals in post-Second World War Europe, and he had lessons for all of us.
As an example of his range and his depth, consider this extract from a speech he gave at a Council of Europe summit in Vienna in 1993, expounding on the weaknesses of modern Europe:
“Many of the great supranational empires and alliances in history,” said Havel, “or at least many of those that survived for long periods of time and enriched the human history of their era in some way, not only had strong central ideas that promoted intellectual and spiritual advancement, they were also remarkably determined to stand behind these ideas and willing to make great sacrifices to bring them to fruition, because it was clear to everyone that those sacrifices were worth it. This was more than just a belief in certain values; it was a deep and generally shared feeling that those values carried with them moral obligations. This, I fear, is precisely what is lacking in the Europe of today.”
Fifteen years previously, the essence of his critique of communism was that it had magnified the dangers that are latent in modernity to monstrous proportions.
In his most important essay,Power of the Powerless (1978), he identified communist ideology as a kind of surrogate religion for an era in which “metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of flux”. His key concern was that this atheistic anti-religion, combined with its atomisation of the individual and its complete inability to offer people anything other than material compensation for the emptiness of their lives, was draining humanity of its soul.
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