Václav Havel: the compulsion of a dissident

December 20, 2011
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At one end of the scale there is Kim Jong-il, the model dictator, at the other Christopher Hitchens, model exponent of free expression. And somewhere in between this winter, sadly, is also the playwright, dissident and founding president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel. “Dissident” is a word from another era now. Globally, there may be plenty to be dissident about, but the word no longer carries the sense of endurance, of holding a position and withstanding punishment it once had.

In 1990 I watched Havel’s political career begin with a sense of mystification—that this brilliant, witty, shrewd dramatist had given up writing plays for making speeches—until I realised that in taking on his country’s presidency he was demonstrating the true compulsion of the dissident. He was doing what he had to do, to help liberate himself and his countrymen and women from the absurdist, alienated world of communist unfreedom because, as he said, he could not choose to be a coward.

He did not elbow his way centre-stage in the struggle, but in his friend Miloš Forman’s words was shy and courageous in equal, and extreme, measures. He was stubborn, a resistant who refused to allow the state its assumptions that because it permitted people no power, they were therefore powerless, because it permitted them no freedom, they deserved none; and who, when he was proved right, was willing to take on the consequences, at considerable personal cost.

It has been said many times that the Czech and Slovak peoples were neither the most browbeaten in Europe nor the most militant. But when they decided they wanted to return to democracy, after Hungary, Poland and East Germany had already made the break, Havel responded to their shouts of “Havel to the castle!” because he believed it was important for their sake. That willingness to serve was one of the qualities I most came to admire about him.

He was not just an oppositionist, or a contrarian who felt people must listen to him—always a nursery form of opposition: individualist, vain, shouty, look-at-me—but a resistant who wanted his people, trapped in the stopped-clock era of communism, to be able to start the clock of freedom again. He was, and will be remembered as, the epitome of a very rare kind of artist, who willingly sacrifices his art and independence to the momentarily more urgent cause of his people’s freedom.