Havel, who presided over a free Czechoslovakia, was tireless fighter against totalitarianism and oppression
By James Kirchick

In 1985, then dissident and future Czech president Vaclav Havel, who died Sunday at the age of 75, wrote an essay entitled “Anatomy of Reticence.”

It was read at a convention of European anti-nuclear weapons activists in Amsterdam to which Havel was invited but, being under the strict observation of the Czechoslovak communist secret police, was unable to attend.

At the time, the nuclear “freeze” movement, which called upon the Western democracies to unilaterally disarm and opposed the deployment of American missiles on the continent, was at its height.

In words that surely must have pricked those who sent him an invitation, Havel sought to correct the “wholly erroneous impression that the only dangerous weapons are those surrounded by encampments of demonstrators.”

The point could not have been lost on the anti-nuclear campaigners, who were of course free to protest the policies of their governments and those of the United States. They could denounce “Ronnie Raygun” to their hearts’ content.

They could march outside meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and call for its dissolution. Yet Havel and his friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain were prohibited from doing so; there were no Czech or Polish or Romanian “peace camps” outside Soviet military installations.

Yet for pointing out the elementary moral differences between the free West and the Soviet-dominated East, Havel and his fellow dissidents were suspected of representing a “fifth column of Western establishments east of the Yalta line” by Western progressives.

If there’s one epigram among Havel’s voluminous work that encapsulates his life it was the admonition to “live within the truth.” Havel chose a life of public opposition to an evil regime, abandoning the relative comfort that comes with conformity.

He could have become an apparatchik, but he chose not to. He could have sought asylum during his first visit to the United States, just months before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia of August 1968, but he returned home. He could have joined the communist writers’ union, but he wrote essays in favor of democracy and was thus banned from publishing his work.

At any point during his dissident career, he could have renounced his beliefs and lived a life of quiet conventionalism, or accepted the authorities’ offer of emigration. But he chose to live within the truth, and was imprisoned multiple times for his heresies.

As president of free Czechoslovakia and then, following the 1993 “Velvet Divorce,” the Czech Republic, Havel remained a dissident, of sorts, within his own country. He apologized to the Sudetan Germans, millions of whom were forcibly expelled (and thousands of whom were killed) following World War II.

Havel’s move was widely unpopular, and the 70-year-old issue remains a taboo topic in the Czech Republic to this day. He condemned racism against the Roma, or Gypsies, a long-excluded minority whom most Czechs wished would rather just disappear, stating that their treatment was a “litmus test” of democracy.

His support for the Iraq War was an act of dissidence in liberal-left European circles. In 2009, along with several other Central and Eastern European notables, he signed an open letter to President Barack Obama, expressing concern that the “reset” policy with Russia indicated that “the United States and the major European powers might embrace the Medvedev plan for a ‘Concert of Powers’ to replace the continent’s existing, value-based security structure.”

Havel’s life work was a living refutation of foreign policy “realists,” who argue that nations have interests devoid of moral considerations. Whether it was détente in the 1970’s or those who today argue for “accommodation” with a nuclear Iran, Havel warned against “the old European disease,” which is “the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.”

Last year, I interviewed the author Christopher Hitchens, (who, in what has been an awful week for those who value the power of the written word, died three days before Havel), and asked him for his views on the former Czech president. What was most remarkable about the man, Hitchens told me, was that he did not fit the image of a revolutionary. “By putting on plays, by writing poems, by publishing essays, by making jokes, by demonstrating thevalue of the written word and a life lived in truth and by nothing else; no car bombs, no bullying, no fanaticism,” he said, Havel “brought the Ogre to a halt and let the air completely out of the bag.”

Havel, Hitchens told me, “was able to ridicule a whole edifice of totalitarianism” simply “by folding his arms and putting a smile, a knowing smile, on his face.” Havel continued to fight totalitarianism and indecency of all sorts after leaving office and until his dying day. He was an outspoken supporter of democrats wherever they suffered, from Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, to Zimbabwe. While many of his European left-wing comrades chose to ignore the plight of communist Cuba, he spoke openly and frequently against Castro’s tyranny. Last year he co-founded the Friends of Israel Initiative, a consortium of leading statesman committed “to combat(ing) the de-ligitimization of the State of Israel at home, abroad and inside the institutions of the international community.” His last public statement, issued just a week ago, was a condemnation of the Putin regime in Russia, a “specific combination,” he said, “of old stereotypes and a new business-mafia environment.” That Havel never won a Nobel Peace Prize – however dubious an honor it’s become considering its conferral to a terrorist (Yasser Arafat), a fraud (Rigoberta Menchu), and an undeserving novice (Barack Obama) – is an absolute scandal.

Havel’s last play, “Leaving,” portrayed, with characteristic self-deprecation, the existential angst of a president on his way out the door. Vaclav Havelmay have left us. But the ideas he championed never will.

About the author


James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.


  • Indeed, a terrific article. Thank you.

    When I think of Havel, I think he’s an example of a person and especially of a leader who is truly a great man. By that I mean that he can’t be replaced. He stood head and shoulders above most people and certainly most leaders.