The death today of Vaclav Havel at the age of 75 reminds us what it truly means to speak up for liberty against tyranny. A playwright who became a symbol of dissent against an evil Soviet empire, Havel spent years in Communist jails for his activities and writings that championed individual freedom. He co-authored the Charter 77 manifesto that gave new life to the cause of human rights in his own country and helped inspire others elsewhere living under the Soviet yoke. Eventually, he helped lead his nation to freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall and served as the first president of a free Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the Slovaks left to form their own nation.
But there is more to be learned from recounting the story of Havel’s sacrifices and triumphs than just a tale of individual heroism. What ought to be remembered about Havel and the “Velvet Revolution” that he led to victory is that it was won by an uncompromising defense of the principle of democracy and individual rights when many unenlightened Western “realists” and liberals made it clear they were more interested in accommodating the Soviets than working to free those suffering under their tyranny. Havel’s struggles also gives us a yardstick by which we can measure the worthiness of contemporary protest movements around the world that now claim the mantle of dissent.
It should be remembered that while those who oppose American efforts to “export” democracy to the Third World now say such values are alien to non-Western nations, “realists” and liberals once said the same thing about Eastern Europe. Western liberals were too busy opposing America’s often-faltering efforts to oppose communism and Soviet expansionism to register much sympathy for Havel’s tireless and perilous fight against the Soviet puppet regime in Prague. Realists were ready to sacrifice him and other dissidents as well as a captive Soviet Jewry in order to preserve a failed policy of détente.
But Havel persevered and kept pushing for human rights. He became the personal embodiment of the Czech people’s desire for freedom. His last arrest and trial for dissent in the waning days of the Communist regime helped generate the movement that brought it down. His election as president set in motion a new wave of democracy across Eastern Europe. Once in power, he helped solidify democracy by working to dissolve the Warsaw Pact by which Russia maintained its hegemony over the region and then paved the way for Eastern European nations to join the NATO alliance.
The point to be gleaned from an analysis of his writing and political career is that he was no dilettante when it came to the cause of freedom. He not only put his own life on the line when opposing the Communists, but he consistently resisted the notion that there was any excuse or justification for the denial of human rights or the right of a people to govern themselves. In an age when public intellectuals often lent their talents to causes that gave short shrift to the principle of democracy so as to bolster the cause of anti-Americanism or other leftist fashions, he was a dissident for democracy. And though he would be bitterly criticized by the left for doing so, he remained loyal to this cause by supporting the United States in its efforts to oppose tyrants like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In the past year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the rise of a new wave of dissent as various groups have taken to the streets to protest in the Arab world, Russia, Israel and even here in the United States, all of whom were collectively named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Some of these protests have been heroic efforts to speak up against tyranny, as is the case in Russia. Others are less easy to define. The Arab Spring has morphed into a push for Islamist tyranny. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States is a leftist attack on economic freedom more than a plea for more democracy.
Vaclav Havel’s career was a reproach to all those who seek to use dissent to diminish freedom rather than to expand it. It speaks volumes about the Nobel Peace Prize that Havel never received one while others less worthy have been so honored. It is also telling that many of those who seek to glorify some of those who took to the streets this year for non-democratic causes had little sympathy for Havel. Nevertheless, he will be remembered as long as the Czech nation and the cause of liberty lives. May his memory be for a blessing.