The nearly simultaneous deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il serve as a useful reminder that history is more than impersonal forces. It is also the accumulated actions of individuals–and “great men” (that anachronistic phrase) have an outsize role in shaping the direction history takes.
There were many reasons, of course, why Czechoslovakia had such a smooth transition from Communist role and then managed to break apart so peacefully into two new countries–the Czech Republic and Slovakia–while avoiding the bloodshed that characterized the breakup of Yugoslavia. But surely part of the explanation can be found in the moral authority and democratic vision of Vaclav Havel. He dedicated his life to fighting for liberal principles and then, once he had made the startling transition from prison to president, he showed himself to be an exemplar of those values by leaving office at the end of his term–an action we take for granted but is hardly guaranteed in any country undergoing a democratic transition. A playwright and intellectual, he was an exemplary man of letters who used his prestige to further the freedom of his people–rather than, as is the case with so many of his counterparts in the West, to champion despots and deluded fanatics.
Kim Jong Il was one of those despots and fanatics who are inexplicably attractive to a few Westerners. He came to power at nearly the same time, in 1994, but aside from the accident of timing, the differences between the two could not have been more pronounced. Kim had no record of independent achievement as Havel had; he had neither produced significant works of art, nor spent time in jail for his beliefs. He had done little other than toady up to his father, Kim Il-sung.
When the elder Kim died, his son could have overseen a transition to democratic or at least less autocratic rule. Far from it, the junior Kim maintained the Stalinist dictatorship intact. He presided over the deaths of millions of his own people in a needless famine, even while channeling the scarce resources of the state into procuring luxury goods for himself (French cognac, Japanese actresses) and nuclear weapons for his state.
Kim was a canny survivor who used North Korea’s only assets–its nukes–to outmaneuver the U.S. and to maintain his iron grip on power. But all that means is that in the long run he will be remembered as a junior varsity Stalin, Mao, or Hitler: someone who in his own way embodied evil. Havel, by contrast, was far from perfect–he would never have claimed otherwise. But he was as transparently idealistic and well-intentioned as a statesman can get–on a par with only a few other dissidents-turned-leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.
Both Havel and Kim left their marks on history. Havel’s may be found in a flourishing, peaceful, democratic state in central Europe. Kim’s may be found in a destitute prison-camp of a state in Northeast Asia.