Vaclav Havel’s Greatest Achievement

Written on December 20, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Europe

How his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” changed—and keeps changing—the world for the better.

By Anne Applebaum

A mourner walks past a photograph of former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague, Czech Republic. Havel died Sunday at age 75. Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Image

Back in the early 1980s, when Poland was frozen under martial law and Czechoslovakia, as it was then still called, suffered under one of the stupidest of all of Communist regimes, the Polish dissidents and the Czech dissidents resolved to have a meeting. By separate routes, they made their way to their mutual border, high in the Tatra mountains. I once saw the photographs that were taken to mark this improbable occasion: a dozen blue-jeaned activists, veterans of Solidarity and Charter 77, grinning widely, toasting the camera, celebrating the fact that they had eluded their respective secret police services once again. It looked like a lot of fun.

Almost 30 years have passed since those pictures were taken, and the people in them have since met a wide variety of fates. In the wake of the revolutions of 1989, some of that dissident generation in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany moved from shadow politics into real politics, becoming legislators, ministers, heads of state. Many, perhaps most, did not thrive. Some found they didn’t care for democratic politics, especially when the voters treated them with less respect than they thought they deserved. Others found they didn’t care for capitalism. Some grew sour, some went off in literary directions; some stayed in the shadows, listening to Frank Zappa.  

In retrospect, only one politician in those photographs stands out as a true post-Communist political success: Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, who died Sunday. Havel’s post-Communist political career was not without blemish: He failed to prevent the division of the Czechoslovak state; he failed to live an entirely admirable personal life. But he achieved two things that none of his contemporaries managed.

First and foremost, Havel not only opposed the Communist regime, he articulated a theory of opposition. His plays–as turgid, alas, as the Communist bureaucrats they are meant to satirize–will not survive, except as curiosities. But his famous political essay—“The Power of the Powerless“—will live forever. Its appeal is universal. I have given Havel’s essay to Iranian friends, and I once discussed it with would-be dissidents in pre-revolutionary Tunis. In both places it seemed—seems—relevant. Read more…

As published in www.slate.com on December 19, 2011.



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