December 19, 2011

Our debt to Vaclav Havel

The fear was palpable on our first family visit to Prague, 40 years ago. My parents had been in Vienna, packing for a visit, when Soviet tanks took over the streets of Prague in 1968. The Prague Spring was still fresh in people's minds, though for a five-year-old American no history lesson was necessary. My memories of that 1971 trip are only of darkness and desperation, like the Batman and Spiderman cartoons I later watched growing up, or the films noirs I eventually came to appreciate as a college student.

One of those who saw through the darkness was Vaclav Havel. Many years later, he would write: “The time of hard, everyday work has come, a time in which conflicting interests have surfaced, a time for sobering up, a time when all of us – and especially those in politics – must make it very clear what we stand for.” I believe that, for Havel, each moment was such a time.

Having suffered for his principled dissent and literary liberties, he used his moment to lead Czechoslovakia to democracy in what became known as the Velvet Revolution for its lack of bloodshed on either side, whether before or after. The fact that Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of cultural and political expression certainly helped usher in the post-Communist phase, but the situation could still have turned deadly – both before and after the revolution – and there was no guaranteed outcome. 

In retrospect, with so many people intent on putting the dark years behind them, the democratic transformation can seem obvious and inevitable. But back then, few people had the courage or creativity to see beyond the prison running across Eastern and Central Europe. 

Czechoslovakia had been ransomed to Hitler in an effort to avert World War II. It was expendable again in 1968, and at many other turns in between. Even a tourist visit had to involve some intrigue, especially if making contact with the beleaguered Jewish community.

It's now been 15 years since my last visit to Prague, but even by then the city had transformed itself. The idea that then-President Havel would give the former Czechoslovak Parliament building, once a symbol of Communist control, to Radio Free Europe as its new headquarters was powerful. The renaissance of culture, commerce and construction was phenomenal. None of this would have been possible without the perseverance and vision of Havel and his fellow revolutionaries. 

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, back in the early 1970s, I got to see and hear some of the clandestine jazz music that expressed an affinity for free thinking and for the United States. I witnessed the crowds of ordinary Romanians who dared arrest by approaching the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest just so they could pay homage to Louis Armstrong, who had just passed away. In those primitive pre-Twitter days, they made due with the handful of glossy black-and-white photos the Embassy staff had posted on the fence, since no Romanian newspaper would cover such a subversive obituary.

Havel became less popular in his retirement, and the Czech Republic – having parted ways with the Slovak Republic – has developed a more vocal nationalist current. And of course, the European Union and its economy is currently in a tailspin. But, one way or another, the New Europe will persevere, and it will forever bear the stamp of Vaclav Havel. And a great writer and jazz musician, as well.

No tribute to Havel – or to the many potential Havels who did not survive the persecution for their thoughts and deeds – can ever suffice. His death over the weekend should remind that freedom is not free, and that no one can achieve true freedom by enslaving or persecuting others.

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