Freedom fighter Vaclav Havel’s recent death reminds freedom lovers here and around the world that no matter how entrenched rulers seem to be, they are vulnerable to so-called “powerless” citizens who are in fact not powerless when they refuse to surrender their consciences.
Vaclav Havel’s perseverance in speaking his conscience played a crucial part in an awakening that led to Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and then, in a time of glasnost, not only rid the country of Soviet Communists, but established a free republic in a matter of ten days. After four decades of occupation, that very December Soviet tanks rolled out of Prague. Havel, freshly released from prison in November, gave the presidential inaugural address on January 1, 1990.
The country was an ecological mess and in economic shambles, but Havel focused his remarks on the havoc worked upon the character of Czechoslovakians themselves. He told his battered people, “I assume that you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.”
“The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities.”
I traveled to Prague soon after Havel took office in the 1990’s. At that time I felt the chill of communism still haunting the country. Churches had been used as storerooms, waitresses could be nasty, and my taxi driver cheated me. But the beauty and artistry of the country drew me back in 2002 to attend a session of Havel’s “Forum 2000” event with a philanthropic group. A few of us were invited to a state dinner in Prague Castle. We elicited stories from our hosts concerning their personal experiences of emerging from Communism. The accounts were wrenching. One kind man had worked for years to revive Czech philanthropy. It was a tough sell with little return, so when an American couple in our party donated $200,000 to his charity he broke into relieved weeping.
Later at a small concert I sat behind Havel and his guest Joan Baez. The two became friends in 1989 when Havel, fearful of the police, posed as Joan’s guitar carrier and escaped arrest sheltered in her dressing rooms. At that concert, perhaps presaging the events to come, the microphones were shut down in the middle of her first song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. But this night she sang Sweet Chariot to completion for Havel, still frail from surgery for the removal of one of his lungs.
Although Havel was a playwright whose first love was theater, he became “ . . . dedicated to trying to behave like a citizen, even where citizenship is degraded.” As a master writer he had a profound impact on Eastern Europe. He quickly prepared his essay “The Power of The Powerless” in 1977 for a secret meeting in Poland with Solidarity activists such as Zbygniew Bujak. Recalls Bujak,
“This essay reached us at the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. . . Why were we taking such risks? We began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinning for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. . . . When I look at the victories of Solidarity . . . I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.”
Source: Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965 – 1990 by Vaclav Havel, edited by Paul Wilson, Vintage Books
Solidarity became organized in 1980 and is largely crediting with the 1990 overthrow of the Communist regime by the presidential election of Lech Walesa.
The “theoretical underpinning” of Havel’s essay is that totalitarianism is like a machine constructed with interchangeable parts – government officials play the same roles, coming and going as the machine grinds on relentlessly. Havel told how the machine-like specter of totalitarianism stripped innocent individuals of their integrity when they complied with meaningless regulation. Thus a master beer brewer miserably made bad beer in the state factory, students reluctantly learned Russian, writers took recourse to underground publications, and unlicensed musicians could only perform illegally. This last led to an outraged public in 1977 to demonstrate in favor of the rock band Plastic People of The Universe and the founding of the dissident organization Chapter 77.
All tyrannies seek to divest individuals of their power by imposing a wedge of tension between inner truth and outer behavior. In The Power of The Powerless Havel’s fictitious example is a vegetable-seller, a greengrocer who was required to place a “Workers of The World Unite” sign next to his tomatoes lest his son be denied entrance to the university.
Why would totalitarianism react viciously to the simple omission of a sign next to the tomatoes display? Because, just as the child who asks why the emperor has no clothes ends the entire parade, one person pointing to truth threatens a bureaucratic house of cards entire based on lies. Cumulative instances of honesty – genuine art, genuine competence, trusting friendships, verified information – wear down tyranny like waves eroding the foundation of a sand castle so the whole structure crumples.
The propagandists offered the frightened greengrocer a face-saving excuse for accepting the discrepancy between his frank beliefs and his behavior. He can hide behind the lie that “Workers of The World Unite” is a worthy cause, even though to him it is nonsense. Those who survive intact morally by choosing truth may pay a price physically. Havel never recovered from the pneumonia he contracted during his four years in prison. Yet his inaugural remarks targeted the more toxic effect lies have on people: meaninglessness, loss of genuine friendship, and so on. We lose what makes us human. Writers on the subject employ such terms as “truncated individuals,” “empty cores,” and “nobody in the building” to describe the loss of inner integrity due to complying with lies. The challenge for dissent of tyranny is to persevere in what we believe is right even though we cannot be sure of the outward result. There is a price to pay for standing our ground, but the reward is the treasure of personal integrity.
Vaclav Havel was surprised as anybody when the USSR left Czechoslovakia.
“When you try to act in accordance with your conscience, when you try to speak the truth, when you try to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won’t necessarily lead anywhere, but it might.”
Who knows? Unexpected success may come. We intend it to be so. Are Arabs ready for freedom? Who knows? Shortly before his death, Havel gave his blessing to an Arabic translation of Power of The Powerless. Are we in Wyoming ready for freedom? There is a lot of work to do as we stand our ground and trust in providence.
Author’s note: for a wonderful tribute to Havel by translator Paul Wilson, please click here.