ANALYSIS | Vaclav Havel had world-changing courage

Former Canadian diplomat Jeremy Kinsman on the modesty and world-changing courage of the late Czech leader Vaclav Havel, a man who 'didn't know how to hate.'

A man of moral stature and courage, who 'didn't know how to hate'

We are all hugely diminished today by the passing of a man, small of height but towering in moral stature and courage over those he called the "professional rulers."

Vaclav Havel was a playwright and essayist who found himself unable to live in accommodation with totalitarian, police state and, indeed, foreign occupation of his proud country.

He became his people's beacon of freedom, an inspirer and organizer of resistance to the "anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power" — the "dictatorship of a political bureaucracy" — that tried to smother his voice and kept him either locked up or under complete and constant surveillance.

They didn't succeed.

Through his writing and example, and through his creation of the dissident movement Charter 77, he conveyed the imperative "that the truth had to be spoken loudly and collectively, regardless of the certainty of sanctions and the uncertainty of any tangible results in the immediate future." \

Vaclav Havel, in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the beginnings of today's Czech Republic. (Reuters)

His diagnosis of the "profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie," which referred to the autocracy of Soviet rule, stands gigantically as valid today in so much of the world.

As he wrote to the 1989 PEN Congress in Montreal, which Czech authorities barred him from attending in person, freedom is indivisible.

"In today's world, more and more people are aware of the indivisibility of human fate on this planet, that the problems of anyone of us, or whatever country we come from — be it the smallest and most forgotten — are the problems of us all."

His flame can be seen in Tahrir Square in Cairo; in the cell of Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in China, who modelled his Charter '08 after Havel's Charter 77; and among Las Damas de Bianca in Havana, who walked after Sunday Mass to protest the arbitrary jailings of their journalist husbands, who shared Havel's intolerance for dictatorship. (He never forgave Castro for supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.)

On Jan. 1, 1990, in his greatest triumph, Havel was able to say to his fellow citizens, "People, your government has returned to you."

How to be nice

Much will be written in coming days of Havel's role in the Velvet Revolution, the 1989 citizen uprising that finally drove the Soviet tanks from the streets of Prague.  It will, however, be difficult to capture the essence of the man.

A few Canadians knew him well during the dissident years, including diplomat Rob McRae and Havel's gifted translator Paul Wilson, who had once been a member of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe.

The band's prosecution helped mobilize Prague's underground music scene and galvanized the larger cause of resistance to arbitrary authority.

I met him in Prague Castle, not long after the revolution, through my wife Hana, a proud Czech political refugee to Canada.

She asked him what he first thought about when he awoke each morning in his new circumstances. "How to help people be nicer to each other," he replied.

Today, with the news of his passing, our relatives report that people in Prague are spontaneously massed in the places where he went.

They are being nice to each other.

Modesty and courage

Though his prose and his courage were forceful and decisive, Havel was a supremely modest man, without the vanity of complete self-belief that colours so many of today's politicians.

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Russia invited the heads of many countries to a commemoration, the centrepiece of which was a parade in what was formerly Red Square.

I was Canada's ambassador to Russia then and lingering at the rear of where the dignitaries were stationed, I was greeted by a couple of latecomers to the event, Havel and his ambassador to Russia, Rudolf Slansky, a good friend. 

(In one of his deft theatrical touches, Havel sent, as his first ambassador to Moscow, the son of a Czech national leader the Communists had executed in 1948.)

I told the president that I knew Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien was looking forward to seeing him and that I would bring him down to the front rail where all the other important leaders were – Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, John Major and others who were clustered around then U.S. president Bill Clinton, a proximity apt to get them on the news shows at home.

Havel was reluctant to intrude but I insisted and so he went. 

That night, across the world, the photo and video footage of the event featured Clinton greeting Havel, because the news media can tell greatness when they see it.

'I don't know how to hate'

Vaclav Havel was a man of humour and irony, qualities cherished in a country of so much intellectual and literary fluency.

They were also talents that enabled him to capture perfectly the absurdities of public boasting and posturing, and the divisiveness of political life.

Asked once by aggressive Washington journalists about the Monica Lewinsky business, while he was there on a state visit with Clinton, Havel responded by referring to the home-run contest then dominating American sports news, about which he knew nothing: "I wish to congratulate Mr. McGwire and to wish the success to Mr. Sammy Sosa."

Not long after he moved into Prague Castle, which the Soviet's puppet regime had vacated, his colleagues found in an unmarked hidden chamber an encrypted teletype to Communist Party headquarters in Moscow that only top officials could use.

Havel tracked down the cryptologist and sent a merry message of greetings to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Earlier in his life, when he was asked by a French journalist how he felt about his jailers, following a four-year spell in prison, he responded, "I don't know how to hate."

Vaclav Havel didn't want to perpetuate the divisions in post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, which, against his most earnest wishes, split into two countries because of the ambitions of lesser men.

But his tone captured the tolerance of most of his compatriots and can be seen in one memory he left of early life in the Castle:

"In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there now lives a bat," he wrote. "How to get rid of it? The light bulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it and upset it."

Still, he upset much in the cause of freedom and, in that pursuit, I urge democrats everywhere to take an afternoon off and read Open Letters, his selected writings from 1965-90.

He tried to awake an uncertain world and, for a time, he did. He will be missed.