Havel: A Great Leader of Post-Cold War Europe Who Sought To “Live in Truth” (12/19)     Print Email

In the era which restored Europe whole and free, Vaclav Havel bears comparison with Nelson Mandela as a leader whose stature was crucial in obtaining a worthy place for his liberated nation.  "His role brought Czechoslovaka into NATO and into the EU much faster than world otherwise have been the case," Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Jiri Schneider said in his tribute to the Czech playwright and president who died this weekend. The comparison is only a loose approximation, with some caveats. The towering resistance figure, of course, is Poland's Lech Walesa, not only in his own country but across eastern and central Europe. A difference between the two hereos is that Havel remained a powerful international voice in the ensuing decade.

Havel, in contrast to Mandela, did not avoid the break-up of his newly democratic nation (Havel said later that he regretted not having worked harder to prevent the split that created Slovakia). And, in contrast to Mandela, Havel opposed a post-liberation "truth" investigation of Czechs' collaboration with Moscow during the era of Soviet control: Havel feared the baring of wounds and treachery would leave rancor, not reconciliation. Nor did he create a party to succeed him -- a fact that helps explain why Havel in his post-presidential decades was more revered (and even listened to) abroad than at home. 

What was quintessential was Havel’s sense of irony. As an often-banned artist, his satirical drama nurtured his ironic tone. A fatalistic sense of irony helped sustain him in his personal and political ethic -- "living in truth.”  That standard dictated his choice to remain in his homeland after the Soviet invasion in 1968, where he was relegated to a series of menial jobs (when he was not in prison) with no prospects for his career. After the years of darkness, when he emerged as his nation’s leader, his sense of irony sustained him in often-controversial decisions in which he imposed his core values of freedom despite the political costs of his stance. This eloquent style, in his writings and in his life, made Havel a leader who brought a “European” panache, reminding everyone that his country and the neighboring new democracies belonged to Europe (and always had).

Havel’s personal style is captured in this piece written about him in the International Herald Tribune in 2003 as he left power.