Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Things I missed while trying to have a life

One piece of good news this week-end was the death of the Dear Leader of the Democratic People's Republic  of Korea, Kim Jong-il. Or, at least, it was announced this week-end that he died on Saturday. One can never tell with those People's Organizations or Republics. It's good news because he, truly, was evil. That word is bandied around a good deal but in this case and in the case of the rest of his friends and family, it is entirely accurate.

Of course, the horror of North Korea is not over; if the succession is peaceful the same will continue, if it is not, there will be a nasty civil war that may spill over into South Korea, where there is a distinct nervousness.

The sad news was the death of Vaclav Havel, who, to be fair, was more of a symbol and a talking head to be produced at many well-meaning international congresses, conferences and meetings. Still, he did remind us all of the heroic days of the dissident opposition to Communism.

There are so many obituaries of Havel around that I shall link to three only, one on the Cato site and two on ChicagoBoyz (here and here). Not unexpectedly, I shall try to eschew the sentimentality that surrounded the man and still continues. On the whole, he was more popular in the West than in his own land, despite the outpourings of emotion now, because the West saw the symbol and not the real politician who was far more controversial (as what politician is not).

To start with, he was a Central European intellectual, a form of animal life that is unknown in Britain or anywhere in the Anglosphere (and how lucky they all are). He was a playwright, who, even before 1968 wrote plays that were a somewhat daring departure from the required socialist realism. Neither those plays nor the later dissident ones about Ferdinand Vanek were particularly good. I saw several, so I can attest that abandoning the theatre and going on to the political stage was a very good decision to take.

Havel, I have always felt, would have been very happy with Communism with a Human Face, an impossible notion that was supposedly Alexander Dubcek's aim in 1968. The Soviets rightly decided that, left to itself, it would mean the dissolution of Communism, leaving it with no face at all, and put the Prague Spring down quite brutally but not as badly as some other rebellions. The country was plunged into gloom with most people averting their eyes from the public sphere.

There were a few exceptions, the signatories of  Charter 77, various other dissidents, the rock group Plastic Peoples of the Universe and so on. As these people were deprived of their jobs in universities, research institutes, theatres, schools, and other suchlike institutions, they had to become workers in factories, window cleaners, truck drivers and, sometimes, worse. This is what Havel wrote about in the Vanek plays.

Gradually, his name became synonymous with the low-key stubborn opposition to Communism in Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia and it was not surprising that during the Velvet Revolution, the demonstrators demanded that he should be in the Castle, that is become President. He was not so much the leader of the Velvet Revolution as its single public face.

Subsequent events proved that a man who made the perfect dissident was not necessarily a good politician. Indeed, many post-Communist societies found that. Havel, despite himself, presided over the inevitable split of the country's two parts, resigned because of it but was re-elected as President of the Czech Republic. There were, inevitably, various problems and a few scandals of political and financial nature. All this will have been detailed in the various obituaries.

In the late nineties we nearly said good-bye to Havel as he was diagnosed, twice, with lung cancer. But he survived and, given the length of time, was, presumably, cured. His wife, Olga, did die of cancer and he swiftly married again to a few raised eyebrows but then there had always been rumours about his private life. Of no real importance to a true Central European intellectual.

After his presidency, Havel travelled, wrote, spoke and, generally, became one of the great members of the international political intelligentsia, slightly left of centre as he would happily admit, very much in favour of various well-meaning transnational organizations. His intellect did not have the hard-edged ruthlessness of his great rival, Vaclav Klaus.

His death brings sadness. He was, in most ways, honourable and courageous; a man who who perceived the evil of Communism and was not afraid to fight it; a symbol of that struggle. Requiescat in pace.

ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out to me that there is a serious gap in my description of Havel's activity after he was President. He, unlike most of the Europeans he was associating with, opposed the bloody and oppressive Cuban regime without any caveats. Of course, he understood it better.

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