September 23, 2017
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Havel: a preoccupation with ethics

By Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state

Nov. 24, 1989: Prague’s storied Wenceslas Square swarmed with demonstrators chanting slogans and waving signs that read “Posledni Zvoneni,” the last bell. Activists rattled the keys in their pockets, emulating the sound of a bell tolling to mark the end of four decades of communist rule. On a balcony overlooking the crowd stood a 53-year-old man who had been arrested that year and would, within a month, be president. Almost alone among his countrymen, he had predicted that this moment of triumph would arrive not in spite of the repression his people had suffered but because of it. In writings for which he would be jailed, he warned the communist leaders that by attempting to stifle the human urge for freedom, they were dooming their own system. Under the guidance of Vaclav Havel, the result was a movement that toppled a brutal government not in the spirit of vengeance but in affirmation of democratic institutions and values: the Velvet Revolution.

Havel, who died Sunday at age 75, never became fully comfortable with the exercise of political power. Through two terms as president, he maintained the psychology of the outsider, worrying about the effect holding high office could have on his own moral sense. He was a person more intrigued by principles than policies, by what he called the poetry of revolution compared with the prose of day-to-day governance. The division of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992 pained him, not because he begrudged Slovaks their own state but because he felt people everywhere should be motivated by forces more uplifting than nationalism. He was the leader who gave his country a second birth of freedom. But his preoccupation was not the acquisition of liberty; it was the use of liberty for the right purposes.

In January 1990, I accompanied a delegation from the National Democratic Institute to Prague. Havel greeted me with a cheerful “Hello, Mrs. Fulbright.” But our relationship went uphill from there. The next month he came to the United States, and his advisers used my house as an informal office, filling it with excited discussion and clouds of cigarette smoke. The highlight of his visit was an address to Congress, where his audience anticipated a ringing celebration of Cold War triumph. Instead, Havel pleaded for assistance to the disintegrating Soviet Union and challenged everyone — the West as much as the East — to re-examine their moral values.

This preoccupation with ethics struck some as naive, but Havel dismissed the utility of mere dreams. It was Havel who plotted strategy in the weeks leading up to the revolution and later presided over a transition to a free economy, maintained unity within the Czech Republic, guided his country into NATO and prepared the way for its entry into the European Union. There was nothing naive about Havel’s advocacy of collective action to end ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, or his support for democratic activists in Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Burma and beyond. Havel was steadfast in pursuing a moral universe, but he never suffered from the illusion that he lived in one. The urgency in his voice came less from lofty expectations of human character than from the distress he felt at those who accepted injustice simply because it was easier to look away than to resist.

With Havel, the message mattered but it was words themselves that penetrated the heart. He belongs among the handful of modern political leaders who could write with originality, psychological insight, power and flair. Communism was defeated by “the resistance of Being and man to manipulation.” The point of European unification “is not for all European nations . . . to merge in some amorphous pan-European Sea … to create a … Europe in which no one more powerful can suppress anyone less powerful.” Czech and Slovak officials who collaborated in the Holocaust were “nonhomicidal murderers.” Of the man who hates, Havel wrote: “He is incapable of making a joke, only of bitter ridicule. … Only those who can laugh at themselves can laugh authentically.”

As for ideals about governance, he concluded that: “We may approach democracy as we would a horizon, and do so in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained.” Summing up, he declared himself neither an optimist (“because I am not sure everything ends well,”) nor a pessimist (“because I am not sure everything ends badly”) but, instead, “a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning … and that liberty is always worth the trouble.”

Madeleine Albright was U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.

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