Heeding Havel’s Message

It seems fitting that the final curtain of Václav Havel’s life should have fallen at the end of a year of revolutions. His passing reminds us of the power of his writings and his actions, and how they remain relevant at a time when people in so many parts of the world are fed up with the status quo and are seeking change for the sake of recapturing truth and dignity.

As a dissident in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s, Havel was not afraid to speak the truth. Indeed, he relished the opportunity to point out the mendacity in the Communist system. This made him a threat because, as he pointed out in his essay on The Power of the Powerless (October 1978), “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” As we saw in 2011—the uprisings in the Arab world, anti-corruption protests in India, the Occupy movement in the United States, changes in Myanmar, and protests in Russia—small acts of protest, or “revolts against manipulation,” as Havel put it, can start causing cracks in the system.

As Havel pointed out, the “virus of truth” can spread quickly. This has become even more the case in an age of 24-hour news, social networking, and mobile phones. Calls for change become louder, the pace of events accelerates. As Havel warned the Communist regime, if the system has become so ossified politically, change is a threat to its very existence. A number of leaders discovered this fact in 2011–only after it was too late.

As Havel wrote in an address to the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Gustav Husák in April 1975, entitled “Dear Dr. Husák,” an “entropic” regime is doomed to failure: “In an effort to immobilize the world, it immobilizes itself, undermining its own ability to cope with anything new or to resist the currents of life.” Such regimes—and there are plenty of them still around—may seek to control the media, to muzzle opposition, and even to kill their own people.

But as Havel prophetically warned Dr. Husák in 1975, such repression cannot prevail in the long run. As he put it: “A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy cover of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the cover will no longer hold and will start to crack.”

2011 will be remembered as a year when a number of strong regimes started to crack, and others completely collapsed. It was a year much like 1989, when Havel led the Velvet Revolution, and “the dead weight of inertia crumbles and history steps out again into the arena.”

Who knows what 2012 and the future will bring. But dictators would be well advised to read some of Havel’s writings. And next time they are in Prague, they should look up at the flag flying over the beautiful Prague Castle. The motto reads “Pravda vitĕzi” which means “Truth prevails.”

Walter Kemp is Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Peace Institute.