Vaclav Havel (and thanks for having me back)

Thanks so much to Sarah, Dan and the Concurring Opinions crew for inviting me back.

I’d like to use my visit to Concurring Opinions this month mostly to write about Vaclav Havel, who died on December 18th. And because I also blog over at PropertyProf, I’m going to post some of these entries over there as well.

My sense is that most people in the legal academy have a vague idea that Havel was very important during the collapse of East European totalitarianism in 1989, and that he even though he openly admired Frank Zappa he was allowed to be President. All of those things are true, but they badly miss the mark.

Havel’s contribution to the theory and practice of respect for human rights was incisive and profound. He left behind a body of work that merits our serious, sustained attention. If we miss that, we are depriving ourselves of something great and beautiful.

More after the break . . . .

It’s difficult for me to know where to begin when writing about Havel. He became a hero to me over the course of the past few years while I was teaching and researching in the Czech Republic. Last summer, for example, I went so far as to sit in the very spot he sat when he was sentenced to prison.  I attended a play in the tiny theater where he worked as a dramaturge until the totalitarian government forbade it, and where his first play was performed. It was in Czech and I understood about half of what was going on at best. I visited the tiny, two room library dedicated to him in Prague. I’ve read most of what he’s written and a lot of what’s been written about him. In other words, I’m not objective, but I am informed.

Because Havel’s biography is so extraordinary, people tend not to get past it to his actual writing. So it is with some trepidation that I begin there, but I think it is necessary both to understanding the man and the era in which he lived.

Havel was born into privilege in pre-war Czechoslovakia. When he was three years old Czechoslovakia was invaded and dismantled by Nazi Germany. The Czech lands were subsumed into the greater German Reich as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The SS was given control of the Protectorate, exterminating most of the Jewish population and ruling with great brutality. After nearly seven years the Wehrmacht was driven out, primarily by invading Soviet forces. Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and a period of horrific ethnic cleansing ensued, in which 3 million ethnic Germans were stripped on their Czechoslovak citizenship and either murdered or driven out of the country. Within 3 years, the communist party seized control of the government, and Czechoslovakia decisively entered into the Stalinist camp in Eastern Europe.

The Czechoslovak communist government was one of the most repressive and brutal in Eastern Europe. It relied on its notorious secret police force, the StB, to repress all dissent and democratic expression.  It even followed the Stalinist model of paranoia and anti-Semitic show trials, publicly sentencing to death the party’s own Jewish leadership. It also launched a massive nationalization program, expropriating most private property in the country.

Children of formerly privileged families were not allowed to attend university. Havel had hoped to study philosophy but drifted for a while (after his compulsory military service) before taking a job as a stage hand at a small theater in Prague. That’s where he found his calling. Eventually he began to write plays which were performed there. His plays were cutting edge and comically absurd in a somewhat similar manner to those of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter – the characters live claustrophobic, paranoid lives, menaced by unseen forces. But in Havel’s case, as his audiences understood quite well, those menacing unseen forces were not merely a metaphor for modern existence; they were also very real indeed, they were likely sitting among them, and the fact that they could never, ever be named in his plays only made the sense of claustrophobia and fear more immediate.

Havel walked a very fine line with his plays and drew the attention of the secret police. But the period in which his plays were performed coincided with the great attempt at liberalization in the Czechoslovakia. Stalin had died and a new generation of communist party leadership was experimenting with allowing limited freedoms. The experiment was referred to in Czechoslovakia as “socialism with a human face” and is generally known in the West as Prague Spring. It did not last. In 1968, the Soviet, East German, Polish and Hungarian militaries invaded and re-installed the old guard.

Reformers in the communist party were expelled, and people who had supported the reforms were imprisoned, fired from their jobs, and watched very closely. Havel, for example, was fired from his job in the theater, and his plays were never allowed to be performed again.  He worked as a laborer at a brewery. Any suggestion of dissent was immediately and brutally repressed. It was a very, very dark period, and it was to last for the next two decades. But it was during this period that Havel eventually found his voice, his unbelievable courage, and his greatness.

Part II about Havel in the days to come . . . .

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3 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    I am very interested to see your writing about Havel. He was a hero, for sure. But I doubt that people have only a “vague idea” that Havel was important in the collapse of East European totalitarianism.

    The man was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, an office he held for over a decade. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. etc., etc., etc. I don’t think he was somebody about whom we have only a vague notion of importance.

    When you write “people tend not to get past [his biography] to his actual writing,” if you are referring to his playwriting, you are likely correct, and that’s a shame. However, his actual writing also includes some important books that I suspect are well known and well appreciated.

  2. Mark Edwards says:

    You may be right, Ken — I certainly hope so. But I need some excuse for writing about him, so maybe assuming others don’t much about him is just a useful ploy. 🙂

  3. Thanks Mark, I very much look forward to more on Havel!