The Magazine

A Tale of Two Dissidents

There’s a difference between resisting dictators and accommodating them.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By MICHAEL MOYNIHAN
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Nor were the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament types amused by Havel’s coruscating 1985 essay “Anatomy of a Reticence,” an examination of the fraught relationship between the Eastern European dissident movement and the Western European “peace movement.” Even from behind the Iron Curtain, it was clear to the Chartists in Prague that calls for peace often masked a radical political program, something they rejected because of a “fundamental skepticism about utopianism.” If the antinuclear activists denouncing Reagan and Kohl didn’t understand the dissident’s skepticism, Havel reminded them that “the Czechoslovak citizen tends to ask who is proposing still more ‘glowing tomorrows’ for us this time?” 

Such comments rankled comrades living comfortably outside the Soviet zone of occupation. When Havel addressed a joint session of Congress in 1990, Noam Chomsky denounced him as “embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant,” profanely comparing the victim of a Stalinist government to a “Stalinist hack.” Writing in the Guardian after his death, Neil Clark complained Havel had insufficient respect for his Communist warders: “Havel’s anti-communist critique contained little if any acknowledgement of the positive achievements of the regimes of Eastern Europe in the fields of employment, welfare provision, education and women’s rights.” In the Czech Republic, the Union of Czechoslovak Young Communists​—​alas, such groups persist​—​said Havel’s death was a moment to “rejoice.”

But when it came to his tormenters, Havel was forgiving, opposing the policy of lustration​—​preventing former high-ranking Communists and collaborators from holding government jobs​—​because of his discomfort with treating secret police files as trustworthy. When he was elected president of Czechoslovakia, he was shown a list of friends and colleagues who had betrayed him and took no action, instead telling an interviewer that “I lost that list [and] I forgot who was on it.”

In totalitarian societies, the totalitarians rely on a simple truth: Heroes are always in short supply. What the geriatric leadership of Communist Czechoslovakia understood about Václav Havel was that this courageous “counterrevolutionary,” selfless and brave opponent of the regime, had the makings of a hero. Christa Wolf, the accommodationist novelist, did not, as the East German authorities gathered. Wolf doesn’t deserve the appellation “dissident.” For Havel, it’s inadequate. It’s depressing that so many journalists still can’t tell the difference between the two.

Michael Moynihan is managing editor of Vice magazine and a contributing editor to Reason.

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