The death notices for Christa Wolf, one of Germany’s most celebrated novelists, were telling. The German feuilletons heaved with tributes and mild dissents, steering debate away from the quality of her literary output—it was variable—to the political controversies she engendered. Wolf was, a critic once spat, the “state poet” of the deformed and misnamed German Democratic Republic. Indeed, it is more appropriate to call Wolf an East German novelist, a nostalgic for the regime she romanticized and unofficially served—including a three-year stint as Stasi informant. In 1989, when jubilant Ossies breached the Berlin Wall and sprinted towards the well-stocked shops of Kurfürstendamm, Wolf argued that East Germany should continue to exist.
The American obituarists allowed room for the Stasi controversy, and a few offered an incomplete précis of her political stupidities and toadying to party bosses. But these were waved off as unimportant. The New York Times declared Wolf the “public conscience of a long-divided people” (a title often applied to another GDR nostalgic, Günter Grass) and a “loyal dissident.” The New Yorker insisted that she “spoke out strongly” against a government that applied brute force to those who did speak out, strongly or otherwise, while failing to note that she never resigned her party membership.
If Wolf counts as a “dissident,” if loyalty to a state that excelled only in terrorizing its subjects counts as possessing an impressive “conscience,” if releasing a novel critical of the system after the collapse of communism can be deemed “strongly” registering complaint, what words are left to eulogize Václav Havel?
Havel, who died last week of lung cancer, was one of the fearless founders of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 movement, a group of intellectuals who challenged the Communist government to abide by its own Potemkin laws; a playwright in the tradition of Beckett; a dystopian writer in the tradition of Orwell and Zamyatin; and—minor career detail—the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. While Wolf compromised with the monstrous government in East Berlin, which allowed her to live as a protected intellectual, Havel denounced “the world of ‘rear exits,’ ” in which well-known writers—himself included—were left unmolested by authorities, while lesser dissidents languished in prison.
The authorities in Prague quickly acceded to his demand for equal treatment and locked him up. While writers like Wolf established a rapprochement with their dictators, publishing at home and abroad while periodically signing a statement of solidarity for a persecuted author, Havel spent five years in prison and, when released, was placed under house arrest, followed, threatened, prevented from traveling, and constantly spied on. A foreign documentary crew once filmed Havel walking his dog around the perimeter of his house (which featured its very own secret police outpost across the street), while a uniformed intelligence agent followed two feet behind at all times. As late as 1989, when dissidents were taking advantage of perestroika and glasnost, Havel was considered subversive enough to earn another nine months in prison for antiregime comments made to Radio Free Europe.
His politics are, in many ways, secondary to his preternatural courage and principled antitotalitarianism. Havel was variously accused of being a reactionary rightist and, by some of his former comrades, a squishy crypto-leftist. He insisted he was neither. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” he wrote in his most famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s politics confounded many on the left; he was hopelessly cool, a shaggy-haired, chain-smoking playwright who listened to the Velvet Underground and befriended Frank Zappa, but who loathed utopian scheming, supported the expansion of NATO, backed both American wars in Iraq, and vigorously defended the Western intervention in the Balkans.
And how déclassé that he upbraided the European Union for indulging Cuban totalitarianism! (“Time and again,” he wrote, “Europe paid a high price for policies of compromises with evil that were dictated by economic interests or the illusion that evil can be appeased.”) He took to the New York Times to attack the U.N.’s sinister Human Rights Council, which provides cover to the world’s worst human rights abusers.
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.