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.