It’s been quite a few days for deaths – Hitchens, the Dear Leader of North Korea, and most significantly for the Czechs of course, Václav Havel. Havel is clearly a revered figure in the Czech Republic, even so I’ve been slightly taken aback by the strength of feeling his death has generated. I don’t really want to join in too much here, from what I knew of Havel I basically liked and respected him but I’m certainly no expert, and more than enough has been written about him this week already.
The reaction to his death has left me with some mixed feelings. There’s evidently no lack of glutinous sentimentality, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that it’s Christmas – aaahh – and this is the time of year when he first became president of Czechoslovakia. There’s also no lack of hypocrisy, since he was often the object of ridicule as president among certain parts of the population. Not only hypocrisy, but in the case of current president Klaus, typically vicious opportunism: no doubt keen to avoid negative comparisons with the much-loved predecessor for whom he had utter contempt (which was quite rightly reciprocated), the incumbent grasps at the chance to bask in reflected glory.
In the midst of all this, it’s maybe not so surprising that a few dissenting voices have been raised, largely from the left. These have ranged from downright poisonous bad taste on the part of oafish, bloodthirsty Stalinists exhorting the nation to celebrate, to the more cerebral, which point out that he was no saint, who at the very least quickly reneged on his promise to serve only a single term as president. There is indeed a danger of Havel becoming the Czech equivalent of Princess Diana, and I have to hope that with Christmas Day immediately following the day of Havel’s funeral, the Czechs will (at least in this respect) return to their generally restrained, moderate selves.
Nevertheless, some of the criticisms of him strike me as somewhat mean-spirited. Although I was disappointed by his eagerness to join NATO and his slavish support for Bush’s foreign policy, I can’t agree that this entirely discredited him as a humanitarian, and have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his belief. The fact is I simply don’t agree with him on this and probably many more issues. So much for his opinions. In terms of his personality, however, I don’t find it so difficult to admire the man, and the contrast with Klaus could not be greater. Klaus, an egomaniac and slave to dogma very similar in spirit to the communists, kept his head down and worked in a bank during the years of normalisation. He subsequently dismissed Havel as a “half-socialist” and never tires of posing as the scourge of the totalitarian left, though this naturally didn’t stop him twice being elected president with the help of the communist party. Havel on the other hand, whilst evidently a flawed man, could have had quite a comfortable life had he kept his mouth shut, but was prepared to put his head on the block and suffer the consequences. RIP.