The Power of the Powerless: In Memory of Vaclav Havel

Two men died this weekend. One was a towering literary and political figure, one of my heroes, a man who understood change and freedom and put his life on the line for it. The other was not; resisting change and freedom at all costs in the defence of an extreme version of a failed idea against which the other fought.



Vaclav Havel was a Czech patriot, playwright, poet and president who broke the crushing bureaucracy and terror of absolutist totalitarianism. Kim Jong Il was a North Korean born to be president of a dynasty in the ludicrously named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, an absolutist, totalitarian state that is neither democratic nor of the ‘people’. Son of his dictator father the Dear Leader exercised power through terror, the crushing bureaucracy of an overweening state and by blackmailing neighbours with the threat of an over-costly military and nuclear weapons. Both in their ways defined their age in their space, and yet they occupied opposite ends of truth.

Let me deal first with President Kim Jong Il. Enough said.

Vaclav Havel wrote; “The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line, everyone has a small part of himself in both”. Europeans have fought for centuries to ensure that the powerless have sufficient ownership of the powerful to render accountability real; the very cornerstone of democracy.

Sadly, Central and Eastern Europeans understand the value of freedom in ways which shames us all in Western Europe, where dangerous complacency reins. Perpetual vigilance is vital to protect freedom, particularly at times of crisis such as this. European history is replete with fool’s contracts; “we the powerful will resolve the mess we have created if only you the people give us more power and all your money”. Havel would have rejected a choice between being bankruptcy and freedom, but if choice was forced upon him he would have chosen the latter.

Small was beautiful for Havel. Indeed, Havel believed passionately that power should be seen to be alongside the people, in the people, with the people. His desire to bring power down from the high perches of pride it so often and too often claims for itself in Europe saw President Havel oversee the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. That was the will of the people.

Havel found the presidency an uncomfortable part in a theatre de l’absurde, describing himself ‘absurd’ at his investiture in Prague Castle. And yet perhaps it was not Havel who was absurd but rather the ridiculous ego-driven pomposity, perks, and police-escorted pageantry that Europe’s new great and increasingly not-so-great now routinely claim for themselves in the name of ‘protocol’. Havel rightly mistrusted power and the people with it.

As Europe teeters on the edge of a financial and economic abyss the truly powerful call for more power. There is a very real danger that power in Europe will become systematically ever more distant from the people – the very anti-thesis of freedom and democracy. This elite-driven project comes in various ‘plays’ and ‘acts’ on stages from Berlin to Brussels. Some call upon one superpower state to lead in the name of ‘Europe’, others call for a super-state that is ‘Europe’. Both threaten democracy and freedom if not held in check. Sadly, checks and balances are being eroded in the name of ‘Europe’, with Havel’s Europeans patronisingly encouraged to disengage from the political process, ‘our’ political process and to ‘leave it to them’.

For that reason above all other Havel was an inspiration for this blog and its own self-satirising and pompous mission to ‘speak truth unto power’. Indeed, I see myself as a true Havelist because I have never lost, nor will I ever lose my capacity to laugh at myself. However, whilst I am and can only ever be a pale imitation of my Czech hero my mission remains deadly serious – the defence of freedom in Europe.

Europe is most decidedly not North Korea. We Europeans do at least retain the semblance of choice over our leaders that the Dear Leader denied his people. Moreover, our leaders for all their many faults are not Kim Jong-Il. Nationally-elected political representatives in national parliaments are close enough to the people to understand them and their needs and yet close enough to power to hold to account the eternal and infernal ambition of the super-ego. May it ever be thus.

‘Europe’ remains a good idea in a world that is getting ever bigger as ‘we’ Europeans get ever weaker. However, Big Europe also threatens freedom even if it is not intended and must be guarded against. Havel understood the danger of seeking efficiency and effectiveness at the expense of democracy and freedom. Throughout history that has been the seductive, siren call of the powerful in pursuit of absolute power in the teeth of crisis. The pursuit of absolutism comes in many forms but it is always ‘for’ the people and in the name of the ‘people’, as it is in North Korea. Europe is a long way from that but ‘we the people’ must remain vigilant.

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions”. It was Havel’s optimism that attracted me to him all those years ago, precisely because the system he had fought against had failed to crush Havel’s self-defining ‘hope’. In Havel’s Europe the line between the powerful and powerless must remain blurred even if it is not ‘efficient’. Let us all honour Havel the man by respecting his vision for Europe.

In honour and in memory of Europe’s great, ordinary man. Vaclav Havel was a friend I never met.


This articles first published at Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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