An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Václav Havel and Adam Michnik. Translated and edited by Elzbieta Matynia. Yale University Press, 2014. 252pp.
An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik opens with an account of the famous meeting of dissidents from Poland and Czechoslovakia that took place on Mount Snieżka at the restricted border between the two countries in the summer of 1978. The clandestine gathering initiated sustained collaboration between the two countries’ principal dissident groups—Poland’s Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), which had been established in response to the crackdown on labor protests in June 1976, and Charter 77, which was launched the following January in Czechoslovakia to oppose the suffocating “normalization” imposed by the communist regime in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The meeting also brought Michnik and Havel together for the first time. It was a partnership that energized the dissident movement in both countries from the very beginning.
Michnik and Havel differed from each other in significant ways. Michnik, the son of Jewish communists, was an underground editor and activist and a leader of the student uprising during the Polish political crisis of 1968. Havel, a decade older, was the son of a wealthy entrepreneurial family and a recognized playwright. He had already achieved stature as a dissident intellectual by writing powerfully argued letters and essays directly challenging Czechoslovakia’s communist [End Page 183] leaders, including Alexander Dubček, president during the Prague Spring in 1968, and Gustáv Husák, the longtime secretary-general of the Communist Party. The
letter to Dubček, urging him to behave as “an honest person” and not capitulate to Soviet pressure by repudiating his policy of “socialism with a human face,” contained a sentence that resonated with many dissidents who insisted that their struggle was not hopelessly quixotic. “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect,” Havel had written to Dubček, “can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance” (p. 7).
When Havel reiterated this argument on Mount Snieżka, Michnik urged him to turn it into an essay and promised to publish it in Krytyka, a new underground quarterly that Michnik coedited in Warsaw. An underground courier delivered the completed essay to Michnik’s home three months later. It was entitled The Power of the Powerless, and it became an instant classic. Its central message—that a system based on a lie is threatened by people who live in truth—helped to inspire a movement of peaceful resistance to communism throughout Central Europe. This is how the Solidarity activist Zbigniew Bujak described its impact:
The essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR, we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?
Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later—in August 1980—it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them the astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and the knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.
An Uncanny Era is not, as its subtitle seems to suggest, a collection of conversations between Havel and Michnik. It consists mostly of interviews with Havel, conducted by Michnik and some of his colleagues, that probe Havel’s thinking on issues of politics and morality. It concludes with a biographical essay of homage to Havel, aptly entitled “From Socrates to Pericles,” that Michnik wrote shortly before Havel’s death in December 2011. The book—and especially Michnik’s essay—strengthens Havel’s reputation as one of the most significant political, intellectual, and cultural figures of the Cold War era and its aftermath. [End Page 184]
In his essay, Michnik recalls that first meeting on Mount Snieżka, when Havel and the Polish activist Jacek Kuroń exchanged ideas on how to build the dissident movement and the alternative institutions of an independent civil society. Michnik writes that Kuroń was most comfortable in the realm of politics and action, while Havel was a genuine intellectual who repeatedly invoked the insights of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jan Patočka in developing his arguments. What struck Michnik in particular was that Havel “evaded all attempts at simplistic classification: he was not a mutinous Communist (unlike Jacek), nor was he a Catholic. He was neither a conservative nor a liberal, nor was he a Social Democrat. He was understated, quiet, maintaining a writer’s and philosopher’s distance from sordid reality. Simply put, he was a democrat, a shy, gentle, and modest man with great courage, imagination, and determination” (pp. 169–70).
Havel also had a very robust, if wryly self-deprecating, sense of humor. Hiking was not something he did with relish, but he made it to the summit of Mount Snieżka with a backpack full of provisions, including a bottle of vodka with the smiling visage of a hunter on the label. When he raised his glass to toast the assembled dissidents, Havel memorably quipped, “Since there is no socialism with a human face, let’s at least drink a vodka with a human face” (p. 170).
His core belief was that one had to try to “live in truth,” by which he meant that “none of us as an individual can save the world as a whole, but that nevertheless each of us must behave as if it were in our power to do so” (p. 212). Under communism, that obviously meant preserving one’s dignity and self-respect and resisting attempts by the state and party to enforce conformity to official lies and morally corrupting practices. Even in that fairly clear-cut context, Havel saw the potential trap of self-righteousness. He knew, as Michnik notes, that “dissident status could lead to conformity with the herdlike behaviors of one’s coterie, that it could lead to demonizing the enemy (in this case, the Communists) and to angelizing oneself” (p. 183). Thanks to his ironic cast of mind and capacity for self-criticism, Havel could speak about the importance of moral behavior without becoming or seeming moralistic.
Soon after the fall of communism, Timothy Garton Ash observed that if the challenge before had been to live in truth, the task that lay ahead was to “work in half-truth,” which might be even more complex and difficult. But for Havel, living in truth was a permanent responsibility—one could never escape the need to act with integrity, to be honest with oneself as well as with others, to avoid hypocrisy and arrogance, and to retain the capacity to see beyond one’s own narrow concerns.
That was how he approached the issue of lustration, the effort to ensure the moral and legal accountability of Communist officials and those who, for whatever reason, had collaborated with them in the [End Page 185] past. On a personal level, Havel had no interest in revenge. Soon after he became president, he actually misplaced a list that he had been given of people who had informed on him, and he even forgot their names. But he understood that, whatever his personal views, society “needs this kind of accountability” (p. 39), and that as president he had to find a middle course between forgiveness and retribution, one that protected the innocent, imposed appropriate penalties on the guilty, and prevented those whose hands were not clean from using the process to exonerate themselves. His approach was idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. While Michnik worried that right-wing and nationalist forces might impose a new despotism in the period of postcommunist uncertainty, Havel retained a more nuanced hope that “in time the political spectrum will stabilize” as society awakens and “concrete political work will begin” (p. 48).
International policy was another area that required moral clarity and conviction, in addition to pragmatic realism. Havel saw himself as “a child of the sixties” (p. 132) who once had a preference for pacifism and antiestablishment politics. Yet he had come to see such pacifism as very dangerous, both because it masked “indifference to the suffering of people in other countries” (p. 133) and because it encouraged a politics of appeasement toward aggressors. Havel’s support for non-violent opponents of dictatorship like the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Oswaldo Payá was unqualified and deeply felt, but it was never based purely on humanitarian concerns. He understood the dangers of totalitarianism and the threat posed by Putin’s Russia, and he felt that people like himself, who had experienced communism first-hand, had a special responsibility to warn the affluent West about the dangers of appeasement. He worried that “in this we failed,” since “we are observing today [October 2003] the same pacifism that was one of the factors behind the Second World War and the Holocaust” (p. 130).
What Havel saw as the West’s “suicidal” weakness and indifference to human rights was, he said, “something deeper than a crisis of democracy. I think we are dealing with a crisis of civilization” (p. 129). He repeated many times his view that “if our civilization does not somehow deepen spiritually . . . we are threatened with a disintegration of our human bonds, the loss of a sense of responsibility, and totally unbridled self-interest. This problem concerns our whole civilization, not just the post-Communist states” (p. 109). Michnik writes that Havel was more than a political dissident and leader. He was in essence an “homo religiosus” (p. 185) who, like Pope John Paul II, saw the modern crisis as fundamentally spiritual.
While Havel spoke as a global citizen, he always remained a Czech thinker and patriot. His intellectual mentor was the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, a cofounder with Havel of Charter 77. Patočka died in March 1977, soon after he had been harshly interrogated by the police, [End Page 186] and Havel had dedicated Power of the Powerless to his memory. Patočka believed that the Czechs, though a small European people, had what he called “a Great History” as well as “a Little History.” Explaining Patočka’s view, Michnik writes that “[The Czechs’] history has been great when they independently and creatively have engaged in matters of universal significance—for example, when they formed the vanguard of the European Reformation movement and paved Western Christendom’s path toward ‘lay’ formations of Christianity. Their history has been petty whenever the Czechs have ensconced themselves, or have been ensconced, in the ‘banality of provincialism’” (pp. 172–73). This provincialism also worried Havel, who repeatedly criticized what he called “Czech small-mindedness. Look after Number One, don’t get mixed up in other people’s business, keep your head down, don’t look up—we’re surrounded by mountains, those whirlwinds from the outside world will blow over our head, and we can go on burrowing away in our own little backyard” (p. 163).
Havel had led the Czechs on the path of a Great History, Michnik writes at the end of the book, but he closes by asking, “Will they stay on it?” Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that the current Czech government has already strayed drastically from Havel’s path of Great History. At the NATO summit in September 2014, Czech president Miloš Zeman got into a public argument with Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt when Zeman denied that there was “clear proof” of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Zeman also denounced Mikhail Khodorkovsky as “a thief” soon after the exiled Russian opposition leader had come to Prague to deliver the keynote address to the annual conference of Forum 2000, an organization founded by Havel in 1996. Zeman continued separating himself from the Havel legacy on a recent trip to China, where he focused solely on boosting trade ties, in the process assuring Beijing that he accepted China’s position on Taiwan and Tibet. The policy of appeasing Putin’s Russia and putting economic relations with China above human rights is being reinforced today by the Czech Foreign Ministry, which is in the process of terminating the assistance that it has been giving to dissidents in Cuba, Belarus, and China.
The path of Little History on which the Czech Republic has now embarked is by no means the end of the story. A country that could produce leaders like Havel and Tomáš Masaryk, and a thinker like Jan Patočka, is not doomed to small-mindedness. But a return to Great History will not come without struggle, and a new generation of Czech activists and intellectuals will have to find its own way to live in truth. They will be able to build upon Havel’s legacy, a priceless resource not just for Czechs but for people around the world who believe in human freedom. [End Page 187]