Michael Gerson: Havel’s Revolution of Truth

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for President Bush and is now a columnist for the Washington Post.

As the heroes of the Cold War walk off into the mist — Ronald Reagan, then John Paul II, now Vaclav Havel — each departure makes that world more distant and foreign. But it is too early for forgetfulness, which would also be ingratitude.

Once in a nightmare, European dissidents lived in prison, in whole nations that were prisons. They were confined to mental hospitals by governments sustained through the promotion of mass delusion. They were forced to make confessions of imagined crimes by regimes that were criminal enterprises.

And then the government of Czechoslovakia went a step too far. In 1976, it arrested a band called The Plastic People of the Universe for offenses against cultural conformity. This was a perfect symbol of communism: a system that could not tolerate the unauthorized singing of songs. The regime’s stupidity undermined its capacity to intimidate. Havel — a countercultural intellectual and rock fan — co-founded the Charter 77 human rights movement. Never has bad popular music been put to better use.

In history’s great refutation of historical pessimism, Europe’s nightmare turned out to be a “fairy tale” — a phrase Havel used to describe his experience. On Oct. 27, 1989, Havel was sent to prison for the fourth time. That December, 300,000 Czechs turned out in ­Wenceslas Square to chant, “Havel to the Castle!” By New Year’s Day, Havel could declare, “People, your government has returned to you!” In February, he addressed a joint session of Congress as the leader of a free Czechoslovakia. It was four months from prisoner to visiting president....

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