Vaclav Havel’s Vision And The European Crisis – Column 23.12.11
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.12.11
THE YEAR was 1990, the place was the Obecni Dum, the beautiful art-nouveau municipal house in the centre of Prague; and on the occasion of the first meeting of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – a network of citizens for peace, democracy and human rights whose membership extended, in those heady days, from Vladivostok to Vancouver – the new Czech President, Vaclav Havel, came to address our opening session. To the assembled civic activists, Havel was more than a leading politician welcoming us to his country and city; he was also one of the co-founders of our network, and the source of many of its key ideas about citizenship, transparency, and the need, in his famous words, to “make a real political force out of the phenomenon of human conscience.”
What I remember most clearly about him, though, is not what he said on that day, a year or so after the mighty Velvet Revolution he had led in such a remarkable, unassuming style; instead, I remember the set of his shoulders, as he walked through the crowd, up to the podium. For he did not walk like a king, or even a politician; he moved diffidently, like a busy working man, or a craftsman with orders to complete. No wonder that they called him Citizen Havel, both then and now, at the moment of his death; for although his own family was not a humble one – they were artists, architects, leading Czech intellectuals – it was as if he had adopted the unpretentious character of the Good Soldier Schweyk, the mid-European everyman who is the most famous of Czech fictional characters.
Havel’s death, though, comes at a moment when much of the hope that surrounded his peaceful revolution, two decades ago, seems to have crumbled away. Although Havel was Czech to his fingertips, he always spoke the language of common humanity, and of a Europe restored to its rightful unity, after the long years of separation during the Cold War; and in the years after 1989, he helped drive the Czech Republic swiftly into membership of the European Union. To nations emerging from the dark years of Soviet domination and totalitarian communist government, the European Union seemed like a beacon of hope, a community of nations that combined political and economic freedom with growing prosperity, real democracy, and strong social values. “Hello Europe”, said many of the banners in Wenceslas Square, back in 1989; and many of the leading activists of Havel’s generation saw the Velvet Revolution as a homecoming, to that Europe that had been denied them for so long.
It’s therefore more than painful to imagine how many of those activists must feel now, as the European Union on which they pinned such hopes begins to creak and fail, under the pressure of economic recession. The other week in Krakow, I met a fine Polish woman of 50 or so whose eyes flashed with disdain when I gave her my negative assessment of how the European crisis was going, and assured me that it wasn’t for this – this mixture of political cowardice, junk neoliberal economics, and sheer lack of guts in defending the European ideal – that the Poles fought their way out from under the Communist yoke.
With hindsight, it seems clear that both east and west Europeans underestimated the extent to which the peace and prosperity of the EU, and its generous social model, were dependent on the inherited post-colonial wealth and trading links of west European nations, and the pre-eminence in commerce and technology which they retained for many decades after 1945. And now that the European cake is shrinking, it seems that voters in many leading European countries – including France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as David Cameron’s UK – are increasingly retreating into unpleasant forms of retro-nationalism, mainly involving a sub-rational belief that “foreigners” are at the root of all the nation’s problems.
And yet, and yet. To have met some of Vaclav Havel’s generation of middle-European dissidents is to have met people who are Czechs or Poles or Ukrainians, yes, but Europeans too, with friends and comrades across the continent, and no doubt of their ability to make common cause with them. And to travel across Europe, with eyes and ears open, is to recognise the strange paradox of a continent that has known many projects of Union in the past, from the Roman Empire on; and whose rich diversity of languages and nations often conceals a deep cultural similarity. Every town from the Urals to the Atlantic seems to have its Market Street, its Old Bridge, its Castle Wynd, and its cluster of churches named after the same saints, often with the same Latin inscriptions. And at this time of year, they all have their Christmas stars and lights, their markets full of spiced wine, their images of St. Nicholas, their children bright-eyed with the promise of presents, either on 25 December, or some other magical midwinter date.
To David Cameron’s backbench Tories in London, in other words, the current resurgence of old national antagonisms in Europe may seem like a healthy development, a reassertion of what is “natural” and “real” after decades of Europhile delusion. To know Europe well, though, is to understand it as a place where unity and diversity are always in tension, as much one big human and cultural community artificially divided during the age of nation-states, as 27 nations artificially forced into Union.
And as Vaclav Havel famously said, human beings should seek to “live in the truth” of those powerful and complex connections; rather than in the miasma of divisive lies created by the powerful for their own ends. So as the people of the Czech Republic lay their citizen President to rest, this Christmas, we in the west of the continent should perhaps prepare to be surprised again: not least by the refusal of millions of thinking East Europeans to give up on the European dream that sustained them through the hardest of times; and that – for them – represents not some false ideal of Union imposed by a faceless bureaucracy, but a long-suppressed truth of shared history and experience, finally made real and tangible again, in their everyday lives.