A dangerous national leader has died


A dangerous national leader died Sunday. He had a profound effect, causing other governments to shake. How unfortunate his death is being overshadowed because North Korea’s dictator died at the same time.

The dangerous leader was Vaclav Havel, who led a peaceful people-power revolution that overthrew the government of Czechoslovakia, which was one of the Soviet satellites. Clearly I’m using a definition of “dangerous” that assumes you’re running a one-party state. If the story sounds like 2011, it is.

1989 was a year something like 2011, with popular protests leading to the overthrow of governments. It doesn’t seem that long ago if you lived during that exciting time, but try to imagine getting hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest their government when there was no internet and the government controlled the broadcast media. Somehow they did it, and some of what happened seems familiar now, like police brutality against small demonstrations resulting in bigger demonstrations.

Havel was a playwright who ran a revolution from a theater. He had been imprisoned by the regime for his activity as a leading dissident, and according to the obituaries, he was seen by Czechs as the obvious leader when an opposition movement organized. The fall of the Berlin Wall in October signaled that there would be no repeat of 1968, when Soviet tanks crushed Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” and replaced Communist Party leaders with leaders who would follow a harder line towards dissent.

The particulars are different from what we’ve seen in 2011, but it was much the same idea. There were no Twitter or Facebook for organizing, no “Occupy” or “99%”, but it was the same people power deployed to create peaceful change in the face of a status quo ready to use force.

Given his own chance to use force as Czechoslovakia’s president to prevent Slovakia from separating, he chose not to, nor did he use his long time in the Czech Republic presidency to establish himself as dictator as so many revolutionary leaders do. Like we remember George Washington for voluntarily giving up power when he was strong enough to hold power easily, that might be how Czechs best remember Havel.

Had Havel died before this year, his legacy might have merely been as one of the leaders who overthrew the governments of the Soviet satellites; purely an East European story. Now, his legacy is the pioneering of methods of peaceful protest used in other parts of the world over the year now ending.