Havel Will Be Missed


July 30, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Czechoslovakia's end comes as no surprise. There was an artificiality to its creation that foretold a short history, although the Slovaks who have broken up the union are the more likely to suffer from its loss.

The departure of Vaclav Havel from public life -- if this is permanent -- is perhaps more to be regretted, not because he was a great statesman, or had the time to demonstrate that he was such, but because he brought a quality of detachment and reflection to politics rare at any time, and rarest most of all today in East, Central and Balkan Europe, and the ex-Soviet Union.

Czechoslovakia existed because it was convenient for the Czechs to take the Slovaks with them into independence when the Hapsburg Empire broke up. The Czechs earlier had simply wanted reform of the Hapsburg system so as to make it a federation of equals. But the First World War proved ruinous for Austria, which experienced defeats in the early battles with Russian and Serbian armies and had to be rescued by Germany. The Austro-Hungarian government afterward found itself increasingly powerless, all the war's important decisions on economic as well as military matters being made in Berlin.

Thomas Masaryk, the intellectual who had led the Czech national movement in the prewar years, concluded that the Czechs had no future in such an Austria and called for national independence. It was a more plausible proposition if the related Slovak people became part of the new nation. There also had been a big emigration of landless Slovak peasants to the United States, where Masaryk (whose wife was American) had mobilized American Czechs in support of his country's independence. The two emigre groups joined forces.

Their success was such that even though Czechs and Slovaks were fighting in the Austrian Army (except for a Czech Legion, which Masaryk had recruited from prisoners of war in Russia), the American government was convinced that it should declare Czechoslovakia's ''liberation'' an Allied war aim.

The war ended, the country did become independent, but the union was not a success. The Slovaks were bitter that Slovakia was made merely a province, without the promised autonomy. After Munich, when the government of the newly truncated Czechoslovak state dismissed Slovakia's nationalist leader, Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest, he appealed to the Germans. They obligingly took over the Czech provinces and made them a German ''protectorate,'' and set Slovakia up as a nominally independent state, allied to Nazi Germany. This, of course, did no good for the subsequent reputation of Slovakian nationalism.

Vaclav Havel has said that his ambition for Czechoslovakia has been that it become ''a stable Central European democracy that has found its identity and learned to live with itself.'' He also said that if the Slovakia wished ''its own star on the future flag of Europe, and its own seat at the table,'' this would be so.

And so the Slovaks have decided. The details remain to be settled, supposedly by the end of September, but Slovakia has declared its sovereignty, if not yet its outright independence of the union with the Czechs. This has prompted Mr. Havel's resignation as president of a Czechoslovak state that will cease to exist.

Mr. Havel has sometimes been criticized as a sententious moralizer, but these criticisms typically come from people who have never themselves gone to prison as a consequence of any demonstration of moral courage. Mr. Havel has, and he is convinced of the practicality of political action subordinated to conscience. He holds that communism ''was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity.'' He adds that in his view ''genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are being observed 'from above.' "

''Our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else . . . in what I have called 'the memory of Being,' an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable.''

He acknowledges that in politics the pursuit of decency, civility, reason, responsibility, ''is not exactly a practical way of going about it. At the same time, however, I have one great advantage; among my many bad qualities there is one that is fortunately missing: a longing or a love for power. Not being bound by it, I am essentially freer than those who, when all is said and done, cling to their power or their position somewhat more, and this allows me the luxury of behaving untactically.''

Czechoslovakia was the better for a president who said such things, and its two successor-states will be the worse for having lost him, if he indeed remains out of politics. The international community is the worse for it too, not because this playwright's brief passage as Czechoslovakia's president changed anything grand, but because the things he said in office, and the manner in which he said them, gave us a standard against which to measure others, and allowed us the possibility of thinking that a serious level of public discourse might be possible among us as well.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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