In the summer of 1990, the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, caused not a small degree of controversy when he announced his attendance at the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria. Classical music galas tend not to be scenes of political dispute, but this involved the resurrection of European ghosts other than Mozart. Austria’s president, former United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim, would be present at the event, and Jewish groups were upset that any leader, never mind one of Havel’s stature, would confer legitimacy on a man who had covered up his membership in a Nazi SS unit.
Havel, who had succeeded in bringing down a Soviet puppet regime in his own country just months earlier, went through with the visit and delivered a stinging speech that, while not mentioning Waldheim by name, was clearly directed at him. “The assumption that one can, with impunity, navigate through history and rewrite one’s own biography belongs to the traditional Central European delusions,” the playwright-turned-president said. “If someone tries to do this, he harms himself and his fellow citizens,, for there is no full freedom there where freedom is not given to the full truth. In this or other ways, many here have made themselves guilty. Yet we cannot be forgiven, and in our souls, peace cannot reign, as long as we do not at least admit our guilt. Confession liberates.”
It was a quintessentially Havel-esque performance: deeply moral and slightly mischievous at the same time.
Havel, who passed away on December 18 at the age of 75, is being mourned here in the Czech Republic and around the world as an iconic figure in the fight against authoritarianism of all stripes. He also earned himself a special place in the hearts of Jews, whose sufferings under the Nazis he repeatedly recognized, and of whose state he was deeply fond.
Though Czechoslovakia had supplied crucial arms to Israel in its 1948 War of Independence, its foreign policy, in line with the Soviet Union’s, became increasingly hostile toward the Jewish state, and along with all the other Soviet satellites, Czechoslovakia eventually ended diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, following the Six Day War. In his first speech as president, on New Year’s Day 1990, Havel pledged to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a promise fulfilled the following month.
In April of that year, Havel became the first leader of a free former Soviet bloc country to visit Israel. It was his second foreign trip as president of Czechoslovakia. Former Havel aide Michael Zantovsky, who later served as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Israel and is currently ambassador to the United Kingdom, accompanied Havel on the trip. He says that Havel “basically continued in the tradition” of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš Masaryk, and Masaryk’s son, one-time foreign minister Jan Masaryk, with “his warm feelings for Israel.” (In 1927, the elder Masaryk visited Mandate Palestine, and in 1933, Prague hosted the 18th annual Zionist Congress.)
As president, Havel opposed the sale of weapons to regimes hostile to Israel, like Syria, a controversial move considering that communist-era Czechoslovakia (and Slovakia in particular) was a major exporter of arms to Soviet clients. Today, according to Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Levy, “the Czech Republic is considered by Israel to be its best friend in Europe and the European Union.”
In the early years of Czechoslovak independence, when many in the West worried about a resurgence of nationalism across the newly independent nations of the Eastern Bloc, Havel spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism. Because of this, he became an enduring enemy of the nationalist right. In 1993, following the “Velvet Divorce” from Slovakia, a far-right party tried to block Havel’s election as president of the Czech Republic with a parliamentary filibuster, accusing Havel of being paid off in “shekels” by outside forces.
Havel made it a point of his presidency to commemorate the Shoah as a crime against the Jewish people, a point that was suppressed by the communist regime. Zantovsky says that this impulse was “something that goes without saying; it came very naturally.” In his writings about totalitarianism, Havel often faulted his own countrymen for a certain passivity and tendency to blame outsiders, and he carried that critical streak into his presidency, referring to Czech collaborators who implemented Nazi racial laws as “non-murdering murderers.”
Havel continued to speak out for Israel and against anti-Semitism well after his retirement, in 2003. Last year, he co-founded the Friends of Israel Initiative, aimed at combating delegitimization of Israel in the realm of international institutions. Earlier this year, he criticized a Czech education ministry official revealed to have ties with far right organizations and Holocaust denial. When the man’s defenders said that his views should not have any bearing on his ability to hold a government job, Havel replied that he was “struck… that quasi-fascist or quasi-anti-Semitic or similar opinions should be expressed in one’s spare time, or during vacation, but not at the office. Yes, that’s it exactly: After all, a certain house painter also founded his party in a pub in Munich, not at the workplace.”
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.