Daniel J. Mahoney reviewed Michael Zantovsky’s 2014 book Havel: A Life in the City Journal last week, calling it “a remarkable book about a complex and genuinely admirable human being.”
Václav Havel was a Czech writer, philosopher and dissident who served as the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia and then the first president of the Czech Republic. Zantovsky’s “moving and intelligent book guarantees that Havel’s monumental achievement will not soon be forgotten,” Mahoney writes.
As Zantovsky shows, Havel was “one of the more fascinating politicians of the last century” even as he was much more than a politician. He ably explores Havel’s multiple roles as writer, dramatist, moralist, dissident, and anti-totalitarian theoretician. The book also captures Havel’s myriad “contradictions,” which were never too far from the surface. …
Havel’s genius was to locate the specific features of the “post-totalitarian regime”—ideological to the core but no longer relying on mass violence in the manner of a classic Leninist-Stalinist regime. Like Solzhenitsyn before him, Havel saw the ideological lie as the glue holding together a totalitarian or post-totalitarian regime. …
The Czechoslovakian dissident movement pursued the path of truth with Charter 77—a courageous document that called upon the authorities to live up to obligations agreed to in the 1975 Helsinki accords and even in Czechoslovakia’s mendacious constitution. Its original signatories were few, but they spoke for the self-respect of a submerged civil society. Its spokesmen, such as Havel and the great Czech philosopher and phenomenologist Jan Patočka, were men of undeniable courage and integrity. Their movement was informed by solidarity, dignity, and resistance to the lie.
The full text of Mahoney’s review can be found here.
Mahoney is a professor of political science at Assumption College who has been a faculty member at Acton University and a participant in events hosted both by the Acton Institute and Istituto Acton. Mahoney’s own books, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005 (2006, ISI Books) and The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (ISI, 2010) have been reviewed in the Acton Institute’s publication Religion and Liberty.