Europe between the Vaclavs

By Dameron, Charles S. | New Criterion, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Europe between the Vaclavs


Dameron, Charles S., New Criterion


When the Czech president Vaclav Klaus stood to eulogize the former Czech president Vaclav Havel at a requiem mass last December, mourners in Prague's soaring St. Vitus Cathedral listened with great anticipation. What would one half of the Czech Republic's founding rivalry have to say about the other?

"A great president, politician, intellectual and artist has left us; a person who will be remembered with gratitude, reverence, and respect" Klaus said. "Undoubtedly much is leaving with Vaclav Havel; however, at the same time, and in particular thanks to his consistent attitudes in life, there is much that is not leaving, and it is incumbent upon us not to let it go."

It was a tribute to the man with whom Klaus had famously clashed for some twenty years. The War of the Vaclavs was, until Havel's death, the great personal drama and cliche of Czech politics. They shared a given name--that of the Bohemian Duke Vaclav (Wenceslaus), a patron saint of the Czech Republic--but nearly everything else about Havel and Klaus seemed antithetical.

Their separate visions for the Czech state in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution was reflected in their personalities. Havel, the artist and social democrat who felt most comfortable in blue jeans and ratty sweaters, spoke in the language of broad spirituality and social reform. Klaus, a steely-eyed Austrian-school economist who favors smart suits, preferred conversations on interest rates to wide-ranging discussions of good and evil.

Chris Bowlby, a BBC correspondent who reported from Prague in the early 1990s, recalls that during the days following the Velvet Revolution, Havel and his circle would invite foreign journalists for beers and a smoke; Klaus, on the other hand, "dispensed raw vegetables, mineral water, and for afters [dessert] a lecture on how little everyone understood of economic theory."

Such a striking contrast makes it easy to pigeonhole the two men. If Havel--the dissident and artist who partied with rock stars and led a Velvet Revolution through sheer eloquence and moral example--was Prague's personification of cool, then Klaus--that stern blackboard-wielding practitioner of the dismal science, that unromantic Eurosceptic, that guy who encourages you to eat your broccoli--is anything but.

Yet the oft-told tale of their rivalry usually overlooks the synthesis that their leadership produced in the two decades since Communism's demise here. That the Czech Republic is today an integrated member of Europe and the Western alliance owes much to Havel's aggressively pro-West, pro-Europe diplomatic agenda. It also owes much to Klaus, who led the way in implementing the development of a pluralistic Czech polity and competitive market economy.

Were that synthesis applicable only to the Czech Republic, a small player on the world stage, it would make for an interesting but ultimately marginal story. Yet as the European Union and the Eurozone continue their slow dance along the precipice, the continent could take a few lessons from the experience of the dueling Vaclavs, opening up a forthright conversation on the direction of the European experiment.

Klaus mostly stayed away from live politics in his requiem remarks, but he allowed himself a single swerve toward one of his recurring stump themes: "What is not leaving [with Havel]" Klaus said, "is the idea that it is easy to lose freedom, if we care little about it and do not protect it, and that only democracy allows life in freedom, both for the individual and the state, as well as material and spiritual prosperity"

Now in the last of his ten years as president of the Czech Republic (following nine years as prime minister during Havel's presidency), Klaus has of late spent much time abroad propounding his blistering anti-federalist criticism of the EU and of the European economic scene. His newest book--yet to be released in English but titled Sauver les democraties en Europe in the French edition--is a compendium of his long-held frustrations with European integration, a process which he holds to be undemocratic and unsustainable.

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