[Resistance & Revolution: Vaclav Havel's Czechoslovakia]

Article excerpt

One of the compensations of the diplomatic career is to be present when history is being made and sometimes to have a hand in making it. Such was the experience of Rob McRae, a Canadian foreign service officer posted to Prague in August 1988. His three-year posting coincided with Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. He was a witness to the dramatic events of that time and more closely involved in them than most foreigners. In Resistance and Revolution he has recorded the extraordinary fall from power of one of the most reactionary communist governments in Europe and its replacement by a multi-party democracy led by the remarkable playwright-politician, Vaclav Havel.

When Rob McRae arrived in Prague, the communist government seemed still to be firmly in place. It was clear that its brand of communism was increasingly out of step with the reforms undertaken in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. But it had ruled Czechoslovakia through repression since the Soviet invasion of 1968, and there was no evidence that it was about to relinquish its hold on power. At the time, people like Havel and the dissidents who had formed the Charter 77 group to demand civil liberties were subjected to constant harassment and frequently imprisoned. The leadership included advocates of even sterner measures of repression, a 'Chinese solution' on the model of Tiananmen, to cow the opposition.

In the circumstances, Czechoslovakias adherence to the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords seemed utterly hypocritical. The accords did, however, provide a legitimate basis on which the signatories could call each other to account for their human rights performances and exert pressure on offending governments to limit their violations. Exerting this pressure on behalf of the Canadian government was a good part of the work of the embassy during McRae's early time in Prague. But he was able to extend his official role beyond this. Because of his background as a university lecturer and an expert on Hegel, McRae was able to become active in a discussion group of Prague intellectuals interested in questions of political philosophy. This circle included a number of opposition figures, notably Havel. The contacts he made among these dissidents provided McRae with some of the most absorbing material for his book.

McRae records the approach of revolution through the autumn of 1989 and the dramatic point of crisis reached in November of that year. He explains how a small group of intellectuals, rooted in the Charter 77 group, spread their influence in ever-widening circles, mobilizing popular discontent in a new civil society that escaped the control of the authorities. The increasing scale of popular demonstrations demanding reform as the year advanced registered the disintegration of the government's position. Despite police repression, small crowds of a few thousand demonstrators grew into crowds of tens and finally hundreds of thousands, as students, industrial workers, church, and political leaders joined under the umbrella of the Civic Forum movement to demand freedom. In the end, as the communist leadership itself admitted, the authorities were left isolated and virtually without support in any sector of society.

Yet the leadership was unwilling to contemplate reform. In consequence, and in contrast to what happened in neighbouring communist countries, Czechoslovakia went direct from communism to democracy without passing through a period of reformed communism. …