This essay is a memorial tribute from one member of the Common Knowledge editorial board to another. Adam Michnik, a cofounder of the first dissident organization in East-Central Europe, writes about the details and the symbolic importance of his first meeting, in 1978 on Mt. Snĕžka, with Václav Havel, coorganizer of Charter 77. From his insider’s perspective, the author retells the history of dissent in communist Europe from that time until the Velvet Revolution and Havel’s election as president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. He also assesses the impact of Havel’s work as a playwright and antipolitical essayist, but the emphasis of the essay falls on how Havel the man dealt with the disappointments he endured in political office, including the passage of “lustration” laws and the election of Václav Klaus as prime minister. The organizing principle of this essay is the distinction made by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka between “great history” and “small history.” In periods of greatness, the Czechs led European civilization toward the path it would subsequently take; at other times, they withdrew into the “banality of provincialism.” This tribute to Havel ultimately argues that, after many decades of provincial Stalinism, Havel brought Czech history back to the path of greatness on which T. G. Masaryk had set it in the first part of the twentieth century.
Adam Michnik; When Socrates Became Pericles: Václav Havel’s “Great History,” 1936–2011. Common Knowledge 1 August 2012; 18 (3): 387–418. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-1630406
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