On Vaclav Havel—and Chris Hitchens

Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator yesterday.


Vaclav Havel is dead. Among other forces and powers, he is among the seven individuals most responsible for peacefully ending the Cold War; the great liberators who brought freedom and democracy. They are Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Havel.

With Havel’s death, a majority of these seven are now gone, giving new voice and added meaning to what Chesterton deemed the democracy of the dead.

All waged battle against what Reagan inspiringly called the “Evil Empire,” a brute creation cobbled out of a diabolical ideology that generated the deaths of over 100 million in the last century. At the core of that evil was what Mikhail Gorbachev characterized as a “war on religion,” which, among other forms of malevolence, spawned what Vaclav Havel described as “the communist culture of the lie.” As they engaged the beast, John Paul II admonished all to “Be not afraid.”

Vaclav Havel was unafraid. He and his Charter 77 movement were courageous, willing to go to jail rather than take orders from the devils who installed themselves as dictators from Budapest to Bucharest, from Warsaw to Prague.

As if all of this, unfolding here on earth a short time ago, was not profound enough, I’m suddenly struck at the profundity of Havel passing into the next world alongside Christopher Hitchens, and both shortly before Christmas.

Peter Robinson, who knows about the collapse of communism, having written Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech, interviewed Hitchens for his PBS show “Uncommon Knowledge.” Robinson was troubled by Hitchens’ willingness to concede credit to Havel for the collapse but none to Reagan. He took on Hitchens at that moment, not letting him get away with the slight against Reagan. I wish Vaclav Havel himself would have been there to set Hitchens straight. Havel said of Reagan, ironically at Reagan’s death: “He was a man with firm positions, with which he undoubtedly contributed to the fall of communism.”

Havel had a lot to teach to Hitchens. Hitchens would have listened to Havel.

Indeed, of all people on this planet whom God might have chosen to counsel a stunned Hitchens as he sits outside the Pearly Gates shaken in awed confusion, Havel would have been perfect, the one intellectual to merit Hitchens’ intellect and respect. If Hitchens’ un-merry band of atheists will forgive me, the religious romantic in me can’t help but indulge an image of Hitchens sitting there, hunched over, head in hands, only to look up at a smiling Havel and saying, “Fancy that I’d see you here. You just getting here?”

Vaclav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature—and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek “transcendence.” Hitchens might have figured God “the ultimate totalitarian,” but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny’s antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots—its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

Vaclav Havel never forgot that principle nor its Endower. Neither did any of the Cold War seven that laid waste to the Soviet beast. And it was with the power of that conviction that they tapped the ultimate force that resolved the Cold War and won the victory for freedom and good against oppression and evil.

Vaclav Havel now joins the Heavenly majority. May he rest in peace, at last reaching true transcendence.

Paul Kengor


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of many books including The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (2015). His new books are A Pope and a President and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism (2017).

  • paris-dakar

    I’m suffering from an extreme case of Hitchens fatigue – why every religious blog/forum feels the need to write something on this bilious God-hating Trotskyite is beyond me – but this wasn’t bad. It illustrates Hitchens’ extreme bias and lack of integrity and generosity, which is important. At his core, he was a vicious and paltry man.

  • TomD

    Vaclav Havel was a man who displayed both a profound, if not a fully traditional, faith and a deep intellect. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, Havel was an intellectual who did not see faith and reason as incompatible; he recognized that they were fully compatible.

    For many years, I largely ignored Christopher Hitchens, especially in his all too predictable “rants” against religion, until he very pointedly spoke out in recent years, both against Islamic radicalism and in favor of the War in Iraq.

    At first, this seemed puzzling. I still have not figured out exactly from where Hitchens was coming, except, like many Leftists, he had this profound need to be a contrarian with respect to his own culture. It seemed, at times, an obsession. In fact, he was so driven by the idea of the “true” intellectual as contrarian that he even went against the dominant opposition by the Left to the War in Iraq. Hitchens seemed energized by the vitriol that this brought him . . . it seemed as if he now had proven that he was the “true” intellectual contrarian of his time.

    And while the Left generally downplays or ignores the very real and immediate threat of Islamic fundamentalism (after all, caused by American imperialism, and we had it coming, don’t you know), most of his Leftist colleagues focused almost exclusively on the far less immediate threat of Christian fundamentalism. Hitchens was at least honest enough to see through this inconsistency.

    Like Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also had much to teach Christopher Hitchens. I don’t recall the extent to which Hitchens “listened” to Solzhenitsyn.

  • paris-dakar

    Most of Hitchens’ criticism of Islamic radicalism seemed (to me anyway) to be a rhetorical strategy for indulging his hatred for all things religious. Like his militant atheist running mate Richard Dawkins, there was a profound dishonesty behind every thing he said. Very predictable too – whenever he started speaking or writing you knew some gratuitous anti-religious vitriol was waiting just around the corner.

    • TomD

      You are probably right. The origin of Hitchen’s criticism of Islamic radicalism was his general hatred of all things religious.

      But where Hitchens was different from others on the Left, was that he acknowledged, when asked (I heard him say it on multiple occasions), that Islamic radicalism was far more of an immediate threat to freedom than was Christian fundamentalism. For instance, he was genuinely “spooked” by Salman Rushdie’s plight. In this sense, Hitchens was more honest than many on the Left.

      Most on the Left are obsessed with Christian fundamentalism while they are practically apologists for Islamic radicalism (or strangely silent about the Islamist threat) . . . which I always interpreted as a strange variation on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The radical Left and Islamic radicalism both see the traditional West as imperialistic and the fundamental enemy of their cause, of course in an ultimately completely incompatible sense. Strange bed-fellows indeed.

  • paris-dakar

    Hitchens was no where near as bad as some anti-Western Leftists (Noam Chomsky comes to mind) but there’s still something extremely hypocritical about a Trotskyite railing against ‘totalitarianism’.
    If he had a shred of integrity or self-awareness, he would have admitted that totalitarianism is every bit as prevalent among those of an atheistic worldview as it is religious.
    He was glib and knew how to make his point on panel type discussions, but he was hardly a deep thinker.

  • Tom

    Perhaps should rather read, in order:
    Pope John Paul II, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, Walesa, as well as the many, many other dissidents in the former Eastern bloc that risked everything (enough of this Anglo centric bias!).

    How Western “intellectuals” that had it easy all their lives in comparison, like Hitchens et al., pale in comparison.

    “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate” Havel

    • Sarto

      Good choice, although I find Pope John Paul’s writing style almost impossible to follow. I must say that I took in a debate between Hitchens and some fundamentalist Protestant and found it most entertaining. Seriously, Hitchens was jovial and funny. I wish I could have heard him in a discussion with a really intelligent Catholic who knows his stuff… say, with Mr. Weigel.

  • John Miller

    Hitchens was far from politically “left” (He enthusiastically supported Bush’s war in Iraq for starters). It always
    amazes me how aimlessly, the so called “moral majority”, rush to toss this lacksadaisical derogation toward any and
    all of their adversaries. One would think that Catholics, given their church’s own propensity to wage war, would easily relate to Hitchen’s conservative ideology toward the same. Hitchens was recognized by many as one of the
    most intelligent people in the world today. I would agree. While I definitely appreciated his attitude toward religion, I did not always agree with his political positions. He will be missed. JM

    • TomD

      I am convinced that Hitchens was so driven by the idea of the “true” modern intellectual as a contrarian, that he went directly against the Left’s opposition to the War in Iraq. In part, this was because he recognized radical Islam, and the resulting instability of the Islamic world, as the most immediate threat to the West.

      But make no mistake, Hitchens was very much a man of the Left.

  • paris-dakar

    Hitchens fawning over Trotsky in The Atlantic:


    Hitchens fawning over Trotsky on the BBC:


    At 2:32 in this one, Hitchens launches into a completely revisionist defense of Trotsky’s totalitarianism:


    Yeah, a real ‘conservative’.