WASHINGTON -- As the heroes of the Cold War walk off into the mist -- Ronald Reagan, then John Paul II, now Vaclav Havel -- each departure makes their world more distant and foreign. But it is too early for forgetfulness, which would also be ingratitude.
Once in a nightmare, European dissidents lived in prison, in whole nations that were prisons. They were confined to mental hospitals by governments sustained through the promotion of mass delusion. They were forced to make confessions of imagined crimes by regimes that were criminal enterprises.
And then the government of Czechoslovakia went a step too far. In 1976, it arrested a band called "The Plastic People of the Universe" for offenses against cultural conformity. This was a perfect symbol of communism: a system that could not tolerate the unauthorized singing of songs. The regime's stupidity undermined its capacity to intimidate. Havel -- a countercultural intellectual and rock fan -- co-founded the Charter 77 human rights movement. Never has bad popular music been put to better use.
In history's great refutation of historical pessimism, Europe's nightmare turned out to be a "fairy tale" -- a phrase Havel used to describe his experience. On Oct. 27, 1989, Havel was sent to prison for the fourth time. That December, 300,000 Czechs turned out in Wenceslas Square to chant, "Havel to the Castle!" By New Year's Day, Havel could declare, "People, your government has returned to you!" In February, he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress as the leader of a free Czechoslovakia. It was four months from prisoner to visiting president.
Havel helped overthrow communism by discrediting its central tenet. Scientific socialism taught that history is the outworking of massive economic and social forces that the individual could not hope to budge. Ideals, Marx sniffed, were "phantoms formed in the human brain." As Winston Churchill might have said of Havel: Some phantom. Some brain. Havel relentlessly exposed communist ideology as a confidence game, a Ponzi scheme, dependent on broad deference to obvious lies. One ideal -- a commitment to truth -- proved to be a lever long enough to move the world.