With the deaths this last week of these two great voices for freedom, there have been many remembrances and much analysis on the impact of each man. In a recent article in the American Spectator, writer Paul Kengor does a brief yet insightful comparison of the two men highlighting the understanding Havel had that Hitchens lacked:
Václav 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.”
While it is proper to call Hitchens a crusader against tyranny, he only slowly abandoned the Marxist beliefs which dominated his youth. When Havel began his anti-communist activities in Czechoslovakia, Christopher Hitchens was working as a student at a Cuban ‘summer camp’ with his fellow leftist students helping to support the burgeoning Castro regime. While Václav Havel sat in prison for voicing opposition to the repressive Communist regime, Hitchens was writing for The Nation, penning critiques of American foreign policy, much of which was aimed at curbing the spread of Soviet sponsored communism. Havel was a man of action in the middle of the fight; Hitchens was an observer who rarely suffered for his anti-authoritarian views.
In many ways this explains why Havel, despite not being a believing Christian understood the need for transcendence in the postmodern world; mere words are not sufficient to battle the tyranny of the state. Such a battle requires truths that are rooted in permanence beyond the material world. Hitchens on the other hand saw the threat of an oppressive state but his militant atheism never allowed him to articulate a substantive basis for human rights and liberty nor did he need to – he was comfortably ensconced in the West where such rights were already recognized.
As a result, in the end Václav was a reformer while Hitchens was a political gadfly.