On Christa Wolf, Havel, and the Much-Overused Word Dissident


It's not that any of us would have behaved more courageously. We probably wouldn't have! But you need to keep some language left over for the real courage.

Writing in The Weekly Standard, Reason Contributing Editor Michael C. Moynihan laments the language used in recent obituaries for German novelist Christa Wolf. Sample:

[I]t is more appropriate to call Wolf an East German novelist, a nostalgic for the regime she romanticized and unofficially served?—?including a three-year stint as Stasi informant. In 1989, when jubilant Ossies breached the Berlin Wall and sprinted towards the well-stocked shops of Kurfürstendamm, Wolf argued that East Germany should continue to exist.

The American obituarists allowed room for the Stasi controversy, and a few offered an incomplete précis of her political stupidities and toadying to party bosses. But these were waved off as unimportant. The New York Times declared Wolf the "public conscience of a long-divided people" (a title often applied to another GDR nostalgic, Günter Grass) and a "loyal dissident." The New Yorker insisted that she "spoke out strongly" against a government that applied brute force to those who did speak out, strongly or otherwise, while failing to note that she never resigned her party membership.

If Wolf counts as a "dissident," if loyalty to a state that excelled only in terrorizing its subjects counts as possessing an impressive "conscience," if releasing a novel critical of the system after the collapse of communism can be deemed "strongly" registering complaint, what words are left to eulogize Václav Havel?

Read the whole thing here. Moynihan reviewed some Cold War books for Reason in November 2009. My report from Havel's funeral here.