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COMMENTS 

From Indyref to Indignados: how passions and politics mix

As Scotland heads to the polls, this piece discusses the extent to which emotions have arrived at the heart of contemporary politics – yet we still hesitate to admit it. Emotions can neither be banished nor ignored when we discuss what constitutes political communities, how political decisions should be made and political action springs into being. Yet to embrace the rise of emotional politics without acknowledging how intimately it is and should be entangled with reason equally risks undermining just political action.
Dr Uta Staiger
18 September 2014
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Starts: Sep 18, 2014 12:00:00 AM

10 things you need to know about what will happen if Scotland votes yes

As the Scottish independence referendum draws closer the outcome is hard to predict. Both Westminster politicians and the wider public are asking what – in practical terms – would happen if the Scots were to vote Yes. Robert Hazell offers a 10-point overview of what the road to independence might look like.
Professor Robert Hazell
9 September 2014
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Starts: Sep 9, 2014 12:00:00 AM

The truth is, Scandinavia is neither heaven nor hell

The Nordic countries have received exceptionally good press in the UK - at least until earlier this year, when British travel writer and resident of Denmark, Michael Booth, claimed to dispel the of Scandinavia as the perfect place to live. Many are now confused. Is everything we believed about the social ideals of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland a lie? Well, not entirely but we’re not all drunk serial killers either.
Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen
19 August 2014 More...

Starts: Sep 8, 2014 12:00:00 AM

Reflections on the Death of Václav Havel: Havel Today

Publication date: Dec 21, 2011 3:15:37 PM

Start: Dec 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM
End: Mar 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM

Tim Beasley-Murray, 21 Dec 2011 


Tim Beasley-Murray
Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies


Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, ‘The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:

‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison.  In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly.  All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears.  His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk.  An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation.  The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’

Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor.  ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death.  We just have asthma.  And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.

Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes.  Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša.  That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader.

Havel’s insight into the relationship between power and stories does not hold for totalitarianism only.  One way that all regimes, totalitarian or not, legitimate themselves is by conferring the appearance of normality on suffering, injustice and inequality.  Power says: ‘there’s no story here; this is just the way that things are.’ As thinker, writer and reluctant politician, Havel sought to revive and cultivate the power of stories everywhere.  He insisted that one must write about asthma, ‘not despite the fact that people are not dying of it, but exactly because they are not dying of it’.  In so doing, he was instrumental in co-writing the most miraculous and unexpected story that Europe has ever heard: the story of citizens taking back power for themselves.

What is happening in the world today, the asthmatic wheezing of a bankrupt capitalist system, is not normal and not natural.  As the achievements of sixty years of peaceful cooperation in Western Europe - and twenty years of similar working together of West and East - are threatened by an economic and political crisis no one seems to be able to solve, Havel words in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ are as relevant they were in 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia: ‘Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible.’  Concepts and practices like adhocracy, anti-politics, but above all a renewal of a democratic sense of responsibility, may be needed more than ever in a world where traditional politics seem so ineffective.  (It is encouraging to see elements of these ideas and ways of doing things - although one must perhaps express this with reservations - in the ‘Occupy’ movement, in the Arab Spring, and in opposition to Putin in Russia.)

The challenge, then, is to make Havel’s death not only the cause of sadness and an opportunity for commemoration, as a great man passes in history, but also to make it a story: a new(s) story that would tell – in Havelian terms - of ‘the art of the impossible’, of ‘the rehabilitation of human uniqueness, human action and the human spirit’, and that would put freely acting men and women at its dramatic centre.  A story of Havel today.